By Robin Miller, The New Orleans Advocate
Chica Boswell Jones charged her daughter, Kyla Titus, with one task.
“Bring the sisters home,” she said.
Jones was the daughter of Helvetia Boswell, better known as Vet in the lineup of the Boswell Sisters trio that included Martha and Connee.
The Andrews Sisters’ Maxine Andrews once said they were the first to vocally harmonize jazz.
And speaking of the Andrews Sisters, they were only Boswell emulators.
The Boswell Sisters were the first of the close harmony trios, and their sound came from New Orleans.
And now with The Historic New Orleans Collection’s exhibit, “Shout, Sister, Shout! The Boswell Sisters of New Orleans,” they’ve returned home. The show runs through Oct. 26 in the collection’s main gallery at 533 Royal St.
“I did as my mother asked,” Titus says. “I brought the sisters home.”
The exhibit celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Boswell family’s arrival in New Orleans.
They lived on Camp Street Uptown and were classically trained in music by cellist Otto Finck, an orchestra member at the French Opera House that once stood on Bourbon Street.
“They were exposed to all of New Orleans’ music,” Titus says. “Their mother even brought them to the Lyric Theatre to listen to African-American musicians.”
The sisters’ musical style eventually morphed from classical to jazz, and they started traveling the vaudeville circuit. Records and movie appearances would come later.
“And they did it in close harmony,” Titus says.
Close harmony is an arrangement of the notes of chords within a narrow range. The notes are usually within the same octave.
“That was difficult to do,” Titus continues “There was no technological equipment to enhance their voices like they have today. They did it themselves, and it was during the 1920s and ’30s. Their harmony made people feel good during the Great Depression, one of the worst times in our country’s history.”
Titus has proof of this. She’s writing a book about her grandmother and aunts, and she’s received letters from Boswell admirers worldwide.
“A man from Australia sent a letter about how the Boswell Sisters’ music gave him hope during the Great Depression,” Titus says. “That really says a lot.”
Titus will attend the exhibit’s opening reception on Tuesday, March 25. She’ll return for the collection’s 15th annual Bill Russell Lecture on Thursday, April 10, which also will feature a performance by the close harmony trio, the Pfister Sisters
“The show includes photography, memorabilia, programs and musical instruments that they played,” says Mark Cave, senior curator and oral historian. “We even have an old radio that belonged to the family, a steamer trunk the sisters used on tour and Connee Boswell’s wheelchair.”
The Boswell Museum in East Springfield, N.Y., donated its artifacts to The Historic New Orleans Collection after Chica Boswell’s death in 2010. She was the museum’s founder. Titus and museum board members then brought the sisters home.
“I’ve been working with Mark Cave for the past year on this exhibit,” Titus says. “We call this the Year of the Boswell Sisters’ Revival. There are three major things happening this year, beginning with the exhibit, then my book and the Joshua Tree’s public television documentary ‘The Boswell Sisters: Close Harmony’ in December.”
Martha was the oldest sister, born in 1905. Connee was born in 1907, and Vet in 1911. Their family lived in different locations in the country before their father landed a job at the Fleischmann’s yeast plant in New Orleans.
The sisters began making appearances at the Saenger, Orpheum and Palace theaters in New Orleans while in their teens and eventually struck out on a national vaudeville tour.
“This was a tour that usually didn’t include women,” Titus says. “I remember Connee saying, ‘What did they think we looked like? Ducks?’ They were always joking, and they loved to laugh. I called my grandmother Nana, and I once asked her, ‘Nana, why are you always laughing?” She quoted Abraham Lincoln, ‘If I don’t laugh, I’ll cry.’ ”
Titus never met her Aunt Martha, who died before Titus was born. But she knew her Aunt Connee well, and she was close to her grandmother.
“My mother and father divorced, so my mother and grandmother were the two closest people in my life,” she says. “We lived in Peekskill, N.Y., and my Aunt Connee had an apartment in Manhattan. We visited her often.”
Connee Boswell also had a solo career that was as successful as the close harmony with her sisters. But Connee had a drawback. Remember the wheelchair that’s going to be on display at the exhibition? Connee couldn’t walk.
“Some people speculate that she had polio,” Cave says. “But the family’s story is that she suffered a go-cart injury when she was a child.”
“The Boswell Sisters had small parts in movies, but never anything major,” Titus adds. “Connee was in a wheelchair, and a lot of directors didn’t know what to do with that.”
But that didn’t stop Connee Boswell’s influence as a singer. Ella Fitzgerald started out emulating her style, as did Bing Crosby. Frank Sinatra also credited Connee Boswell’s influence on fellow singers, and decades later, the Judds also would acknowledge her musical influence on their act.
“Her style wasn’t just about women soloists,” Titus says. “Men looked to her, too.”
Titus has so many other stories to tell, such as the time the sisters joined New Orleans trumpeters Louis and Leon Prima on a hayride tour through Louisiana after the 1927 flood. All proceeds from their tour stops benefitted flood victims.
There’s also the story of how Connee wanted to entertain troops with the USO overseas during World War II but wasn’t allowed because she was in a wheelchair.
“So, she went to hospitals and encouraged soldiers there,” Titus says.
This was after the trio disbanded in 1936. Titus speculates the cultural climate of the time contributed to the break-up.
“Women were still expected to abandon their careers when they got married,” she says. “They were raised as proper young ladies, but they were way ahead of their time. My grandmother kept her marriage secret for a year, and my aunt Martha had been married, had a child and divorced when she began in the act.”
Now the sisters are together again at home in The Historic New Orleans Collection.