Betty Bennett (1921-2020)

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Betty Bennett, who in the 1940s sang with bands led by Alvino Rey, Claude Thornhill and Charlie Ventura before moving to Los Angeles and recording vocal albums for Trend, Atlantic, United Artists and Kapp, died April 7. She was 98.

Betty was married to bassist Iggy Shevak, pianist Andre Previn and guitarist Mundell Lowe. Betty left Hamburg, Iowa, for New York in 1941, determined to become a big band singer. After serving as a WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in World War II, Betty's dream came true. She landed jobs with some of the best orchestras of the post-war years, including bands led by Georgie Auld, Claude Thornhill, Alvino Rey, Charlie Barnet, Woody Herman and Benny Goodman.

Here's Betty in her own words:

New York (1941). “When I left for New York in 1941, I had just $25 in my purse and didn't know a soul there. Shorty Rogers was one of the first people I met. He was still living in New York before relocating to the West Coast. A few of us hung out: Zoot Sims, Chubby Jackson, Hal McKusick, Neal Hefti and everyone else who later turned out to be famous. We all starved together. It bonded us forever.

Claude Thornhill (1946). “Back in high school in Iowa, I used to listen to a remote radio show from New York that featured Claude Thornhill's band, never dreaming that one day I'd actually sing with it. Be careful what you wish for, because that was the most ghastly experience I've ever had in the music business.

“I won the job after my husband at the time, bassist Iggy Shevak, was hired by Claude. Iggy told me that Claude was auditioning girl singers, so I tried out and won the job. But the band was comprised of a powerful clique of musicians who had enormous influence over Claude. They had wanted Beverly Stewart, Buddy Stewart's sister, instead of me, so they made my life miserable.

“One day Leonard Vannerson, the band's manager, told me that the clique was making air checks of my remote broadcasts with the orchestra to use as ammunition against me with Claude.

“I flew into a rage and asked to get off the band that very day. Leonard complied. In Atlantic City, I went to hear my husband with the band. When I arrived at the Steel Pier, Leonard rushed up and told me he'd hoped I wouldn't show up because the singer the clique wanted was absolutely horrible!

“The clique included trumpeter Rusty Dedrick, tenor saxophonist Ted Goddard and maybe even Gil Evans, although I hate to believe it because I worshiped him. They made my life miserable. The clique hated my husband, Iggy, as well. Rusty and Ted used to sit behind me on the band bus and make sexual remarks out of earshot of my husband.

“At the time, I just felt uncomfortable and laughed. These days I'd have told them to take a flying you know what! There was also a bassist whose name I've long since forgotten. He had been a powerful member of the clique, too, even though he had emotional issues. They hired him anyway, and further humiliated Iggy because the band used two bass players.

“I remember that guitarist Barry Galbraith was on the band at that time. I'm still mad at him even though he passed away. Except I can't for the life of me remember why. Of course, Mundy [husband Mundell Lowe] liked Barry very much. Mundy and I have managed to stay married in spite of it. 

Alvino Rey (1947). “My then husband, Iggy Shevak, left Thornhill soon after and joined Alvino Rey. I joined the Rey band a short time later. I was in the clique in Alvino's band but vowed never to make anyone's life miserable, although there was this baritone saxophonist... (I didn't do it!). 

“I credit Alvino with allowing me to work out how to sing, despite the band's manager urging him nightly to get rid of me. My thought in those days was that lyrics were only to get you from one improvised swoop to another. Sometimes I can remember some of the improvisations I did in those days. Very little melody. Fortunately, I went from there to actually trying to interpret the lyrics! What a concept.

Charlie Ventura (1949-1951). “Although Charlie Ventura  was a major jerk, it was fun to sing lines with the band. Trumpeter Conte Candoli and I used to sing some of Charlie Parker's tunes in unison.

“I knew Jackie Cain and Roy Kral quite well. I had replaced Jackie in the band, and Roy was still on the Ventura band for about two weeks after Jackie left. Roy was very helpful to me. I didn't have much use for Charlie, but I loved singing with the band.

“Conte and I took up with each other. Charlie had  been on the hunt for me, so when Conte chatted me up, I was only too glad. Charlie used to say about Jackie and Roy that they were 'playing house,' since they lived together on the band out of wedlock. I always thought that was cruel and demeaning.

“One night, singer Billy Eckstine came into a club in Milwaukee where we were playing. Charlie asked him how the band sounded without Roy. Billy said he couldn't tell the difference. I think it was because Charlie played in the same register as the girl singer, so the band sound the same. (Was Roy redundant?) 

“I know that I couldn't sing some of Jackie and Roy's arrangements because they were so tightly put together. I didn't want to be restricted. So we would just used the intros and endings.

“Don Palmer, Ventura's band manager, was married to an 18-year-old girl named Beverly Brooks. She was supposed to be the vocal Roy to my Jackie. One night we were at New York's Bop City opposite Count Basie. When Basie took an intermission, Palmer each night put two chairs beside the bandstand for us. 

“Disc jockey Symphony Sid used to announce the guys in the band, but rather than be troubled with the girl singers' names, he'd just say, 'The young ladies.' It used to bug me. One night at Bop City, Palmer took away one of the chairs. A mystery. I never saw Beverly again. Later I found out why she disappeared. My best friend, Carol, a beautiful girl, had come to spend time with me in New York and apparently Charlie hit on her hard. (So did Basie and Dizzy.) 

“When Beverly saw what was happening between Charlie and Carol, she confessed to Don that she and Charlie had been sleeping together. I never saw Beverly again. And, bewilderingly, Don stayed on as manager.

“After Beverly left, I sang solo with the band. I waited for Symphony Sid to use my name. No such luck. He just announced 'the young lady.' What a jerk!

“My friend Carol was asked by Basie to come uptown for a drink. She was reluctant to say no, so she agreed but never planned to show up. That night, as we passed Basie's dressing room, he looked at Carol and said, 'Some people just ain't got no word.' This has been a family saying lo these many years!

“Basie asked me to join his band at that time, but I told him we'd all wind up in trouble down South. He said he'd only use me up North and on theater dates. I just didn't have the courage to do it."

Betty Bennett (1953). “On the album I did for Trend Records, Andre Previn, my husband at the time, hired all concertmasters. As you know, the orchestra typically tunes up to the oboe, and when the oboist told Andre they ought to tune up to me, I was over the moon. That may have been the best compliment I ever received.

“Later, when I was singing in San Francisco, the principal clarinetist of the San Francisco Symphony came in one night. He spoke very little English but left me a note that read, 'Miss Bennett, you have made for me an evening beautiful.' “

Nobody Else But Me (1955). “I loved Shorty's arrangements for this album. I remember I was very impressed with the lineup on the date and fearful how they'd feel about 'the chick singer' the way most musicians did in those days. 

“I do remember that the session went smoothly. Frank Rosolino, one of my favorite trombone players, was on the date and couldn't believe he was in such a prestigious lineup. I knew just how he felt. 

“Typically, the cats didn't take girl singers very seriously. Jimmy Rowles was once on a Peggy Lee session and was asked how it went. He said the band was great. Not a word about Peggy!"

Benny Goodman. “Benny was notorious for his lousy treatment of his girl singers. He called me 'chanteusie' and traveled for a while  on the bus rather than by car just to sit beside me. He sat next to me so often that the cats in the band told me to get it on with him, though they used a cruder word for it. Their motive was to get him off the bus.

“I turned Benny down, and he finally left the bus for his car. But boy did I pay for it over time. Every night before the gig, the band would stop at a liquor store and stock up. At first, I stayed on the bus. I wasn't much of a drinker. They always asked me if I wanted something. But after about two weeks with Benny on the band, I was the first one off the bus.

“Martha Tilton was supposed to do the 1958 tour but had passed. The band was playing concert halls instead of ballrooms. Pianist Russ Freeman and I had worked together at Shelly's Manne Hole for months. Benny had asked him if he knew a girl singer for the tour, and Russ recommended me.

“When I returned Benny's call, he asked me to bring a couple of the Shorty Rogers arrangements along from my album Nobody Else But Me. Benny had heard the album and liked it. When I flew to New York for the rehearsals before the band headed out on the road, Benny had the band play one of them down and OK'd it for the book.

“Benny seemed to go out of his way to be nasty. I didn't have a ballad for the band's show but at the time I had been singing Angel Eyes. Russ and I ran it down for Benny as he lay on the floor with his eyes closed. After we finished, he waited a beat and said, 'Are you through?'

“The first night the band played the so-called approved Shorty Rogers arrangement, I sang the first chorus. I could hear the band sounded pretty terrible. The arrangement changed keys, and the band played a chorus. The cacophony was incredible. I figured Benny was going to stop the band but he didn't. Instead, he motioned me back to the mic. 

“I tried to indicate that the band wasn't playing in my key, but he insisted I sing it anyway. I somehow managed to get through it. The problem, I found out later, was that the stage manager had turned off the band's stage lights and the musicians couldn't see their parts. 

“After, Benny ordered me to come to his dressing room with Russ. He asked me who wrote the song. I told him Matt Dennis. Benny claimed he hadn't heard of it and that it was a terrible song. Russ tried to tell him that Ella Fitzgerald had recorded it. Benny didn't care.

“When I sang the song the next night to nice applause, Benny glared at me the whole time from then on. The next afternoon he told me I'd be singing a couple of his old girl-singer tunes like And the Angels Sing and Ridin' High. The latter one is quite difficult, especially the bridge. 

“So Russ and I rehearsed the song that afternoon, and Benny put it on the program that night. At the end, there was a little sort of bebop figure that I sang with suitable hip syllables. Benny played it with me in unison, except he would play that laughing clarinet sound along with the syllables.

“What a cruel man. Every night the band would line up  outside the bus, and as I'd walk by in absolute shock they'd all hug me and ask me to hang in there. 

“I asked them if it was specifically me or just the girl singer who was punished this way. They assured me that Benny's behavior wasn't me. Small comfort.

“The final blow came when Benny hired a college vocal group to tour with us for the few weeks that remained. He obviously fancied the young girl singer, and she soon began to sing tunes with the band. 

“Benny would introduce her and say how great she was and that she was only 18 years old. When it came time for me to sing, he'd merely introduce me as the band's 'girl singer'—no name. 

“On our last night, when my songs were finished, I rushed upstairs, took off my makeup and gown, and got ready for our last bus trip to New York. Then the band manager came up and told me that Benny wanted us all onstage for a final introduction. So I had to put my makeup on again and stood backstage, ready to be introduced. 

“But Benny completely ignored me and didn't mention me at all. I ran upstairs, locked the dressing room, and refused to come out. Of course, eventually I did. Benny tried to apologize to me later, but I just looked at him as coldly as I could. 

“Baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, who also was on the band, told me how much he'd enjoyed working with me and gave me some wonderful compliments. Good thing, as I felt like a complete failure. Unbelievably, a year or so later, Benny called Andre [Previn] and asked for my phone number. He told Andre I had had a ball on the band and that he wanted me back! I declined, with a no thanks.  

Conte Candoli and Shorty Rogers. “It would be hard to say who was nicer, Shorty or Conte. I never heard Conte say an unkind word about anyone, and I used to prod him about guys I knew he didn't really like. We were an item for a long time and when I left Charlie Ventura's band after it broke up, I worked in San Francisco for a long time, where I met Andre Previn [Betty's second husband].

“I remember I had to have a very painful breakup conversation with Conte one weekend in the early '50s, when I had to tell him about Andre. Andre in turn was engaged and had to have the same type of painful conversation with his lady, who I think was Phyllis Kirk, on the same weekend.

“As for Shorty Rogers, he was just about the dearest person I'd ever met, with Bob 'Coop' Cooper running a close second. 

“I'm now 89 and in great health. I'd go back on the road in a minute. Despite the primitive conditions of touring with a big band back then, I had a ball."

JazzWax pages: For more on Betty, grab her autobiography,  Betty Bennett: The Ladies Who Sing With the Band (Scarecrow). It's out of print, but you can find copies on Amazon.

JazzWax clips: Here's Betty singing Yankee Clipper, a bop tribute to Joe DiMaggio backed by vocalists Beverley Brooks and Jimmy Vanelli with Charlie Ventura and His Orchestra in August 1949...



Here's Betty, Brooks and Vanelli singing Feather's Den backed with Charlie Ventura and His Orchestra in August 1949. The sound was an extension of the one pioneered for the band by Jackie and Roy Kral...



Here's Betty singing Nobody Else But Me in October 1955...



Here's Betty singing a Shorty Rogers arrangement of Mountain Greenery in October 1955...



And here's Betty in 1990 singing They Say It's Spring...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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