Monday, August 24, 2009

All-Girl Bands: The International Sweethearts of Rhythm and Tiny Davis

Musical ensembles consisting of all female players had existed since the 1920s, but their popularity really took off during World War II. It wasn't just the draft, though - all of America was on the move, and the fixed cultural "norms" of segregational Jim Crow laws were about to be curved and bent like the brass instruments of a swing band. Contributor Victoria Balloon takes a look at one such group of women who could take off with style and the legacy of syncopated treasures they left behind.

In her book Swing Shift: "All-Girl Bands" of the 1940s, Sherrie Tucker writes how "the war thrust the swing industry (and other industries) into a supply-and-demand crisis that required drastic reconfiguration of workers and consumers." Separated from loved ones and far from home, Americans found "diversion, comfort, and social contact through music and dance."

Swing music became patriotic - defense workers danced to it and solders longed for the reminders of home and what they were fighting for. The draft made it difficult for the traditional male bands to keep up with the demand, while wartime restrictions on travel and commodities made it difficult for any band to get to their gigs.

For women who were musicians before the war or who intended to keep on playing after, the increased exposure of the all-girl bands gave the impression that all-girl bands and women as musicians were "just a fad," or for wartime only, until the boys came home.

During the war years women were actively recruited and encouraged to work outside the home, but always with the tacit assumption that they would go back to the domestic sphere after the war. (Tucker 35, 37)

Band leaders like Ina Ray Hutton and Phil Spitalny had already demonstrated that all-girl orchestras possessed legitimate talent that people wanted to listen to, but these all-white groups never encountered the issues of race. Being black and female gave these musicians two counts against hiring them, but these women wanted to play music and would not be stopped. They heard their brothers, boyfriends, and heroes swing and decided they could do it, too.

They learned to play - either through school bands or by ear, sitting in on jam sessions the way men did - and formed their own bands, with names like The Swinging Rays of Rhythm, the Darlings of Rhythm, and the Prairie View Co-Eds. The black theater circuit in the north was small, and only the most well-known African-American bands were booked. As a result, many of these black all-girl bands were confined to road trips and mostly one-night engagements in the South and thus encountered Jim Crow laws. Because of the difficulties of public transportation and wartime rationings, tours were impossible for black bands that did not have their own bus. They had to keep moving; both to get to the next gig as well as avoid the inevitable harassment by authorities.

Booking agents booked gigs; they were not responsible for getting the bands to them. With difficulties in wartime transportation, many bands used private vehicles to rush between gigs that were sometimes hundreds of miles apart, and when exhausted musicians were behind the wheel, accidents were not uncommon. It wasn't as simple missing a paying gig; being late or a failure to show without the full band could constitute breach of contract. (Tucker 64-5)

Having a bus wasn't always a solution. Trumpet player Toby Butler recalls how the Sweethearts' bus once filled with carbon monoxide: "Passersby removed us from the bus and placed us alongside of the road until we recovered out in the air." No bus would work without gas or tires, and both of these commodities were rationed during the war. The synthetic rubber tires made for use at home were notoriously prone to blowouts. Sometimes the girls could coax gas coupons from truckers who stopped when they saw the tour bus broken down by the side of the road. Even when the bus ran, the wartime speed limit was set at 35 mph. Travel by train wasn't always a better option; segregation made it difficult for African-American bands to travel together. (Tucker 64-66)

The longest lived of the black orchestras (1937- 48) and considered today to be the most renowned of the 1940s "all-girl" bands, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm began in the late 1930s at the Piney Woods School, a foster-child institution for African-American and minority children in Mississippi. The Piney Woods Country Life School was founded 1909 by Laurence C. Jones, who emphasized training the "head, heart and hands of youth." Some of the students were poor and orphaned, some were physically handicapped. Others were more affluent and able to pay, but according to the schools' philosophy, none who were willing to work were turned away. Dr. Jones believed in sending "musical ambassadors" to promote the school and give it publicity throughout the region. He noted too, the popularity of all-white orchestra directors Ina Ray Hutton and Phil Spitalny and "conceived the idea of glorifying 'the girls of tan and brown' orchestrally."

Band leader Consuella Carter (an alumnae of the school and veteran of one of the school's early vocal touring groups, The Cotton Blossoms) began building The Sweethearts from talented students aged 14 to 19, including some members from the school's junior college. They played dances, fund-raisers, and conventions in Mississippi and adjoining states. Dr. Jones sometimes appeared with the band to give lectures regarding the school and its mission. Edna Williams became the Sweethearts' musical director. A talented trumpet player who was sometimes called, "the female Satchmo," she was fully capable of filling in on any instrument in the orchestra.

In 1940 the Sweethearts made their big debut at the Howard Theater in Washington DC. It was so successful that a contract to play New York's Apollo Theater was immediately signed.

In August of that year the Sweethearts competed with thirty other swing bands at the New York City World's Fair in a competition sponsored by Swing magazine; the Sweethearts placed third. Reviewers proclaimed they were "a package of music wrapped in the cellophane of loveliness" and that "no hotter bunch ever tooted a horn or beat a drum." The band's September 1940 schedule looked like this: Fredericksburg, VA (16th); Frederick, MD (17th); Alexandria, VA (18th); Emporia, VA (19th); Petersburg, VA (20th) Martinsville, VA (23rd); Statesville, NC (24th); Charlotte, NC (25th); and Columbia, SC (27th). Being famous meant hitting the road - hard. (Handy 49-50)

Click on this image to read an article from The Afro American of Baltimore, MD. Be sure to scroll up and read the second article about the Sweethearts' first film!

Under the Piney Woods management original band members were paid $7 a week for food and $1 extra. Bookers convinced manager and chaperone Rae Lee Jones (no relation to Laurence C. Jones) that leaving the school and letting Albert Dade and Dan Garey manage the band and giving Amusement Enterprises of Washington DC booking rights would result in better incomes. In April 1941 the Sweethearts severed ties with the school. Though the band did see an increase in pay to fifteen dollars a week, it was still far below union levels. Original band members were told that they owned a house outside of Arlington, Virginia, and that most of their money went into paying off the mortgage. Later, when Professional musicians were hired, they were paid at very different levels than the original girls who had been at the Piney Woods School.

Eddie Durham (left) and Jesse Stone (right).

However, separating from the Piney Woods School did allow the business to hire professionals. Musical director (and solo trumpet player) Edna Williams was responsible for the band's early sound, but it was Eddie Durham, formerly a trombonist with Count Basie, who worked with the strengths of the individual band members to create solos and helped them polish it. Durham also contributed arrangements to Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw, and after he formed his own band in 1942, was often billed as "The Sepia Phil Spitalny." After Durham, Jesse Stone hired more professional musicians and improved the Sweethearts' overall musical technique. Both Stone and Durham knew that the band members weren't being paid what they were worth and were suspicious of the band's finances, and both eventually quit the band over these issues.

Another change was the band's leader. Anna Mae Winburn was already a seasoned professional when she joined the Sweethearts and had been singing with and directing several professional male orchestras, such as Frank Shelton "Red" Perkins' Dixie Ramblers and Lloyd Hunter's Serenaders out of Omaha NE. In 1941 she was fronting the Blue Devils of Oklahoma City; however, many of the musicians were lost to the draft because of World War II and she was left without a band. It was the owner of a ballroom in Omaha who recommended her to the Sweethearts. She recalls that, "When I first joined the Sweethearts I said what a bunch of cute girls, but I don't know whether or not I can get along with that many women or not." Apparently she could, and the dynamic Winburn conducted and sang with the band until its demise in 1948.

Of course, once separated from the school the pool of available musicians was no longer limited to the student body. Professionals were hired, and this is how trumpet player Ernestine "Tiny" Davis joined. Born between 1907 and 1913 in Memphis, Tennessee, her introduction to the trumpet was quite simple: she saw the boys at school with trumpets, and she asked her mother to buy her one. Her family was by no means wealthy, but Davis did eventually get her trumpet, which she practiced on top of the barn. In the early thirties Davis formed her own group, the Torrid Eight, which played clubs in Kansas City, and in 1935 she joined the Harlem Play-Girls organized by Sylvester Rice. This band was considered one of the finest of the all-black jazz dance bands, and Davis traveled the country, winning over crowds at the Savoy Ballroom. When the Sweethearts went professional in 1941, hiring a musician of Davis' caliber was a smart business move.

However, women who played in all-girl bands had to be more than musicians: they were entertainment, and they had to be glamorous. During the war years they were also seen as the epitome of the sweethearts back home the boys were fighting for. Both short and wide, Davis did not fit the usual descriptions of feminine charm.

There were some all-girl bands that would have insisted upon her losing weight, or simply would not have hired her, but Davis built a whole stage persona around the name "Tiny," billing herself as "245 pounds of jive and rhythm." (Tucker 61, 49) In the 1947 Soundie How 'Bout That Jive?, listeners knew Davis meant it when she belted out the words: "Mama's round & brown & can roll just like a ball/ Yes mama's round & brown & can roll just like a ball/ She's got a lot to give & daddy you can have it all."

Eventually, Louis Armstrong would even attempt to steal trumpet player Tiny Davis away from the Sweethearts by offering her ten times her current salary. Tiny did not go with him. In later years, she simply said, "I loved them gals too much. Them was some sweet gals - you know."

In advertisements and newspaper reviews, the "International" in the band's name was sometimes left out, and the group was simply "The Sweethearts of Rhythm." The "International" was used in part to give the band an "exotic" feel, but it also announced to the Jim Crow South that there were white-looking women in the band who were descended from non-white countries. Saxophonist Willie Mae Wong had Chinese and African-American parents, clarinetist Alma Cortez was of Mexican descent, saxophonist Nina de LaCruz was Indian, and trumpet Nova Lee McGee was Hawaiian. In addition, there were also light-skinned and mixed race African-American women - and under Jim Crow laws, all were considered legally black. Wong did not recall any incidents of police harassment until the band began traveling with white women. (Tucker 149)

The Sweethearts hired the first white woman, trumpet player Toby Butler, in 1943. Butler was a white woman who had been raised in Virginia by a black woman and her two daughters. Personal friends of Sweethearts' manager Rae Lee Jones, it was the Young family who first took her to hear the band. Roz Cron also joined the Sweethearts in 1943. She was 18 years old, an alto saxophonist from Boston with a classical background and who could read music. "I thought I was great," she remembers. "But when I joined this band, many of these girls had problems reading because they learned to play the hard way. but what they had was a relaxed way of approaching the music-their beat was different from our more uptight white rhythm."

Because the band was integrated, in some areas of the country white band members had to pass for black. In those areas of the Deep South, the band was under constant surveillance by police attempting to enforce Jim Crow laws specifically forbidding black and white persons from traveling together. Jim Crow laws also forbade black and white women from working or eating together, and in some instances, from walking down the street together. (For more information on the history and specifics of Jim Crow Laws, read this entry in Wikipedia, or check out this article from Ferris State University. Be warned: the images are graphic.)
These laws essentially resulted in the criminalization of African-American all-girl bands. Members became suspect as working women, as musicians, and as being dressed too nicely and possibly a bit too confident and easy in the way they spoke to white police officers or club owners. The all-girl bands could be lawfully questioned and intimidated by any white person who wanted to know why they had access to so many gas coupons or where they were going, and if the questioner's tone was rude or filled with sexual intimidation, there was nothing they could do. (Tucker 136-7)

In some ways blacks would have been safer in an all-black rather than an integrated band. The white members either had to wear makeup to pass for black, or rely on the "one drop" rule of Jim Crow laws - meaning that there were in fact black persons who appeared to be as white as anybody else. White women joined black bands because they wanted to learn more or play "real" jazz and swing music, not the watered down version of black arrangements prevalent in all-white female orchestras like Phil Spitalny's Hour of Charm or Ada Leonard and Her All-American Girls.

Through tricks of makeup and hairstyling, and because they were traveling with so many mixed-race and light-skinned women who were considered legally black, Butler and Cron were usually able to pass for black; but when they weren't, Butler described the harassment as "pretty bad." "In one place we were warned before we got there not to get off the bus because they had placed these firebombs, I guess you call them, into the dance hall and they were set to go off. So we never played the gig." (Tucker 149-50) At the same time, when the Sweethearts and other African-American bands went to small towns in the South, people really came out to see them because the bands were regarded as something special, proof that there were other roles for blacks to play in American culture. The Sweethearts always appreciated their support and tried to give them a great show.

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were named by Down Beat magazine as America's #1 All-Girl Orchestra in 1944. They performed on the northern black theater circuit, including the Apollo in New York, the Paradise in Detroit, and the Howard in Washington, D.C. Because in the Deep South they could never be sure of finding lodgings, and they did not want to run afoul of the Jim Crow laws, the Sweethearts had their bus equipped with eating and sleeping facilities. Baritone saxophonist Willie Mae Wong attributed the band's breakup in part to the irreparable breakdown of this private Pullman-type sleeper bus, dubbed "Big Bertha" by the band. (Tucker 67)

Letter-writing campaigns by black soldiers overseas led to the band embarking on a 6-month European tour in 1945, making the Sweethearts the first black women to travel with the USO. They also played Armed Forces Radio broadcasts of Jubilee, a show targeting African-American soldiers. (Tucker 165) Unfortunately, these USO shows and entertainments were just as strictly segregated as entertainment in the United States.

When the band returned to the States, they continued to tour and play large venues until manager Rae Lee Jones became ill and could no longer travel. Jones died in 1948, and this combined with the post-war economy and club-owners' realization that smaller bands were cheaper to hire marked the end of the Sweethearts. Winburn reorganized the band into Anna Mae Winburn and Her Sweethearts of Rhythm which continued from 1950 to 1956. (Handy 63)

When band members got older and tried to collect Social Security, it was quickly revealed that the payments were never made for the musicians. As early as 1943 it was clear there was financial murkiness, when Al Dade asked the courts to order an accounting of the band's financial affairs. He contended that he had invested $10,000 in the band, but had no "satisfactory accounting" of how this money was used or the earnings of the orchestra. (Baltimore Afro-American, May 1943) Whether the money was out and out stolen or mismanaged is not clear. Band members have differing opinions of what their manager Rae Lee Jones and backers Albert Dade and Dan Garey may have done, but all agree that they had been shamelessly exploited. (Tucker 189)

After the demise of the Sweethearts, Tiny Davis formed a six member ensemble called the Hell Divers and toured the United States and Caribbean until the early 1950s. Davis and long-term partner drummer/pianist Ruby Lucas (who also performed under the name of Renee Phelan) ran a bar called Tiny and Ruby's Gay Spot in Chicago during the 1950s. Vi Burnside, one of the Sweethearts' saxophone soloists, played there as well as Davis' own group. In the 1970s Davis was part of a three piece ensemble that played for senior citizens and hospital patients.

In 1988 Greta Schiller and Andrea Weiss produced Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin' Women, and through this candid and funny documentary Davis and Lucas became adopted as cultural heroes for the gay rights movement. Though the film is only 30 minutes, it is a wonderful look at Davis, Lucas, and the history they lived, and some of the last records of Davis' music; she died in 1994. (This edited clip on YouTube is a wonderful look at Tiny's sassy music and her relationship with Ruby.)

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm made very few studio recordings, but recent interest in the band, both from a jazz music and feminist perspective, has made them more available. Some are actually transcriptions from the Jubilee black entertainment radio show and film footage produced by African-American producer William D. Alexander. (Hot Licks: 1944-1946 is available at, and you can listen to snippets from each of the tracks, complete with radio announcer.)

The Sweethearts of Rhythm appeared in three shorts: She's Crazy with the Heat (1947), That Man of Mine (1947), and How 'Bout that Jive (1947). Producer Alexander distributed these short features to theaters catering to black audiences and also re-edited the films into numerous shorter clips to be used as Mills Panoram Soundies. Harlem Jam Session (1949) was a short-subject comprised of footage shot mostly in 1946. These films capture the Sweethearts during their heyday, but through a combination of film resolution and editing, they do not clearly show the integrated racial makeup of the band, which would have made distribution more difficult.

Because they traveled the South when it was dangerous to do so and their very existence challenged the traditional roles of African-Americans, many former band members considered their experience in black bands as "paving the way" for the freedom riders and civil rights advocates of the 1950s and 60s. (Tucker 142, 145) At the same time, musicians who played in African-American bands did not necessarily perceive their experiences as being particularly historical or important. Rather, they did what they did because they needed a job and the vacancy was there. These ladies wanted to swing, to "fake, ride, and take-off" the way their male counterparts did. The Big Bands faded from the scene, and groups like the International Sweethearts of Rhythm followed, but we at the Bijou are so happy that their recordings and films have not faded, but remain for all of the public to enjoy.

For More information:
Sherrie Tucker's Swing Shift: "All-Girl" Bands of the 1940s looks at a cross-section of the different bands and their activities during the war years. Stormy Weather: the Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen by Linda Dahl and D. Antoinette Handy's Black Women in American Bands and Orchestras are a who's who of women in the music scene of the 20th century.

The Bijou Blog Screen:
We present to you four of the Sweethearts' performances from 1947: She's Crazy with the Heat contains a piano solo by Johnnie Mae Rice with Violet Burnside on saxophone; Jump Children has Anna Mae Winburn providing the vocals; Vi's Vigor, which was Burnside's signature sax solo (that's Willie Mae Wong seated next to her); and How Bout that Jive? sung by Tiny Davis, with a trumpet solo at the end. Unfortunately, the audio track on the last two numbers seems to be about 15 seconds out of sync with the video; still, it's worth a look to see Tiny Davis use her physical presence to rivet the audience.


Cliff Weimer said...

Fascinating article! Congrats.

Radmila said...

great...this is great

Bruce from Accordion Noir said...

I don't believe that the Sweethearts were the first Black women to travel with the USO, though they may well have been the first Black female group. I've been researching Jazz-jive accordionist Julie Gardner, who was part of the first Black USO troupe to travel outside the US. They toured the Caribbean in 1943.

I did a post about her as part of my search for more information, and perhaps recordings.