"The Boswell Legacy" Book
Available at The Boswell Sisters Store on eBay and on Amazon.com
By David W. McCain
I discovered the Boswell Sisters in the same way they crafted their rhythmic and innovative song arrangements—by beginning at the end.
Connie Boswell described the Boswell attack on a song in 1931:
We start at the end of a number and begin arranging forward. The very last thing we arrange is the beginning of the first verse. I don’t know just how we got this habit. It’s just one of those things.
My own “beginning at the end” commenced in 1973, when Bette Midler’s “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” sparked a tidal wave of nostalgic interest in the song’s original performers, the Andrews Sisters. During my college years in the early 1970s, I could not get enough of LaVerne, Maxene and Patty Andrews and their bouncy harmonies.
Then I read about a harmony trio called the Boswell Sisters. Author Richard Lamparski’s eloquence cemented my journey backwards to the beginning:
“The Boswell Sound,” as it is still called in the music business, created a sensation. There had been sister acts before, and many since, but it was these three Southern girls who were able to blend their voices in a way the public never heard before—they merged harmony, rhythm and feeling to produce a musical togetherness that has been imitated but never equaled.
This intriguing description provoked a fervent curiosity to hear these Boswell Sisters who had created something so original that had never been equaled. And the fact that Martha, Connie and Vet Boswell were from my hometown of New Orleans added the element of solving a mystery. If they were so stupendous, why had I not ever heard of them?
But there were very few LP reissues of the Boswells’ work. The first reissue album had been pressed in England in 1966, but it was the second album produced in the USA in 1972 on a collectors label called Biograph that I initially obtained. I guided the stylus to the first track and heard a Southern-accented, contralto voice croon:
Ah’ll be there honey wait for me, Oh you dawlin’
Followed by a warm and lulling blend:
Down among the shelt’rin’ palms...
I played the entire album countless times and devoured Michael Brooks’ informative liner notes, which contained interview excerpts from Connie and Vet Boswell. It took a while to get accustomed to the Boswell soulful blend of voices, which could sweetly croon a few bars and abruptly switch to playful, madcap rapid-fire harmonies at any given moment. I had passed the point of no return—I was hopelessly bewitched by their jazzy siren call. As I delved further into the Boswell repertoire, there seemed to be no end to the adventuresome, unexpected, and sometimes downright crazy vocal arrangements crafted by these sisters, which were sung with such a sense of joy and abandon. These Boswell Sisters sounded like they were having the time of their lives! And their accompanying musicians were right there living it up with them: future Big Band legends Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and Bunny Berigan, to name but a few.
No matter how many times I heard their songs, the harmonies always sounded refreshing and NOW. That is still the case today.
The mystery questions came up time and time again: Why had I never heard of these musical innovators from my native city? And why weren’t the Boswell Sisters better known to the world at large?
I had to find the answers, but the research libraries and even people in New Orleans could not give me the in-depth answers I was seeking. No one had done the proper documentation of the Boswells’ history and significance, so I appointed myself to the task. And the first place to start was in the Hudson River town of Peekskill, New York where Helvetia “Vet” Boswell, the last of the Boswell Sisters, resided.
It was on a cold November day in 1977 that this Southern boy made his first trip to New York City, boarding a train at Grand Central Station for the last 50 miles of the journey to Peekskill. I had previously obtained Vet’s address from someone in New Orleans and had written to her, and Vet sent me a gracious and welcoming reply.
The side door of the simple white house at 801 Pemart Avenue was opened by an elegant and stylish lady wearing a turban and sporting fire engine red lipstick and nail polish. She had the look of someone extra-special.
To my utter delight, it did not take long to discover that being in Vet’s company was as entertaining and fun as listening to the recordings with her sisters! She was witty, intelligent, vibrant. It had been a long time (1936) since Vet left her singing career, but she knew the trio’s work was not only unique, but enduring. And these sentiments were expressed in her classy, understated way. The best in the business do not have to brag. Martha passed away in 1958 and Connie had recently died (in 1976), so Vet called herself “the Last of the Mohicans.”
We listened to just about all of their recordings, and she often sang along and sometimes even moved with the tempo changes. She said she always heard songs in a minor key and that minor choruses were usually her contribution to their arrangements; she related how, unlike the average trio, they switched their harmony parts; of being so shy in the early days that her sisters had to bribe her to sing with them; how they played jokes on all their friends, especially their classical music professor, Otto Finck; of parking outside of black churches and listening to gospel music; of meeting the Dorsey Brothers for the first time at a New York recording session and getting a standing ovation from all of “the boys” after their run-through of “When I Take My Sugar To Tea”…
I had to know everything, and Vet relished reliving the happiest period of her life. I did not realize until much later how much she missed the togetherness and special world that she and her sisters created.
It was a one-of-a-kind friendship, which I will always treasure, and I looked forward to our annual visits. Vet loved the fact that we shared New Orleans as common ground, and on one trip, I brought her a gallon of my mama’s famous seafood gumbo. In April 1987 Vet’s daughter, Chica Minnerly, brought her mother to New Orleans. We visited the old Boswell home on Camp Street and heard the Pfister Sisters, who were keeping the sounds of the Boswell Sisters alive in their native city. Vet passed away in November of 1988, only a few days after I had visited her one last time in Peekskill.
Via the hindsight that seems to heighten understanding once someone is gone, I pondered certain answers to questions that Vet never answered to my satisfaction. (The main ones being: “What was the real reason for the breakup?” and “Did you really keep your marriage a secret from Martha and Connie for a whole year?”) As close as we were, I sensed I had crossed a boundary when pressing Vet on these questions. I had no idea that Vet was automatically following a deeply ingrained family code of silence inherited from a previous generation. This code spilled into Chica’s generation and even had a name: “the Foore Code” (Foore was Mrs. Boswell’s maiden name).
No one was more surprised than I was when Chica Minnerly asked me to help her research and write about the lives of the Boswell Sisters. Other than bringing her mother to New Orleans, I had always observed that Chica wanted to distance herself from the Boswell legacy and resolutely be her own person. I agreed to work with Chica in 1989, and so began many years of a difficult relationship fraught with mixed signals that frequently left me feeling like an outsider who was encroaching on family matters that were either too private or painful, or both, for Chica to write about, much less share.
Like her mother, she would cooperate and be open only to a certain point. Although adamant, she was not interested in a “whitewash” job; whatever progress we made was slow and plodding with the feel of a long battle campaign. Did Chica really want to tell the story? There was a wall of resistance and reluctance, and Chica had no awareness of the time involved. It was not an uncommon scenario for me to set aside time to go to her farm in upstate New York to work, only to arrive and find Chica vague, unresponsive and slow to start. Many times, she would exhibit enthusiasm to begin working when it was time for me to leave! Gradually the work sessions became fewer and further between, but my love for the subject kept me coming back to someone who not only knew all of the sisters, but who had inherited their vast archive of memorabilia. However, even labors of love and hope have their limit. In exasperation, I bowed out, feeling that whatever I knew about the Boswell story was enough for me—book or no book. I had solved as much of the mystery as I cared to.
Enter Kyla Titus, daughter of Chica, and granddaughter of Vet Boswell. Vet adored and pampered her only female grandchild, and Kyla grew up hearing the experiences of the Boswell Sisters filtered through the sharp memories of her witty and entertaining grandmother (“Now don’t pull a Joe Venuti on me!” was Vet’s way of telling her granddaughter not to do something crazy). So Kyla and I not only shared a closeness and love for Vet, but also the challenges of working with Chica. Kyla knew her mother wanted her to finish the story, but even after her mother died in 2010, Kyla had to ponder if she really wanted to take up the reins of the foundation laid by Chica and myself.
You are holding the result of Kyla’s decision in your hands. Kyla was determined that no code would influence her or her own family. She has not only answered the lingering questions, but has honestly, compassionately, and authoritatively chronicled the complex story of three lives which were as closely intertwined as their vocal harmonies. These three lives had to inevitably unravel, which meant ending the magical days of a great and unsurpassed trio. The reason we care about the story of these lives is because of what they left behind. It was what mattered most, above all else, to Martha, to Connie and to Vet: the music.
That music, the Boswell legacy, which is such a perfect blend of creativity, originality and harmonic excellence.
Indeed, it has never been equaled.
And it all began in New Orleans.
Shout, Sister, Shout!
By Kyla Titus
I grew up very close to my grandmother, Vet Boswell, one of the three famous singing Boswell Sisters of New Orleans. My memories of her have definitely not faded with time. In fact, I daresay that once anyone met Vet, he or she could hardly forget her.
Some of the qualities I miss most about “Nana,” as I called her, include her wit, her charm, and her Southern expression. I loved the way she talked, laughed, and sang; her voice was so soothing to me. She and I sang, played various instruments, went to the movies, restaurants, and watched television together. When we were in New York at Aunt Connee’s apartment on Central Park West, she took me shopping at Bloomingdale’s or Macy’s, across the street to the park, or for an ice cream cone. She taught me to tap, play spoons, and speak gibberish (or at least she tried). Whenever or wherever we visited each other, we bunked together, getting into our pajamas at night and often watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (she loved to point out the guests that she felt would make it in “the bidness” and the ones who would not). We giggled like sisters until we fell asleep.
Not surprisingly, one of my fondest memories of Nana involves music. Placed in front of the bay window in her Peekskill, New York, home was a small little plastic organ with chord buttons on the left hand side and a three-octave keyboard. It seemed quite out of place in this room with all its treasures of the past, such as the furniture the sisters owned in their New York apartment in the 1930s, Carnival vases of the 1920s, and delicate lace doilies from the 1910s. We used to spend hours at it; Nana brought out her sheet music, and I learned songs such as “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” and “Auld Lang Syne.” Sometimes she sang the songs with me, and she made it so much fun! She might unexpectedly use some kind of foreign accent on a word, catch me off guard with suddenly tapping out a different rhythm, completely rewrite a lyric in midstream, intentionally mispronounce a woid, or sing an entire chorus in perfect gibberish.
I had no idea at the time that I was privy to a live Boswell-style arrangement in progress, and I did not yet understand just how special that was. In fact, for most of my childhood I did not realize how important a place in music history Vet and her sisters held. She often spoke about the famous people she knew and the grand places she had visited, but she retold all her stories in a very humble and matter-of-fact manner, as if none of it was out of the ordinary. She was just my grandmother, someone I loved and enjoyed.
However, as much fun as we had, even as a child I sensed some deep vexation of spirit within Nana as well. Sometimes she and I would “get to laffin’,” as she used to say. What this meant is that sides split and tears flowed for minutes on end, and often it was over the silliest little jokes or occurrences. Her sense of the ridiculous was utterly contagious and any resistance to it was futile. My mother, Chica, often could not resist, and joined us in laughter despite attempts to appear unaffected. As a child, I often asked Nana why she told jokes and laughed so much and she always replied with the same statement, “If I didn’t laugh, I’d cry.” Until long after her passing, I did not know just how poignant those words were. I eventually discovered that emotional disturbance came from losing what was most precious to her: laughing, playing, and making music with her sisters.
My grandmother was not the only one who carried an emotional burden from the past around. My mother did too, but I could only guess at the reasons why. That is, until I devoted myself to writing this book and learning more about my family through her research and writings, and the private family letters, photographs, drawings, recordings, and other memorabilia. My eyes were wide open (as was my jaw at times) as I read some very telling correspondences, snippets of which I present in this book.
As it turned out, much of what I discovered about the Boswell Sisters and their private lives did not always happen the way my family explained it to me. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” Nana always used to say. I used to think she was joking when she said that, but I discovered she was reciting one part of a family code going back generations. I heard of this code, “The Foore Code,” but I did not fully understand it or its implications until I researched this book.
When I took on this project, I decided to tell as truthful a story as possible, striving to connect the dots and decipher the code wherever possible. I believe the extraordinary music the Boswell Sisters created compelled me to do this, so that others, especially those in the music business, may learn from their perfection as well as their mistakes. I also believe I did this with as much compassion toward each life as I could by attempting to consider forces beyond the control of individuals and/or understanding circumstantial reasons for their actions. In addition, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction and you just cannot “make this stuff up.” If my family did not laugh, or make music, they would cry. Now I know why.
Obviously, writing this story has been a very personal journey for me, having known many of the characters mentioned within these pages. Those I did not know I certainly feel now as if I do. Regardless, I learned more about my entire family, and more importantly about their place in music history. I am pleased and surprised to discover that their story is also a continuing one. The recent resurgence in interest in the Boswell Sisters and their music has led to multiple projects, celebrations, and remembrances, and I am proud to contribute to these efforts on behalf of my family, and in some small way be a part of the Boswell legacy.