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Top Swing Era SongstressCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1998
Ward, HelenHelen Ward enjoyed a period of national and international renown as a singer with the first of the commercially successful white swing bands of the 1930s, led by clarinetist Benny Goodman. She was a member of his first important band from 1934 until 1936, and worked with him again on several occasions after the war.
Ward was taught piano as a child by her father, and took up singing as a teenager, working in a duo with the songwriter and pianist Burton Lane, whom she met because his aunt played bridge with her mother. The exposure brought her to the notice of a number of bandleaders around New York, and she established a considerable local reputation with various 'sweet' bands of the day, including Roxanne's Orchestra, which had its own radio show on station WOR.
Radio exposure was paramount in establishing successful bands at that time, and she was the better known name of the two when she first linked up with Goodman on another important radio show, Let's Dance, hosted by the NBC network. When the clarinetist formed his first regular band for the show, he persuaded Ward to join him.
She was one of the first such 'girl singers' (as they were always known, regardless of age) to make a real popular impact with the swing bands. Her unaffected vocal style and supple swing proved vital to the band's initial success, and she was also something of a sex symbol for the college students which provided the central core of the band's audience. Her untrained style, while technically deficient in some respects, was highly assured, and that kind of "natural" voice -- which would dominate pop music in the ensuing decades -- was just becoming fashionable at that period.
The Let's Dance engagement, which began in December, 1934, lasted until May, 1935, but Ward remained with the band until 1936. She recorded several times with Goodman, including "Goody Goody", a fine example of her exhuberant swing style, and the million-selling "These Foolish Things". These two very productive years established her professional reputation.
When she left the Goodman band to marry her second husband, however, she turned her back on the gruelling road trips which were the lot of the touring swing bands. It is perhaps an indication of her impact that she remained the best known of all Goodman's girl singers, even though she left the band before the period of its greatest success, and Goodman found her difficult to replace, settling eventually for Martha Tilton, a singer who took her style very directly from Ward.
In his book Jazz Singing, Will Friedwald notes that "by virtue of the role she played in the Goodman success story, Ward became the model for virtually all mid-thirties canaries; her exhuberant, toe-tapping approach affecting not only her successors and counterparts in other bands, but even those who had come before her, like Duke Ellington's Ivie Anderson."
After leaving Goodman, she opted to work only in the studios, and usually as a favour to help out other former members of the Goodman band. She made records with a number of important former Goodman-ites in the five years between 1937 and 1942, including Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson (where she stood in for Billie Holiday), Bob Crosby, Joe Sullivan and Harry James. She returned to performing again with a band led by Hal McIntyre in 1943, and recorded with Red Norvo in that year, and with Harry James again, probably in 1944.
After the war, she again went into a kind of semi-retirement from singing, and worked as a radio producer for a time in 1946-7 for station WMGM in New York. She alternated long periods away from music with recording and occasional touring engagements. She recorded with cornetist Wild Bill Davidson in 1952, and the following year re-joined Goodman for both recording and touring work, and also recorded with him again in 1957 and 1958.
She worked with another clarinetist, Peanuts Hucko, in 1957-8, but had retired from public view by the end of the decade, and did not re-emerge until 1979, when, after a long period of inactivity, she resumed a singing career in the New York clubs, and released an album, The Helen Ward Song Book, in 1981, adding an unexpected postscript to a career which most observers had presumed finished.