A few years ago, having fallen into a YouTube-music-videos rabbit-hole, I happened upon The Boswell Sisters, a singing trio from New Orleans who were internationally poplar in the 1930s. I was instantly hooked, and barely listened to anything else for weeks or months on end.1
I’ve always been a minor fan of The Andrews Sisters, but there was something about them that didn’t really work for me. It felt like they were reaching for something they never seemed to quite catch, and for me, as a listener, the near-miss was frustrating. Any deficiencies I’d sensed in The Andrews Sisters, however, are completely absent in The Boswell Sisters, and the reason is that the Bozzies (as their fans called/call them) are the band The Andrews Sisters were trying to be. And however good they may have been, they never possessed the musical genius of Connee Boswell.
In an era where artists were strongly encouraged to replicate songs as they were written, Connee Boswell’s re-interpretations of the songs went well beyond vocal style and into re-writing, changing tempos, re-working melodies, changing keys from major to minor, and showcasing the close harmonies and near-psychic abilities of the three sisters to match each other vocally. Their version of In The Money is hands-down the best, most dynamic, and fun version I’ve ever heard. Working with some of the greatest and biggest names of the era, including The Dorsey Brothers and Glen Miller, they also inspired legendary artists like Ella Fitzgerald, who idolized Connee when she was a young girl.
Listening to the group’s music is a guaranteed way to get your energy up; sometimes like a roller-coaster ride, they make even familiar musical territory exciting. Though they do their fair share of ballads, as well as the more uptempo songs that I particularly love, they always include some element that, for music-lovers, is a bit breath-taking, like watching a murmuration of starlings swoop and swirl.
The more I listen to their recordings, both as a group and Connee’s later solo career, the deeper I fall in love with the seeming ease with which they tackle extraordinarily complicated arrangements and rhythms. I wonder how much their Lousiana childhood shaped their approach to music, and how much their sound is a result of the incredibly fertile New Orleans musical culture. I wonder who were the artists that inspired them, and who they idolized when they were starting out. I wonder, too, why it is that everyone can name The Andrews Sisters, but only about half of my really musically-aware friends have ever heard of the Bozzies. It seem like a real shame, to me, that this incredible music is sitting mostly-unknown.2
To my excitement, I learnt while writing this article that there’s a lot going on in 2014 to raise the profile of this nearly-forgotten but incredibly significant group: a Boswell Sister documentary called Close Harmony is in the works, as well as a biography by one of the artists’ descendants, and also an exhibit called Shout, Sister Shout! by The Historic New Orleans Collection. They also got a little shout-out in Season 3 of one of my favourite TV shows, Treme. ((If you love music, and you haven’t watched Treme, you’re in for s treat – 4 seasons of beauty, heartbreak, and amazing music in one fabulous tv show.))
All three of the sisters are dead now, and so this recognition is coming a little late, but better late than never.
I had a very hard time choosing which song to feature, so I’ve included three of my favourites; I hope you like them, too. As always, let me know what you think in the comments, and share this article – let’s spread this music far and wide!
- Usually, I write about current artists that I’m really excited about, but I feel like this music is so inspiring and deserving of more attention that I can’t help but write about it. [↩]
- This is the point of Secret Frequency, I guess – I so often come across really wonderful music that doesn’t have the audience it deserves, and this is my outlet to share it when I can’t book it. [↩]