The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was a racially mixed sixteen-piece all-women Swing orchestra. The word ‘International’ denoted its diverse ethnic makeup, including African American, Latin, Asian, Jewish, Hawaiian, White and Native American women. It was a formidable competitor to the all-male bands and the most skilled of about 100 all-women orchestras of WWII.
As the orchestra matured and toured nationally, the band attracted professionals. It had excellent improvising musicians executing evocative solos, precision section-work and lively head arrangements. This was the band that forced skeptics to admit that women could play hard-swinging Jazz and hot music, just like the guys.
In battles-of-the-bands they performed opposite Jimmy Dorsey and once bested the popular Erskine Hawkins Orchestra. On tour they shattered box office records in Detroit, Chicago, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Atlantic City, Miami and once performed for 11,000 in Kansas City.
Despite extensive touring and coverage by the black-owned press, International Sweethearts of Rhythm remained almost completely unknown to white audiences. After the war the ensemble had some success but succumbed to shifting musical tastes, departure of key personnel and the fatigue of years on the road.
Piney Woods School Origins
The oechestra emerged from Piney Woods Country Life School, an educational institution for poor, minority and orphaned youth founded by Laurence Clifton Jones, twenty miles South of Jackson, Mississippi in 1910. The school sponsored a forty-piece brass band and hundred-voice choir as source of income. The Swing Band developed around 1937 playing for local dances and football games and became popular touring regionally.
The Christian-oriented co-educational school offered a full spectrum of training, from typing to carpentry – and still does. The administration took music education seriously but separated the genders, backing more than one all-male Swing band.
It was longstanding tradition in the Southern US for schools, orphanages and colleges to generate income and goodwill via music ensembles. For instance, the Bama State Collegians swing band was affiliated with the Alabama State Teachers College. It became very popular at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem and on records. When their leader penned the hit song “Tuxedo Junction” in 1938, it reorganized as the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra.
In May 1941 the International Sweethearts of Rhythm broke free from Piney Woods School under the leadership of Rae Lee Jones (no relation). With financial backers Jones “stole the band” according to some. The group moved to a ten room collectively-owned home in Arlington, Virginia where they lived and rehearsed.
The Sweethearts transportation culminated in a massive “Hi-way Pullman” trailer and caravan sleeping twenty-two.
The musicians traveled in a series of live-in buses. Amenities like onboard electricity, plumbing and a kitchenette alleviated restricted access to lodging and public facilities frequently encountered in the Jim Crow South justifying the astounding expenditure of $15,000.
The interior appointments and carpentry of the Hi-way Pullman were custom installed by students at Piney Woods School.
A Highly Rated Orchestra, 1942-45
In late 1942, they shattered the box office records of Louis Armstrong and Count Basie in Chicago at the Regal Theater. They broke attendance records in Atlantic City, Cincinnati, Miami and at the Plantation Club in Los Angeles
Becoming a stand-alone headliner, they performed opposite Jimmy Dorsey and held their own in battles-of-the-bands attended by up to 10,000. They eventually toured 39 states playing a circuit of theaters, conventions, college dances, night clubs, armories, dance halls and all-day outdoor frolics.
The Sweethearts began segueing onto domestic USO stages and recorded for Armed Forces Radio in Los Angeles. They made brief excursions into Mexico and Canada, further justifying the moniker ‘International.’
Photos: Anna Mae Winburn
During one grueling stretch they were booked for sixty back-to-back ‘one-nighters’ through Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, playing for 4,000 in Memphis, Tennessee. Almost all of the surviving audio by the International Sweethearts of Rhythm originated with the Armed Forces Radio Service. The orchestra made high-spirited appearances in 1944-45 on the program “Jubilee,” which was aimed at entertaining African American troops. Constituting 90% of the surviving audio AFRS performances were recorded in Los Angeles and Paris, the latter on the second day of the ETO tour.
Jubilee #82, June 15, 1944, probably AFRS studio Los Angeles, CA Almost all surviving audio by The International Sweethearts of Rhythm originated with the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) program “Jubilee” aimed at entertaining African American troops.
Jubilee was hosted by comedic actor Ernie “Bubbles” Whitman whose over-the-top delivery is packed with jivey puns, copious alliteration and self-deprecating ‘fat jokes.’ Listen for the ongoing comic routine swapping the word “Eelibuj” for “Jubilee.”
Viola “Vi” Burnside was the heart and soul of the orchestra. After 1944, her muscular tenor saxophone voice was a support structural element. Drummer Pauline Braddy takes a muscular drum solo on “Oh, Lady Be Good” as the frantic pace reaches exceeds 285 bpm.
At 7:45, trumpeter Jean Starr has a comic bit with the host. She was an independent professional musician who cycled through the orchestra more than once.
Listen for the exciting closing “One O’clock Jump” when several of the Sweethearts join the studio band riffing on a wild out-chorus. Eddie Durham was music director for two years and handed them the Basie chart for One O’clock and the Sweethearts honed a rendition equal to the best name bands.
A series of noteworthy (male) professionals were hired as music directors and arrangers imparting polish, professionalism and panache. The first of three was arranger and composer Eddie Durham.
Eddie Durham had done similar arranging and directing for the Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and Ida Ray Hutton orchestras. The choreographed horn-waving, for instance, was his innovation. He wrote forward-leaning state-of-the-art Swing charts.
During two stints in 1941-42, he was deeply impressed by their dedication, motivation and discipline: “We started at ten in the morning and quit at nine at night.” He admired their excellent stage presentation, dramatic lighting effects and seven sets of stage gowns.
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm held a strong allegiance to the Count Basie sound, possibly a result of Durham’s coaching and arranging. But he left twice in protest because the musicians were underpaid, getting only $32/week, about half of union scale. Durham ran his own wartime “All-Girl” ensembles before and after his engagement with the Sweethearts.
Jesse Stone was a veteran Kansas City impresario and arranger.
Jesse Stone served as music director during 1942-43. A towering figure in the Southwestern Swing territories, he pioneered Jazz on the radio in the Midwest.
Like Durham, he wrote music for the orchestra that carefully blended the more professional players with the less professional ones and charts offering riffs and repeated passages for head arrangements to emerge. And like Durham, Stone too eventually departed because owner-manager Rae Lee Jones refused to properly pay her employees.
Jesse Stone later became a noteworthy figure in Rhythm & Blues and early Rock music, mentoring Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, Laverne Baker and his songs were recorded by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bill Haley. In the 1960s he was married to former Sweethearts singer Evelyn McGhee (then playing drums) and they partnered in a musical act.
Maurice King succeeded Stone in 1944. Well-liked, a good teacher and arranger, he served as music director until 1948.
Maurice King, left. Tiny Davis, far right, 1945.
Touring the ETO for USO, 1945-46
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm toured the European Theater of Operations (ETO) for the USO (United Service Organizations) departing the USA on July 15, 1945 barely two months after VE-Day, returning in January 1946. They gave concerts for GIs in Paris broadcast on Armed Forces Radio and entertained troops across occupied Germany.
Typically giving two performances daily six days a week, The Sweethearts received an overwhelming response. The tour’s high point was probably the Karlsruhe Germany Concert House show for the 334th Infantry Division. The program is worth noting because once a USO show was approved by military censors it had to remain fixed unless modified by written re-submission.
The orchestra opened with their theme song “Fascination,” playing “Limehouse Blues,” “Eager Beaver” and “Confession.” Roz Cron sang “Love Will Live Forever.” Featured artists were vocalist Evelyn McGee, a tenor saxophone solo by Vi Burnside, the black-lit “Drums Fantasy” of Pauline Braddy and a vocal harmony quartet including Braddy and Winburn. The show-stopping climax featured the rowdy singer and trumpeter, “Tiny Davis – 245 lbs. of Solid Jive and Rhythm.”
Tiny Davis sings and plays.
The Sweethearts may have been wearing khakis, but they were living high during the USO tour. Wong served as band treasurer and “reporter,” mailing correspondence home: “we have a trio of GIs assigned to us [driving the trucks and jeeps] to see that we are well cared for . . . We played the Olympia Theater in Paris and the program was broadcast. We get the best of everything . . . we live at the finest hotels. . . We don’t have to turn a hand.”
Photo: Roz Cron solos
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were among the very few non-White USO units entertaining the troops. Sadly, only a tiny percentage of Camp Show performers were African Americans or people of color, perhaps less than 3%. In fact, the Sweethearts Tour was a direct response to voluminous and sustained requests from the Black troops.
For six months the International Sweethearts of Rhythm toured the European Theater of Operations (ETO) for the USO (United Service Organizations) from July 1945 to January 1946 entertaining troops. They typically gave two performances daily six days a week receiving an overwhelming response.
A journalist described the jubilant reaction at the Seventh Army Recreation Center in Mannheim, Germany: “It was too much to ask the men to sit quietly to listen to the songs . . . So, the men simply got up from their seats and danced to their hearts content in the aisle. The theater was rocked in good old American fashion as it has never rocked before.”
Armed Forces Radio Service was an entertainment juggernaut. Entertaining the troops during WWII, AFRS produced 122 radio programs and eventually distributed some 8,000 discreet shows engraved on more than 120,000 radio transcription discs to 400 military radio stations around the globe.
“Tuxedo Junction” demonstrates their sophisticated control of dynamic and pacing, especially the coordinated fanning of hat mutes in the trombones. The chart for Honeysuckle Rose offers advanced state-of-the-art harmonic sophistication. Note the scorching pace often pushes past 280-284 bpm.
Pauline Braddy was drummer for the entire life of the orchestra, 1937-49. Her extended solos were integral to the act.
Besides the opening announcements, all material unrelated to the Sweethearts has been removed including Ethel Waters and Johnny Mercer. You may find these programs complete, where I acquired them, at the Internet Archive:
Further overseas excursions were hoped for but never realized. There was a 90-day coast-to-coast tour under the continued musical direction of Maurice King and they made some commercial discs.
But by 1946 the fatigue of years on the road had taken a toll. Vi Burnside departed to run her own combos, deflating band spirits. Other key members “aged out” or “married out,” concluding their music careers.
Nevertheless, noteworthy new personnel were hired, such as tenor saxophonist Geneva Perry and Julliard graduate Carline Ray. She later married bandleader Luis Russell and their daughter is the well-known singer, Catherine Russell.
Carline Ray was a guitarist and multi-instrumentalist with a full, low singing voice who played a significant role during 1946-47.
Self-taught jazz drummer Fagle Lieberman (or Liebman) signed up in 1947. A veteran of USO touring she had played for more than three years in the Ada Leonard All-American Girl Orchestra as had saxophonist Betty Rozner who also joined.
But larger post-war social and cultural trends doomed the orchestra. For one thing, almost every female-staffed ensemble failed by 1947. The touring dance bands in general declined due to changing musical tastes, rising costs and new suburban lifestyles.
Final dissolution came in Summer 1949 after the death of manager, Rae Lee Jones. Though she had proven a canny show business entrepreneur, Jones had consistently underpaid the musicians. Her dubious, or perhaps malfeasant financial management left neither the promised Social Security benefits nor equity in the Arlington home. Yet despite the raw deals, in later years former Sweethearts expressed only fondness for Rae Lee and Laurence C. Jones.
Band rehearsal, Germany 1945.
Several musicians continued as professionals.
Anna Mae Winburn ran her own combos and orchestras, sometimes billed as
the International Sweethearts. Tiny Davis made records and co-ran the
all-female Helldivers Band, touring Latin America for the U.S. State
Department and operating a Chicago nightclub for decades.
This and other female orchestras were poorly covered by the mainstream music press -- Metronome and Down Beat magazines. Their recordings went un-circulated for more than half a century. Exclusion of the International Sweethearts from Jazz History before 1980 has compounded the original prejudice against female-musicians playing Jazz, Swing and hot music.
Roz Cron continued a lifelong career in music saying, “It was a ball.” Drummer Pauline Braddy recalled, “We were a bunch of crazy kids. I never realized we were supposed to be famous until it was all over.”
Roz Cron reminisces.
International Sweethearts of Rhythm Timeline, 1937-49
1937-40 International Sweethearts of Rhythm emerges Establishes regional popularity as a local Swing band
1941-42 Independence from Piney Woods and move to Arlington, Virginia headquarters Initial debut at Howard Theater, Washington, D.C. in August 1941 Apollo Theater & Savoy Ballroom debuts in Harlem Anna Mae Winburn joins Touring in All-women revues Eddie Durham, arranger & music director
1943-44 Jesse Stone, arranger & music director Ongoing lawsuits & controversy regarding ownership of the ensemble Touring as a headliner coast-to-coast Excursions into Mexico and Canada
1944-46 Maurice King, arranger & music director Add Tiny Davis (trumpet & vocals), Vi Burnside (tenor sax), Roz Cron (alto sax) Recordings for Armed Forces Radio in Los Angeles & Paris European tour entertaining troops for the USO, July 1945 to January 1946
1946-48 Last 90-day domestic national tour Departure of Vi Burnside, Maurice King, Anna Mae Winburn and others Add tenor saxophone star, Geneva Perry. Add Julliard graduate, guitarist, vocalist & multi-instrumentalist Carline Ray Add drummer Fagle Lieberman & saxophonist Betty Rozner
1948-49 Death of business manager Rae Lee Jones Disbands Summer 1949
The Swinging Rays of Rhythm Understudy Band
The Swinging Rays of Rhythm was the understudy and training ‘farm team’ at Piney Woods School known informally as the ‘Junior Sweethearts of Rhythm.’ When the International Sweethearts broke away The Rays fulfilled their bookings. By mid 1941 the retooled band was generating $3000 per month.
The sixteen- or seventeen-piece Swinging Rays of Rhythm caused quite a stir in Nebraska, Ohio, Illinois, Kansas, in Oklahoma City and at the Dallas State Fair. The Chicago Defender rated it the sixteenth most popular dance orchestra, the only all-female ensemble in the ranking.
They were soon playing USO-Shows. The Rays traveled to New Orleans for a personal audience with Ella Fitzgerald. In September 1942 they were coached by bandleader Earl “Fatha” Hines who also ran his own ‘all-girl’ bands.
There are no surviving recordings, so we can only assume the ensemble was similar to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and probably one of its closest competitors. But they would have lacked the assertive soloists, polish and tight unity that the senior group had gained by years of intensive performing.
After 1953, Myrtle Young, a former member of these and other ensembles, launched and maintained a latter-day Rays of Rhythm in the Pittsburg area. It was one of several all-women combos reemerging in the 1950s staffed by musicians from the wartime orchestras.
Earl "Fatha" Hines with the Swinging Rays of Rhythm.
Sources and Summaries
Their perennial exclusion from the hot music chronicles indicts for malpractice the mostly-male endeavor of Jazz History. It’s no accident that all the books about this orchestra and their cohort were written by women after the early 1980s.
The definitive doctoral-level research by D. Antoinette Handy in The International Sweethearts of Rhythm (1983) offers the most complete narrative. The comprehensive 258-page book includes a bibliography, appendices, footnotes, index and photos. Her research probed the documentary record and contemporaneous black-owned press. Handy conducted extensive interviews and corresponded with former members, concluding:
"This group of youngsters who enrolled at Piney Woods Country Life School only a few years earlier with no more than the desire to get a basic education and learn a trade . . . were now participating in popularity contests with such jazz stalwarts as Duke Ellington and Count Basie."
Sherrie Tucker’s landmark book, Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s (2000) digs deep. She interviewed and came to know many of the musicians well, conveying a personal touch. But profiling this and similar ensembles, Tucker seems preoccupied with reconciling their unconventional gender, racial and cultural roles with pre-feminist and Jim Crow America.
The Girls in the Band (2011) is an excellent video documentary blending historical imagery, music and interviews celebrating the panoply of all-women ensembles.
American Women in Jazz: 1900 to the Present (1982) by Sally Placksin provides a clear view of the orchestra. One of the best books on the subject, her excellent narratives draw vivid details from oral histories and interviews.
Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen (1984) by Linda Dahl is a deft summary of the topic and the orchestra. She commends the “deeply swinging quality of their music and the clean, even work of the sections (and, Vi Burnside’s tenor drive) . . . thanks to years of playing experience, the band achieved a polished sound and became known for its tight section work and rhythmic bounce.”