You would think that a singer who had two #1 hits in the same year would be a familiar name, but I have to confess that I didn’t know much about Evelyn Knight until I ran across her story recently. Of course, I was pretty young when she rose to fame in the post-war years, and I don’t think we had either of her chart-topping records around the house. But the fact is, both “A Little Bird Told Me” and “Powder Your Face with Sunshine” rose to the top position on the charts in 1948.
Born Evelyn Davis in the Washington D.C. area, she began her career while in her teens, appearing on radio and in area nightclubs during the pre-war years. Within a couple of years she’d married a newspaper photographer named Knight, and began using her married name professionally. (She continued to do so throughout her career, even though she later divorced and remarried.)
By the end of World War II she’d worked in clubs in both New York and Los Angeles, gaining a lot of experience as a singer (while also finding time to have a baby boy), and was well-positioned to take the next step in her career, a recording contract with Decca. It didn’t take long for her to find success on the charts, with her debut — “Dance with a Dolly (With a Hole in Her Stocking)” — climbing into the Top Ten, but even though a follow-up also did well, she was unable to keep her momentum going for the next couple of years. However, that ended when she recorded “A Little Bird Told Me” with the Stardusters in 1948, and it created a stir in a couple of ways. It became a #1 hit for the singer, but it also instigated a lawsuit by Supreme Records, whose own Paula Watson had already had a hit with the song (although a lesser one). They contended that Knight’s version was too close a copy, but lost in court.
Meanwhile, she had continued to make records and it wasn’t long before her second big hit came along. “Powder Your Face with Sunshine” shot to the top of the charts and eventually became the singer’s biggest seller, leading to a number of successful records over the next few years. Unfortunately, the 1950s brought a downturn in her popularity, although she did have a successful duet with country singer Red Foley. She also made a number of appearances on TV variety shows, but her career was definitely winding down and within a few years she’d pretty much left it all behind to raise her family. She was 89 when she died in 2007.
Evelyn Knight – “Powder Your Face with Sunshine”
Although there have been a lot of brother acts in country music, the talented bluegrass duo of Floyd and Lloyd Armstrong shared at least one special distinction — they were identical twins. And after a long career that started when they were just six years old, if they’re still around (more later about that) they would be in their eighties.
Born into a musical family in Depression-era Arkansas, the Armstrongs learned to play guitar and entertain at an early age. Lloyd later added the mandolin, and he sang harmony while Floyd hung on to his guitar and sang the lead. The young duo soon became a hit at local dances and after the family relocated to Southern California in the early 1940s things really began to happen.
By then the boys were in their teens, and they soon became a popular attraction in Los Angeles area nightspots. They also appeared on radio shows hosted by stars like Spade Cooley and others, some of them broadcast by what was then known as ‘border radio’ — powerful Mexican stations that blanketed the Southwest. And of course, they started making records, many of which are still available. The duo’s best known is probably “Mandolin Boogie” but they had many other good-selling records.
In the post-war years and on through the 1950s the twins continued to do very well in live shows and on radio, although they did have a period during which they didn’t make many records. Along the way they relocated to Texas and also added sister Patsy to the act, and she sang and played steel guitar until later leaving to get married and raise a family. The guys kept at it as the years passed, but there were also some period of inactivity and they eventually moved back to Arkansas. Around 1980 they enjoyed a career resurgence for a while, reissuing some of their records and making some new ones, and they also appeared in a number of live shows before health problems slowed them down. There’s not much available about their later years, but if the Armstrong Twins are still around they’d have turned 84 in January.
Armstrong Twins – “Mandolin Boogie”
It might surprise you to learn that “What a Diff’rence a Day Made” (sometimes known as “What a Difference a Day Makes”) actually began as a song written in Spanish by a very talented lady who’d previously relocated from Mexico to New York City. Of course, it didn’t become a familiar song to most of us until Dinah Washington won a Grammy with it in 1959, but it began life way back in 1934 with the title, “Cuando Vuelva A Tu Lado” (“When I Return To Your Side”), written by María Grever.
Born as María Joaquina de la Portilla Torres in Mexico City in 1885, she was just a child when she moved with her family to her father’s native Spain, but she was already pointed toward music. As she grew older she studied in France, at one point working with legendary composer Claude Debussy, and she continued her musical education after moving back to Mexico as a teen. Adulthood brought marriage to an American oil company executive and an eventual move to New York, where she had a long career as a musician and as a prolific composer.
When Grever’s song was published in 1934 it was retitled and given English lyrics by Stanley Adams, making it a little more accessible to American musicians. One of the bands that recorded it that same year, the Dorsey Brothers orchestra, had a solid-selling record with the song, but it still didn’t make much of a splash for the next couple of decades. That ended in 1959 when Dinah Washington made it her first big hit record, one that would eventually show up in the Grammy Hall of Fame. (In the rare video below, she’s introduced by a future president.)
Sadly, Grever had died a few years before that but her legacy continued to build in subsequent years as her song became a popular choice for many singers. Some of the best records included those by Dean Martin, Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, Sarah Vaughan, and Edie Gorme, who performed the original Spanish version on her album, Canta En Espanol.
Dorsey Brothers Orchestra w/ Bing Crosby – “What A Diff’rence A Day Made”