“You’re a Sweetheart”
Composed by Jimmy McHugh (music) and Harold Adamson (lyric); Head arrangement by Tommy Dorsey.
Recorded by Tommy Dorsey and His Clambake Seven for Victor on October 14, 1937 in New York.
Tommy Dorsey, trombone, directing: George “Pee Wee” Erwin, trumpet; Johnny Mince and Bud Freeman, B-flat clarinets; Howard Smith, piano; Carmen Mastren, guitar; Gene Traxler, bass; Dave Tough, drums; Edythe Wright, vocal.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”―
Challenging and vexing duality is a theme that runs through human history from its earliest beginnings to the present day. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the haves and the have-nots, people of color and people not of color, and perhaps the most baffling duality of all, men and women.
The world of swing was not a place of equal opportunity. Talent as a musician, and dynamism as a performer would get a person “in the door” as it were, as a member of a band. But bands were almost completely segregated by race and by gender. The place of women in the big bands was almost completely limited to filling the role of “girl vocalist.” As one can easily imagine, one young woman, usually beautiful and talented, among a group of a dozen or more young men, who often not only worked together, but traveled and indeed lived together, could be and often was fraught for many reasons. But this rather strange modus vivendi produced a lot of memorable music, and as many examples of gallantry as of predation. In other words, the world of swing was a most interesting crucible of human existence and expression.
From time to time, I receive various messages from people asking about the lives of girl singers with big bands during the swing era. This is a subject that has been addressed somewhat obliquely and incompletely by a few of the women (or their biographers) who in their youth learned their craft as singers working with big bands. In my library are books by or about Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Helen Forrest, Betty Bennett, Louise Tobin, and the first woman of swing, Mary Lou Williams, who was an even rarer creature, a female swing era instrumentalist who was a great jazz musician. I have advocated on this blog for biographies of Mildred Bailey and Lee Wiley. I am now going to add to that list Edythe Wright. Her story, properly researched and told, would add deeper understanding to the subject of women and the swing era.
We know only a little about Edythe’s four-year odyssey as one of the most popular and high-profile members of Tommy Dorsey’s high-profile band. That story in itself would be fascinating because for any woman to have succeeded in the male-dominated, testosterone-driven world of swing in the 1930s is something that should be documented and celebrated. But there was much more to her story – including her complicated personal relationship with Tommy Dorsey. We have received snippets of information about that over the years, but nothing even approaching the full story.
Unlike many girl singers, who used their big band experience as a springboard to launch long show business careers, Edythe Wright’s career as an entertainer seems to have been essentially her four intense and intensely active years as a singer with Tommy Dorsey’s band. Nevertheless, her life, short as it was, lived at a time in America when women’s equality was only a vague concept discussed by intellectuals, was remarkably varied and full.
The basic outline of Edythe Wright’s life is this: she was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, the youngest child of Harrison Burr Wright and Hanna(h) Heffernan on August 16, 1914. In the 1910 census Hannah and her children are listed as living in Leonia, Bergen County, New Jersey at the home of Harold Chase, who was married to Hannah’s sister Helen. Chase was a professional baseball player for the New York Yankees. He was later embroiled in controversy by allegations of throwing games and illegal betting. In the 1920 census, Edythe Wright is listed as being born in 1915, and Edythe’s mother as a widow, her husband, Edythe’s father apparently having died sometime between 1914 and 1920. (1)
Further research is needed to document Edythe’s activities between 1930 and 1935 and determine exactly how she became known to Tommy Dorsey. A February 8, 1938 article the Massachusetts Institute of Technology newspaper The Tech reported that, “She hails from New Brunswick, New Jersey, where, prior to graduation, she was a leader in high school amateur theatricals and athletics.” In an article in The Bandstand, the promotional newspaper Tommy Dorsey produced briefly in 1939 to highlight his band’s activities and members, Edythe stated that she went to St. Peter’s Catholic Parochial School and St. Peter’s High School (closed 2007) in New Brunswick, New Jersey before transferring to New Brunswick High School, where she graduated in 1933. She then spent time running a coffee shop with her sister (which one is unstated), studied drama at the New Jersey College for Women at New Brunswick (now a part of Rutgers), and spent her summers at Sea Girt, New Jersey. During the summer of 1935 she was asked by New Jersey bandleader and entrepreneur Frank Dailey to fill in for his vocalist, Nancy Flake, during an engagement at the Asbury Park Casino. It was there that she was supposedly heard by Tommy Dorsey’s agent, and despite her dislike of being a band vocalist and lack of formal musical training, accepted a job with Dorsey. She was twenty-one years old.
Edythe Wright’s career with Tommy Dorsey spanned from September 1935 through September 1939. That was a period of ever-increasing success for the Dorsey band. During that time, Edythe made 121 commercial studio recordings for Victor (of which 120 were issued on 87 discs) with Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra, and Clambake Seven, a small group drawn from the TD big band. She also made several radio transcription recordings with TD using a pseudonym. She was also a part of Tommy’s presentation on his sponsored network radio show from late 1936 until she left the Dorsey band. In September of 1939, Edythe’s departure from the Dorsey band was for reasons that are unclear.
After 1939, Edythe seemed to work in show business only sporadically. She appeared on at least one broadcast for the Ellery Queen radio series (#148 “The Frightened Star”), which was broadcast on July 14, 1940 with a rebroadcast in October of 1943. She apparently spent the years of World War II and several years after in California. She returned to the New York/New Jersey area in 1950. Some sources have reported that around 1950, she managed composer/arrange Sy Oliver, with whom she worked briefly in Tommy Dorsey’s band in 1939.
Edythe married John T. Smith, probably after 1950, and probably in New Jersey. She and Smith had a son, who was born in approximately 1953. Smith died in June 1981.
During the 1950s she was apparently a Democratic Committee woman from Wall Township, New Jersey. According to her friend Rose Shiffman, she directed amateur theatricals at the Chadwick Beach Club in the early 1960s. Her residence at the end of her life was 10 Pershing Avenue in Manasquan, New Jersey. She died from pancreatic cancer at the Point Pleasant Hospital on October 27, 1965. She was survived by her husband and son, as well as three brothers and three sisters. She was 51 years old.
The Asbury Park Sunday Press June 24, 1962 reported that Edythe was working on her autobiography and that it was three-quarters finished.(2) I would love to know where that manuscript is now.
Edythe Wright was a spitfire. Her relationship with Tommy Dorsey was tempestuous. She was one of the few people, aside from Tommy’s brother Jimmy, to have knocked TD’s glasses off while slugging him. That incident was recounted to me by both Bud Freeman and Johnny Mince in 1986. (They were together with me on a park bench in Conneaut Lake Park in western Pennsylvania, and they remembered that tableau with glee. Mince recalled that Edythe socked Tommy with a left hook, because “she was a lefty.”)
The music: The summer of 1937 was when Tommy Dorsey began his emergence as a national mass media star. The bedrock upon which his popularity was based was his weekly NBC network radio show, sponsored by Raleigh and Kool cigarettes. After two thirteen-week cycles (starting in late 1936) of that show being headlined by veteran comedian Jack Pearl, the show’s sponsor recognized that the show’s popularity, especially with younger people, was tied to Tommy Dorsey’s music, not Pearl’s somewhat creaky comedy routines. Consequently, Pearl was eased out, and TD had the show to himself.
To keep things fresh, Tommy needed a constant stream of new music, and a gimmick every now and then that would keep his radio audience interested. His use of the “amateur swing contest” concept is explored elsewhere on this blog.(3) But the core of TD’s success on radio was always his presentation of a wide variety of music. His big band was the major musical feature of the show, including his very popular male and female singers, Jack Leonard and Edythe Wright. But there were also many performances by band-within-the-band, the Clambake Seven, with and without Jack and Edythe. Tommy also shrewdly recorded for Victor many of the tunes he was featuring on his radio show, and the popularity of his records was reinforced by what he presented on his radio show, and vice-versa. Consequently, TD made and sold a large number of recordings in the late 1930s for Victor. By 1939, he was one of Victor’s best selling artists, with his record sales exceeding those of Benny Goodman. This was something that the ultra-competitive TD reveled in. (Above left: Tommy Dorsey at Victor doing things his way.)
The Clambake Seven was as versatile as TD’s big band. They featured some straight-ahead swing, some novelty/comedy numbers, and some dreamy ballads, sung by Leonard or Wright. “You’re a Sweetheart” (4) is a great example of the latter. This performance is a perfect example of how Tommy elevated a good melody with superior musicianship on his part, a very good vocal by Ms. Wright, and a simple but effective minimalist framework for all of it.
The mood evoked by this recording is one of relaxed intimacy. Tommy plays his solos using a cup-mute. I am struck by the perfection of every aspect of TD’s playing on this recording, including his phrasing. It is on recordings like this where we hear how he advanced the art of trombone playing, starting in the late 1930s. Expressive, melodic trombone playing at this level of smooth virtuosity was virtually unknown before TD with the possible exception of the two Jacks – Jenney and Teagarden. Tommy set an incredibly high bar for the relatively few trombone virtuosos who followed and chose to work in this smooth-as-silk melodic realm. (See below for the great work of one of TD’s most distinguished musical heirs – Dick Nash.)
Edythe Wright’s understated singing, especially the way she gently and sensuously delivers the lyric while still swinging, is noteworthy.
I must also mention Tommy’s leadership on this recording. He is responsible for the simple but effective ensemble bits played by the members of the Clambake Seven, and for the use of shuffle rhythm on the tune’s bridge. Nothing is overdone, or underdone. Everything is in balance. (Above right: Edythe Wright and Tommy Dorsey smile as TD guitarist Carmen Mastren plays – late 1930s.)
“You’re a Sweetheart”
Composed by Jimmy McHugh (music) and Harold Adamson (lyric); Head arrangement by Tommy Dorsey, transcribed by Billy May.
Recorded by Billy May and His Swing Era Sidemen with Eileen Wilson for Capitol in Hollywood on February 10, 1972.
Billy May, directing: Dick Nash, solo trombone; Joe Graves, trumpet; Abe Most and Wilbur Schwartz, B-flat clarinets; Ray Sherman, piano; Jack Marshall. guitar; Morty Corb, bass; Nick Fatool, drums; Eileen Wilson, vocal.
The story: When Billy May made this recording in 1972 as a part of the massive series of swing era recordings sponsored by the Time-Life magazine corporation, he not only did what he did best, make arrangements and gather and conduct some of the best swing era musicians then working in the Hollywood recording studios to perform them, he had the benefit of a well-funded organization supporting his efforts at all levels. The project was guided overall by Capitol Records producer David D. Cavanaugh, with whom May had worked on countless Capitol recording sessions, starting in the 1940s. Cavanaugh’s assistant was Bill Miller (not the ex Red Norvo and Charlie Barnet pianist who was Frank Sinatra’s accompanist). May himself had assistants, most notably arranger Sammy Nestico, whom May helped to get established on the Hollywood music scene. Abe Siegal was the orchestra manager who secured the services of the musicians May wanted to use on any given tune. When it came to any Tommy Dorsey ballad performance, May asked Siegal to secure the services of trombone virtuoso Dick Nash, if he was available. If he was not available, the tunes to be recorded would be changed so that the ones that required Nash’s special touch would be saved until he was available. (Above left – in the Capitol Tower in Hollywood, early 1970s: Dick Nash warms up while Billy May and Eileen Wilson look on in approval.)
On this performance, the playing Nash had to do required that he play the melody perfectly, smoothly, and with a most gentle swing, just like Tommy Dorsey had done on the original. This is much easier said than done. Nash did it.
Vocalist Eileen Wilson was also very busy as a singer in the Los Angeles recording studios. Like the musicians she worked with, she could read anything at sight, and perform it very well with minimal rehearsal. She had a bright, strong voice, perfect intonation, and the ability to swing, when that was required. On this performance, all of those qualities are apparent. Where she deviates from Edythe Wright’s approach however is that she sings in a somewhat fuller voice than Ms. Wright had done. That different approach gives this recording a different perhaps slightly less intimate feel than the original. Nevertheless, it is a wonderful, musical, performance.
The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) Edythe’s mother married again to a man named Bradshaw, and had another child, Edythe’s half-brother Jack Bradshaw. By 1937, Edythe’s mother, her husband and Jack lived in Highland Park, New Jersey. This information comes from trumpeter Pee Wee Erwin’s book This Horn for Hire as told to Warren W. Vache’ (1987), 157.
(2) The facts for the outline of Edythe Wright’s life are derived from the Wikipedia post on her.
(4) “You’re a Sweetheart” was the title song for the 1937 Universal film You’re a Sweetheart, which starred Alice Faye and George Murphy.