Connee Boswell: The most popular singer you've never heard of
Connee Boswell was an A-list female entertainer and one of the brightest stars of American popular music in the first half of the 20th century, but in this age of radio, few of her fans knew a childhood illness meant she used a wheelchair.
Regarded by her musical peers and some of the world’s most famous singers, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr, as “the most widely imitated singer of all time”, Connee Boswell is a star who is little remembered now but in her day was one of the most recognisable singers.
Born in Kansas in 1907 she spent most of her childhood in New Orleans. Her family were classically trained musicians, and she began playing the cello from the age of five.
She also played the piano, violin and saxophone, and along with her sisters Martha and Helvetia, studied music privately.
Connee contracted polio as a child which paralysed her almost completely from the waist down and meant throughout her career she performed from a wheelchair.
As teenagers, Connee, Helvetia and Martha formed The Boswell Sisters, a jazz vocal trio, and after winning an amateur contest they were picked up by a local radio station in New Orleans, and then by radio stations in Los Angeles, and finally New York.
Growing up in New Orleans heavily influenced their imaginative, inventive and innovative musicianship; the sisters would explore the streets soaking up the city’s characteristic vibrant soul, gospel and jazz musical styles.
In the 1920s, it was common for jazz singers to perform songs as they were written so they could be easily replicated by listeners, and the harmony and melody of a song should not be tampered with – something that the Boswell’s did not adhere to with their ground-breaking arrangements.
The Boswell Sisters tore up the rule-book and arranged complex singing parts experimenting with free-flowing scat singing and varied rhythmic structure with multiple stop and go parts (they would play fast then slow then fast again – a technique likely influenced by their classical training).
They were masters at syncopation, interrupting the flow of rhythm and paved the way for syncopated beats in swing music.
Creating an intimate sound
The sisters mainly performed on radio, which suited them perfectly and gave them freedom to arrange and perform their music as they wanted as they weren’t restricted to writing for a band or orchestra.
Their rise coincided with advances in microphone technology which allowed listeners to hear voices much more clearly than in the past.
As voices became clearer listeners were able to imagine the personalities behind the voice and began to latch on to favourite singers.
Connee’s versatile voice changed the sound of jazz musically, but also physically.
Once whilst suffering from a cold she attempted to compensate for her weakened voice by moving closer to the microphone and singing at half-volume.
The resulting intimate sound gained her the reputation as the first singer to use a microphone to maximum effect.
The sisters’ pitch perfect sibling harmony combined with their unprecedented arrangements, mostly written by Connee, set them apart from the crowd and led them to international success between 1930 and 1935 when they completed two tours of Europe.
However, they weren’t always so popular. A lot of listeners at the time struggled to get on board with their progressive musical style and were uncomfortable with the sisters’ experimentation and jazz improvisation.
Making it as a solo artist
It wasn’t until her sisters retired to family life that Connee’s solo career began, over which she would sell over 75 million records.
Using a wheelchair made performing live and on screen difficult for Connee, and she would frequently perform and be photographed in situ by a piano or in her wheelchair covered by a long gown to give the illusion she was standing.
As a solo artist there were increased musical and physical challenges that Connee had previously been shielded from as part of a group.
In 1920’s America, visual image played a big role in the creating and marketing of a female entertainer.
Connee's disability had remained largely unknown up until this point and coupled with few solo performances and the prejudice against people with disabilities at the time, producers were hesitant to employ her in case the physical demands of the job were too great.
Although she carried on recording throughout the 1960s Connee Boswell's name gradually faded from public memory, she died in 1976 aged 68.
Ella Fitzgerald, known as the 'Queen of Jazz', cited Connee as one of her earliest inspirations and the only singer that she admitted to learning from "My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it.
"I tried so hard to sound just like her," she said.