The world of music has witnessed countless legends who have left an indelible mark on the industry. Among these luminaries, the Boswell Sisters stand out as pioneers of close harmony singing during the jazz and swing eras. Comprising three incredibly talented siblings – Martha, Connee, and Helvetia – this trio hailing from uptown New Orleans not only mesmerized audiences with their intricate harmonies but also reshaped the course of music history.
In this article, we’ll delve into the captivating journey of the Boswell Sisters, from their early musical influences to their lasting impact on the world of jazz and beyond.
Early Influences: A Musical Upbringing
The Boswell Sisters were destined for greatness from the start. Growing up in New Orleans, a city renowned for its rich musical heritage, they were exposed to a diverse range of musical styles.
Their father, who had a background in Vaudeville, played a pivotal role in nurturing their musical talents.
The family frequented live performances across genres, from classical to jazz, blues, and Southern gospel. This eclectic exposure laid the foundation for their unique style, which seamlessly blended various musical elements.
The Birth of “The Boswell Sisters”
In the early 1920s, the three sisters joined forces to create “The Boswell Sisters.” Their performances were characterized by tight-knit harmonies and instrumental accompaniment. Martha took on the piano, Helvetia showcased her skills on the violin, guitar, and banjo, while Connie displayed her versatility by playing the cello, saxophone, trombone, and guitar.
This musical synergy set the stage for their meteoric rise.
From Vaudeville to New York
The trio’s journey to stardom began with performances at Vaudeville venues. However, it was their successful recordings that propelled them into the limelight.
Subsequently, the Boswell Sisters decided to make the leap to the epicenter of the music industry – New York City. In the Big Apple, they continued to refine their craft, collaborating with some of the era’s top jazz musicians, including legends like Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang.
Connee, in particular, played a pivotal role in arranging their music, showcasing her prodigious talent as a musical innovator.
The Boswell Sisters’ Impact on Jazz
The 1930s marked the zenith of the Boswell Sisters’ career, as they achieved national prominence during a time of great change in America.
Their groundbreaking arrangements incorporated scat, instrumental imitation, ‘Boswellese’ gibberish, tempo and meter changes, major/minor juxtaposition, key changes, and even sections from other songs.
Their ability to fuse “blackness” and “whiteness” in music was revolutionary, and their collaborations with white swing musicians like the Dorsey Brothers, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and more, contributed significantly to the development of the big band sound.
The Legacy Lives On
Despite their eventual split in 1936 when Martha and Helvetia retired from show business to focus on their families,
Connee continued to shine as a solo artist. Remarkably, she achieved this success while needing a wheelchair since childhood, proving that talent knows no bounds.
Her career extended well into the 1950s, during which she performed alongside Bing Crosby and left an indelible influence on future generations of singers, including the legendary Ella Fitzgerald.
The Boswell Sisters’ journey from the vibrant streets of New Orleans to the grand stages of New York City is a testament to their exceptional talent and dedication to music. Their ability to transcend racial boundaries and create groundbreaking music paved the way for a new era in jazz and swing.
As we look back on their remarkable legacy, we find that the Boswell Sisters not only made “real” jazz commercially viable but also played a vital role in destigmatizing the music, opening its appreciation to a wider American audience.
Their harmonies continue to resonate, reminding us of the enduring power of music to unite and inspire.