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Helen Forrest: 1918-1999
Helen Forrest

Born: April 12, 1918 in Atlantic City, New Jersey
Died: July 11, 1999 in Los Angeles, California

Star of the Big Band Era

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1999

Forrest, Helen Helen Forrest will always be associated with a string of wartime hits with the Harry James band which captured the spirit of the times in America. If her ability to evoke the loneliness of women left behind as their men went off to fight in poignant jazz-tinged pop ballads made the most powerful impact, she was equally adept at peppy, upbeat morale building material.

She was born Helen Fogel, and began performing while still a child on the New York City radio station WNEW. That exposure led to an engagement on CBS Radio, singing with the jazz trumpeter Bunny Berigan. Her real breakthrough arrived in 1938, when clarinetist Artie Shaw invited her to join his band. Shaw already had a singer, and not just any singer, but Billie Holiday was growing weary of the racial slights and humiliations involved in touring with a white band, and Shaw was under pressure from bookers to front his band with a white girl.

The two singers worked together in the band briefly, before Holiday quit and left the stage to the newcomer. White girl singers -- they were always described as "girls", regardless of age -- were de rigeur additions to the big bands of the swing era, but Forrest had genuine musical qualities which many of her contemporaries lacked, and her relaxed delivery and techncial accuracy endeared her to fans and musicians alike.

She enjoyed several hits with Shaw, including 'All The Things You Are', 'Any Old Time' and 'I'm in Love With the Honorable So and So', and acquired a great deal of experience in a short time on the road with this successful outfit. When Shaw temporarily disbanded the group in 1939, she moved to the even more stellar Benny Goodman band, where she enjoyed a string of further hits, and a typically fractious relationship with its leader, who was not noted for either tact or liking singers.

The hits included 'Taking A Chance On Love', 'The Man I Love' and 'More Than You Know', and she also made a notable breakthrough in 1940 when she broke with convention and recorded 'I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You' with the black bandleader Lionel Hampton.

She later declared that her 20 months with Goodman "felt like 20 years", and her disputes with the clarinetist finally came to a head during an engagement at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago in 1941, when she delivered an ultimatum to the bandleader that he should find himself a new singer, and do so fast. Goodman did just that, and Forrest moved on, to be replaced by the 19 year old Peggy Lee.

It was the prelude to her greatest success. She joined the band led by trumpeter Harry James, and their combination of her rich, warm, comforting voice with James's soaring trumpet (and often the addition of strings) struck a chord with the mood of the times that was not surpassed by any other American performers of the wartime era.

Their hits together included 'I've Heard That Song Before', 'I Don't Want to Walk Without You', 'He's 1-A In The Army And He's A-1 In My Heart', 'But Not For Me', 'Skylark', and the song which became her signature, 'I Had the Craziest Dream', a title she used when she published an autobiography in 1982.

Her relationship with James continued off the bandstand as well, but came to an abrupt end when the trumpeter met Betty Grable while all three were shooting the film Springtime In The Rockies (James later married the actress). Forrest left the band in 1944, and began singing duets with Dick Haymes, a pleasant but unremarkable crooner who had also featured with the James Band.

The duo lasted until 1948, and they secured several hits in that format, including 'It Had to Be You', 'I'll Buy That Dream', and 'I'm Always Chasing Rainbows', and also starred in a popular weekly radio show. Forrest had featured in several short films with Artie Shaw, and in cinema feature films with Harry James, including Private Buckaroo , in which she sang one of their biggest hits, 'You Made Me Love You', and also Bathing Beauty and Best Foot Forward .

The gradual winding down of the big band era left her somewhat stranded, and she was never able to turn that big band background into a successful solo career in the manner of an Ella Fitzgerald or her replacement in the Goodman band, Peggy Lee.

She played the cabaret club circuit for a time in the 1950s, and made intermittant reappearances in the subsequent decades for nostalgic reunion tours, including a show with Harry James and Dick Haymes as The Big Broadcast of 1944 , and occasional recordings, the last of which was released in 1983.

Rheumatoid arthritis eventually obliged her to give up singing entirely. She died of heart failure at the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital in Los Angeles. She was married and divorced three times, and is survived by her only son, Michael Feinman.

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With 5 reader comments, latest May 15, 2010