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Boswell Sisters - The Object Of My Affection

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Published on Jul 12, 2010

The Boswell parents first settled in Kansas City, where Martha was born in 1905 and Connie in 1907. Helvetia was born in 1911 in Birmingham, Alabama.

Connie was involved in an accident that permanently injured her spine. As David McCain tells it, some kids put her in a coaster wagon that went down a hill and hit a telephone pole. Connie was thrown out. At first, she couldn't move at all. These were the days when infantile paralysis was a major threat and through the years it was reported that polio was the cause of Connie's disability.

In 1914 the family moved to New Orleans. Father Alfred Boswell, a one time circus performer, was appointed manager of the New Orleans branch of the Fleischman Yeast Company.

After Connie's accident, her mother focused on what other family members recall as a natural musical talent. "I couldn't play hopscotch," Connie said in a magazine interview, "so Mom started me on cello."

The other girls moved quickly into music as well. All three were trained in the classics by a German music professor in New Orleans, Otto Finck. Martha took piano, Connie continued on cello, and Vet studied violin, but their interest soon went beyond the classics. Vet learned the banjo and though Martha stayed mostly on piano she learned to play sax as well. Connie picked up the saxophone, piano, and guitar.

From the beginning, the girls worked together to keep Connie's paralysis from being noticeable. Initially, without even a wheelchair, Vet and Martha would carry Connie from place to place. "Their attitude was that everybody has a disability of some kind," says Vet's daughter Chica. "Some are just more noticeable than others. If you were sitting down next to Connie talking, you never even realized she couldn't walk.

The house on Camp Street became a popular gathering place. "They would have to roll up the rugs on Saturday night," says Holley Bendtsen, "and then all the young men would be courting the good looking three girls who wanted to play music. They would jam and people would dance."

"The biggest influence on Connie Boswell, who was the biggest influence on the Boswell sisters, was Mamie Smith," explains Bendtsen. "And Louis Armstrong. And Caruso. Those are the three influences she always named."

In 1925 they made their first recordings, "Nights When I'm Lonely" performed by the trio, and "Cryin' Blues" sung by Connie with Martha on piano.

Despite some offers, their father balked at the idea of the girls going on the road, but in 1928 he gave in and allowed them to go to Chicago. From there they embarked on a vaudeville tour that took them West to Oklahoma and Texas and finally to San Francisco. They met Harry Leedy who became their manager and eventually Connie's husband.

They went to Los Angeles where they got a full time radio job on station KFWB. "I'd solo," Connie said, "the three of us would sing, and then we'd have a half an hour of instrumentals."

In 1930 they made four sides for the OKeh label with Martha on piano. One of the tunes, the "Heebie Jeebies," had been done in 1926 by Louis Armstrong's Hot Five. Connie said she first heard the song coming out of a bar on Tchoupitoulas Street known as the "Tumble Inn." It was recorded twice by the Boswells and they considered it their lucky tune.

The sisters got work with the CBS Radio Network. They started with an unsponsored 15-minute sustaining program. The Boswells were so popular, says Bendtsen, that within a year there were eight groups trying to imitate them, five white and three black.

The Boswells were signed to a long term contract by Jack Kapp of Brunswick Records. They would do their Paramount shows, then recording sessions that ran from midnight to around 4 a.m. The same pattern continued when the girls began working for CBS. They worked with the men who would become the nation's top bandleaders of swing the era—Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Bunny Berrigan among them.

It's hard to believe that nothing they did was written down. Connie was the primary arranger "but the sisters really did work together on it," says Chica. "I think it was Connie 40 per cent and Martha and Vet 30, 30." Glen Miller was the man who would put it on paper for the sidemen.

The trio broke up in 1936. Connie (then changed to Connee) wanted to get on with her own career, while Martha and Vet were ready to call it a day.

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