Boswell, Connee (1907–1976)

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Boswell, Connee (1907–1976)

American jazz singer who performed with her sisters and whose tenure with the Dorsey Brothers' Band earned her great fame. Name variations: changed the spelling of her name to Connee when she went solo. Born Connie Boswell in New Orleans, Louisiana, on December 3, 1907; died in New York, New York, on October 11, 1976; married Harold Leedy (her manager), in 1935; crippled at the age of three, Boswell performed in a wheelchair with the Boswell Sisters, a vocal trio.

Connee Boswell and her sisters—Helvetia ("Vet") and Martha —grew up in a middle-class home where they listened to blues, spirituals, and opera; they consequently formed a trio called the Boswell Sisters. While Connee played the cello, piano, alto sax, and trombone, Martha played piano, and Vet the violin. All three sisters played in the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra before they began to concentrate on close-harmony singing; Connee did the group's vocal arrangements.

Winning local talent shows, the sisters eventually signed with the Dorsey Brothers' Band, secured recording contracts (Brunswick), and headlined radio shows. Connee, who had been crippled by polio in infancy, became increasingly featured because of her sense of timing and rhythmic phrasing. The polio, later aggravated by a fall, had left both legs paralyzed, and she sang from a wheelchair.

In 1935, due to her sisters' marriages, Connee embarked on a solo career, changing the spelling of her name from Connie to Connee. This new phase of her life was marked with difficulty. Producers who had only heard her on radio shows had no idea she was in a wheelchair. Boswell later noted how painful it was to be called in to audition: "As soon as they saw me in

a wheelchair they'd freeze. … But I said to my self, 'Connee, to get ahead, you've got to be better than the next fella. And if you've got a handicap, then you've simply got to be better than that.' So I really started working."

She often appeared on radio, was a frequent guest on "Bing Crosby & Kraft Music Hall," and entertained the troops during World War II. While touring, she used a custom built wheelchair that, when covered by her gown, gave the impression she was standing. Boswell also appeared in several movies, including Moulin Rouge, Artists and Models, Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round, The Big Broadcast of 1932, Syncopation, and Kiss the Boys Goodbye. One of many white musicians who brought black singing style increasingly into the mainstream, Boswell retired from touring in the 1950s but continued to appear as a featured guest on television in the 1960s. In the early 1970s, she was hospitalized with stomach cancer. After a series of operations, she gave her last performance with Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall (1975). She died the following year.