Female singers have been popular since ancient times. Earlier this year a tomb was discovered in Egypt housing the earthly remains of Nehmes Bastet, a singer who lived and died some 2,900 years ago — around the time of Carthage‘s founding and that the Iron Age was making big waves in Central Europe. To date, she’s the only known woman buried in the Valley of Kings who wasn’t related to the royal families.
Nearly 3,000 years after her death, female singers were still undeniably popular. Although female musicians have long been celebrated in the rest of the world, in the west most were limited to either the piano or harp — and strictly in a non-professional role — until the dawn of the 20th Century.
An important development in all-female bands was Lee De Forest‘s invention of Phonofilms in 1919. Before then, a few early attempts at marrying music to short films were made with Kinetoscopes but were hampered by their short length of 22 seconds. Phonofilms, which were essentially music videos, were longer and often featured female musicians.
Predictably, many of these pioneers were apparently valued more for their looks and/or novelty than their cultural contributions but that, of course, isn’t a reflection on their technical or artistic merits. It’s just that, as Sherry Tucker‘s book Swing Shift (one of the few books on the subject) put it, the public “looks first and listens later.”
In the 1910s — the years leading up to the ratification of the 19th Amendment, there was a vogue for large, all-saxophone bands such as The McMillin Saxophone Band, The Denver Gas and Electric Saxophone Band, and the Duane Sawyer’s110-piece Saxophone Band. Burt Earle managed an otherwise all-female saxophone band that included at various times line-ups for eight to fifty musicians but there were several all-female sax quartets around the same time as well, including The Schuster Sisters, The Milady Saxo Four, and The Darling Saxophone Four.
THE SCHUSTER SISTERS SAXOPHONE QUARTETTE
The Schuster Sisters Saxophone Quartette (comprised of sisters Adrienne, Genevieve, Imogene, and Chloris “Honeybird” Schuster) were endorsing C.G. Conn saxophones at least as early as 1915. They’re mentioned, alongside the Darling Saxophone Four, in a 1922 edition of Variety, suggesting that they had some staying power.
THE DARLING SAXOPHONE FOUR AKA THE FOUR HARMONY MAIDS
The Darling Saxophone Four (also spelled Darling Saxaphone Four) were an all-female saxophone quartet managed by Eva Darling. Like the Schuster Sisters, they played and endorsed Conn horns. A 1920 advertisement for C.G. Conn Ltd showed both Arthur Pryor and the foursome and called the latter, “A quartet of talented and charming young ladies who appear in high-class vaudeville and concert with four of the latest Conn Ltd. Saxophones of which they are justly proud.” Supposedly they also performed as theFour Harmony Maids.
HELEN LEWIS AND HER ALL-GIRL JAZZ SYNCOPATORS
Helen Lewis and Her All-Girl Jazz Syncopators formed sometime around 1923. Around 1925 they filmed and released a Phonofilm. I’m not sure when Helen Lewis lead the Harmony Queens (pictured above). Despite the significance of their pioneering status, there seems to be surprisingly little documentation of them, as well as many of their all-female peers.
BABE EGAN AND HER HOLLYWOOD RED HEADS
Babe Egan was born in 1897. She was a talented violinist and formed Babe Egan and her Hollywood Red Heads in 1924. They disbanded in 1933. Egan died in 1966.
EDNA CROUDSON’S RHYTHM GIRLS
Yorkshire, England‘s Edna Croudson‘s Rhythm Girls, an all-female sextet, existed at least as early as 1928. In 1929 their most famous member, Ivy Benson, joined after she was discovered by Henry Croudson, a cinema organist in a Leeds theater. She played with the Rhythm Girls until 1935 and subsequently went on to lead several all-female groups.
THE PARISIAN RED HEADS
The Parisian Red Heads hailed from Indiana and in 1927 billed themselves as “The World’s Greatest Girl Band.” They recorded a single recording for Brunswick, existing primarily as a touring “territory band.” AfterBabe Egan and her Hollywood Redheads threatened to sue over their name, they changed their name toThe Bricktops.
IVY BENSON AND HER ALL GIRL ORCHESTRA
Benson was born in Yorkshire in 1913 and began playing piano when she was five. A child prodigy, she entertained as Baby Benson at working men’s clubs in the north. At nine she played on the BBC program, Children’s Hour. Her father, a musician in the Leeds Symphony Orchestra, ultimately taught here several instruments although she favored clarinet and saxophone. Around 1929 she joined Edna Croudson’s Rhythm Girls, with whom she played until 1935. In 1939 she went on to lead Ivy Benson and Her All Girls Band. The band was also billed, over the years, as Ivy Benson’s “Rhythm Girls,” “Ladies Orchestra. The band was finally referred to as Ivy Benson’s “Showband,” ironically as a result of the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. Some members of her band, including Gracie Cole and Lena Kidd, later led their own all-female bands.
Violinist Harry Waiman also directed an all-female band in the 1920s, The Debutantes.
In the 1930s, there were a few more significant all-female bands, most of which continued their predecessors’ lead by performing the Vaudeville circuit.
LIL-HARDIN’S ALL-GIRL BAND
Lil Harden Armstrong was born Lillian Hardin in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1898. She played in several jazz groups in New Orleans and Chicago before joining King Oliver‘s Creole Jazz Band in the 1920s. In 1924, she married King Oliver’s second coronetist, Louis Armstrong. In 1931, after she learned of an extramarital affair, she divorced and sued him. In the 1930s she formed Lil-Hardin’s All-Girl Band, who performed regularly on the NBC radio network. From the 1940s on she worked primarily as a solo pianist. She died August 27, 1971.
IRA RAY HUTTON AND HER MELODEARS
Ira Ray Hutton was born Odessa Cowen around 1916 in Illinois. She formed Ira Ray Hutton and Her Melodears in 1934. They recorded a few sides for Victor and Vocalion and appeared in the Paramount film, The Big Broadcast of 1936. In 1940, she broke up the band and formed and all-male one which she also led. In 1950, she formed another all-female band. She died in Ventura, California from complications resulting from diabetes in 1984.
CLARA DE VRIES AND HER JAZZLADIES
In 1935 in the Netherlands, tenor saxophonist Clara de Vries formed Clara de Vries and Her Jazzladies. In the early 1930s, de Vries had been a member of Leo Selinsky‘s Blue Jazz Ladies.
THE SWINGING RAYS OF RHYTHM AKA INTERNATIONAL SWEETHEARTS OF RHYTHM
The Swinging Rays of Rhythm were formed in 1937 by Laurence C. Jones, who organized the group to raise money for Mississippi‘s Piney Woods Country Life School, a school he founded to serve poor and black children in 1910. In the early 1940s they integrated and changed their name to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. In the Jim Crow South, some of the white members resorted to passing as black to avoid arrest for defying segregation.
Other pre-War all-female bands included Nelson “Cadillac” Williams‘s The Dixie Rhythm Girls and The Harlem Playgirls.
THE COON CREEK GIRLS
All-female bands weren’t limited to the jazz genre. The Girls of the Golden West, comprised of just two members (one on guitar) aren’t what most people think of as a “band” but are worth mentioning as pioneers in the Western genre. In 1937, Lily May Ledford, Rosie Ledford, Esther Koehler, Evelyn Lange, and Minnie Ledford formed the all-female, hillbilly string band, The Coon Creek Girls in Cincinnati, Ohio.
During World War II, big bands struggled with many musicians and band leaders being drafted to fight in the war. Just as women began to fill many occupational roles traditionally held by men (Swing Shift Maisies and Rosie the Riveters), they began to be sought after in bands organized by men. Examples include Phil Spitalny‘s Hour of Charm Orchestra, Al D’Artega’s All-Girl Band, Count Berni Vici’s All-Girl Theater Band, The Prairie View Coeds, Virgil Whyte’s Musical Sweethearts, Herb Cook’s Swinghearts, and Eddie Durham’s All-Star Orchestra. In later years, Eddie Durham explained another motivation for organizing all-female bands – to avoid being drafted into the military. There were, of course, also female-led all-female bands too.
Gloria Gaye (born Marjorie Newman) led several all-female line-ups in her Gloria Gaye and her Glamour Girls Band, which at various points was also billed as Gloria Gaye and her All Ladies Orchestra, Gloria Gaye All Girls Band, and Sweet Music and Hot Rhythm. One member was Gracie Cole, who later played in Ivy Benson’s all-female band before forming her own.
Other bands were lead by women. Ada Leonard and Her All-American Girl Orchestra were the first all-female band signed by the USO. Joy “Queen of the Trumpet” Cayler‘s all-female Joy Cayler Orchestra formed in Denver, Colorado in 1940. Other female-led bands of the era included Sharon Rogers All-Girl Band, Frances Grey’s Queens of Swing, The Pollyanna Syncopators, Jean Parks and Her All-Girl Band, Nita King and Her Queens of Rhythm, Betty McGuire’s Sub-Debs, The Darlings of Rhythm, Rita Rio and Her All Girl-Orchestra, Viola Smith and the Coquettes, and The Marilyn Merle All-Girl Orchestra.
Another all-female band of note was led by Blanche Calloway, the older sister of Cab Calloway. In 1921 she’d become the first woman to lead any band, the otherwise-all-male Joy Boys. As a bandleader who was both black and female in the early 20th century, she battled both racism and sexism. That band broke up in 1938 and she formed an all-female band in 1940 which, somewhat shockingly, I can’t find the name of anywhere. She retired in 1944. In the 1950s she managed a nightclub in DC. In the 1960s, she worked as DJ in Miami, Florida. She died in 1978 from breast cancer.
THELMA WHITE & HER ALL GIRL ORCHESTRA
Actress Thelma White‘s Thelma White and Her All Girl Orchestra were one of the all-female bands of the Foxhole Circuit. However, they continued to perform for several years after the war ended. Nowadays she’s best recognized as Mae Coleman from 1936’s Reefer Madness. She died of pneumonia in 2005.
GRACIE COLE AND HER ORCHESTRA
Gracie Cole was born in County Durham but moved, when two-years-old, with the rest of her family to Yorkshire where her dad sought work in the mines. From her flugelhorn-playing father, she learned to play music and when she was fifteen she began appearing on Manchester radio, performing the cornet with Foden’s Motorworks’ and Fairey Aviation’s bands. A eighteen she joined the all-female Gloria Gaye’s Glamour Girls. She later joined Ivy Benson’s also all-female band, with whom she played for five years. In 1951 she married trombonist Bill Geldard. After a stint playing lead trumpet in an integrated band, The Squadronaires formed the all-female Gracie Cole and her Orchestra, which performed from 1952 until 1956. In the 1960s and ‘70s, she continued to lead bands before retiring. She passed away in 2006.
LENA KIDD QUARTET
At thirteen-years-old, Eleanor Kidd learned to play accordion from the great Jimmy Shand – her father was the drummer in Shand’s band at the time. In 1945, at the age of 21, she’d joined the Ivy Benson Band and stayed with them until 1953, at which point she joined the all-female Gracie Cole orchestra. Lena Kidd formed the all-female Lena Kidd Quartet in 1956, in Leven, Scotland. They later expanded into the Lena Kidd Seven. In 1970 she married trumpeter Ray Willis. After his passing in 1978, she moved back to Fife where she remained until her death in 2003.
THE RHYTHM RANCH GALS
Ardis Wells was born in 1917 into a family of carnies and circus folk. Before becoming “The Yodeling Sweetheart” — when she began playing and singing Western — she wrestled professionally, danced, swam, rode elephants, and swung on the trapeze. In 1956 she formed the all-female Rhythm Ranch Gals in Minnesota with Fern Dale on banjo, Patti Williams on bass and guitar, and Jan North (née Northrup) on accordion. Wells played the electric guitar. Williams and North went on to release over a dozen records in the 1950s as The North Sisters.
SARAH McLAWLER & THE SYNCOETTES
One of the last, significant (but still obscure) all-female bands of the pre-Rock ‘n’ Roll era was the four-piece Sarah McLawler And The Syncoettes released several records on Premium and King in the 1950s. Sarah played the piano, organ and sang. Vi Wilson was on bass, Hetty Smith was on drums, and Lula Roberts was on sax.
THE KIM SISTERS
The Kim Sisters formed in South Korea but spent most of there career and enjoyed most of their success in the US. The three were actually half-sisters — Sue (Sook-ja), Aija (Ai-ja), and Mia (Minja) Kim were the daughters of classical conductor Kim Hae-song and singer Lee Nan-young and Mia’s father was musician Lee Bong-ryong. They began performing western pop music in 1953 before transitioning into rock ‘n’ roll, which they were exposed to by American GIs. They began playing in Las Vegas in 1959 at the Thunderbird Hotel which led to performances on the Ed Sullivan Show — where they ultimately appeared at least 22 times. More to come!
Nowadays, millions of women continue to entertain as singers and even though all-female bands aren’t the novelty they were in the Jazz Age and GI Generation, they’re still vastly outnumbered by auto-tuned ingenues groomed and marketed to tweens whose skills as musicians can’t even be realistically called an afterthought. Before Women’s History Month is over, I’ll try to post about some of the great, pioneering all-female bands of the Rock era. (Update: Click here to read about all-female bands of the 1960s and here to read about all-female bands of the 1970s.