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Interview: Betty Bennett (Part 1)

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Back in May, in one of my Sunday “Oddball Album Covers of the Week" posts, I showcased two LPs featuring women stretched out on lawns. One was Nobody Else But Me, a 1955 album by vocalist Betty Bennett for Atlantic Records that was arranged by Andre Previn and Shorty Rogers. The point of my post was to show how art directors at the time seemed to fancy showing attractive women relaxing on grassy glades. [Pictured: Betty Bennett in 1948]

A few days later I received an email from Betty Bennett, who is married to guitarist Mundell Lowe. Betty thanked me for mentioning the album, and we exchanged emails over the next several days. Naturally, I had a bunch of questions for her, and Betty happily answered them with candor and humor.

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 [pictured], 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 Part 1 of Betty two-part reflections:

“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. [Pictured: Betty Bennett in 1941]

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 [pictured] 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 [pictured].

“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 had hoped I wouldn't show up because the singer the clique wanted was absolutely horrible!

 “The clique included trumpeter Rusty Dedrick [pictured], 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 Barry Galbraith was on the band at that time and that 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 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 afterward and joined Alvino Rey [pictured]. I joined the 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 Venture (1949-1951). “Although Charlie Ventura was a major jerk, it was fun to sing lines with the band. Conte Candoli and I used to sing some of Charlie Parker's tunes in unison. [Pictured: Betty Bennett and Charlie Ventura in 1949]

“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 [pictured] 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, and 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, and I didn't want to be restricted. So we would just use 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. 

“Symphony Sid [pictured] used to announce 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 but 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! [Pictured: Betty Bennett's high school graduation photo]

“Basie asked me to join his band at that time, but I told him we'd all be lynched. 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 date and was asked how it went. He said the band was great.  Not a word about Peggy!"

JazzWax tracks: Nobody Else But Me: Betty Bennett Sings the Arrangements of Shorty Rogers and Andre Previn (Atlantic) is available on a two-fer here. The first 12 track's are Betty's.

As you will hear from the samples, Betty's phrasing in 1955 was hip and solid—intelligent with a distinct '50s sensibility. The Shorty Rogers arrangements are particularly fresh and uplifting.

JazzWax note: Photos of Betty Bennett courtesy of Betty Bennett and Mundell Lowe.

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 here.

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

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