I believe it was one of two dear departed friends, either Billy Melton or Preston Love Sr., who first told me about the International Sweethearts Rhythm and Helen Jones Woods. It's a story about race, culture, gender, music, and history coming full circle. I was taken with the story as soon as I heard it, and I've never lost my affection or fascination for it. This story was published in a monthly Omaha newspaper called the New Horizons that caters to the so-called senior population. I've long tried to get it published elsewhere in my hometown but to no avail. This is where the Web, courtesy this blog spot, allows me to share the story with a new audience.
Now Wasn’t That a Time?
Helen Jones Woods and The International Sweethearts of Rhythm
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons (2005)
Revised and updated for this blog
Back in the day, when big bands blew wild and made swing America’s most popular music and dance craze, touring orchestras tore it up at juke joints and dance halls across the land. At the height of swing, in the 1930s and ‘40s, the number and range of bands was astounding. There were the name bands of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Harry James, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey and many others. There were novelty bands, like the one led by Spike Jones, that played for laughs. There were the Latin-flavored bands of Xavier Cugat and Desi Arnaz. And then there were female bands that ran the gamut from Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears to Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Band.
Female performers have generally played second fiddle to their male counterparts. The one time they got a fair shake was World War II. The stock of women musicians and bands rose then as military service depleted the ranks of male artists. Girl bands flourished, but none compared to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a popular period band with strong Omaha connections. Taking the “international” of their name from the blend of ethnicities among their members, this jiving outfit laid down their hot licks on stage, record, radio and film.
The Sweethearts played gigs at jumping live music spots from coast to coast, touring every big city and little town in between. They shined at the Apollo Theater in New York and shared the stage with everyone from Basie to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to Earl “Father” Hines. On their Midwest tours, the band jammed at Omaha’s Dreamland Ballroom.
Omaha claims many ties to the Sweethearts, whose brief but event-filled run lasted from 1937 to 1947. It’s where their glamorous leader and vocalist, Anna Mae Winburn, once lived and fronted for the Lloyd Hunter band. It was the hometown of manager/chaperone Rae Lee Jones. And, it’s where Sweethearts lead trombonist Helen Jones Woods (no relation to Rae Lee) lived from the early 1950s until a couple years ago. Images of the Sweethearts are included in a photo exhibition at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center at 2510 North 24th Street in Omaha.
The Sweethearts achieved fame in their short life -- small wonder, given their unusual composition and origins. For openers, there’s the story of how this interracial band got its humble start in the heart of Jim Crow before bolting for the bright lights and big cities. The man who formed the band, the late educator Laurence C. Jones, was founder and head master of the strict vocational institution Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi. He dedicated his life to Piney Woods, a still active foster home for poor black children from broken homes.
Helen was given up as a baby by her mixed parents and brought to the school, the only home she ever knew. She was later adopted by Jones and his wife. Never feeling fully accepted, she found solace in the band, which became her surrogate family. Made up exclusively at first of young urchins and orphans from the school, band members had few prospects outside Piney Woods other than the domestic-service jobs they toiled in.
As Helen said, “We were just glad to get away from the school.” The band was formed as a social experiment by Laurence Jones, who felt the group gave the girls another outlet, showcased minorities in a positive light and proved that racial harmony was achievable. His idea for the band was inspired by seeing Ina Ray Hutton’s Melodears play in Chicago and by hearing Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Band on the radio. He also used the band as a public relations/fund raising tool for the school. The monies collected from their early paid performances supported the fledgling facility as much as they covered the girls’ tuition and room and board.
To create the group, Jones picked promising members of the school’s all-girl marching band and turned them over to a veteran musician to learn syncopation.
The band began by playing at school gymnasiums and small dance halls. “We traveled around just in Mississippi for quite a little while,” said Helen, an original member who was just 14 at the start. “As the band got better, we traveled more and more and we ventured out and played better places.” Soon, black newspapers like the Chicago Defender championed them.
The Sweethearts made a big impression wherever they went. And why not? They were an attractive troupe of nicely-coiffered, well-mannered young “colored” girls who not only looked great but could flat out play. The majority of original band members were untrained, but over the years their ranks grew to include well-schooled musicians from outside Piney Woods. In their heyday, they featured some top-flight players and some of the music industry’s finest arrangers.
Then there’s the fact the Sweethearts were integrated at a time when segregation ruled. Comprised mainly of African-Americans, their members also included Latinas, a Chinese, an Indian and Caucasians, all of which gave the Sweethearts an exotic charm that was played up in publicity stills and posters. Diversity also made traveling, especially in the South, difficult and dangerous in an era when few lodging-eating places were integrated. Down South, white members wore black face as a hedge against harassment. To avoid further hassles, the band usually stayed overnight aboard their sleeper bus, Big Bertha, or in black hotels.
As the band added older musicians, playing for peanuts at small venues became less palatable, particularly when the school raked in all the fruits of their labor. Exposed to new places and better lifestyles, members felt exploited. The band also attracted sponsors who saw the potential to cash in on their discontent. Convinced to strike out on their own and take a stab at the big time, the band’s 17 original members “ran away” en masse to Arlington, Va., to become a full-time professional orchestra independent of the school. It was 1941. Helen was 17.
Aided by their backers, the Sweethearts took up residence at a brick home in Arlington dubbed “Sweetheart House.” Meanwhile, school officials outraged by the rebellion, which made headlines, tried securing the return of their wards. Helen stood fast. “My father was very much upset, but he didn’t say anything about me coming back. He sent his sister Nellie to bring us to Piney Woods, and she just said, ‘It would be wise if you came home, Helen.’ And I said, ‘No, I want to stay with the band.’ I was glad to stay with the group because I felt more comfortable with them than I did being at Piney Woods. I didn’t know what future I would have there.”
Helen said a strong camaraderie existed among members. “We all got along. You must remember, most of us were out in the world and had nobody but each other in the band. We began to bond like a bunch of sisters. We all needed each other. So, therefore, we had to get along.” Going back home wasn’t an option anyway. Some had no home but for the school. Those that did had little to return to.
“In those days, going back to a home in Mississippi didn’t amount to much once you’d gotten out and seen better things,” she said. “And we were blessed to have seen better things. Where we all came from we didn’t have electricity and indoor plumbing and all those things.” Besides, she said, the band “was the way we made our living. It kept us from having to be a cook or a dish washer. It showed us an exciting time beyond the same old dull life. So, it was a pleasant change. Plus, we got a chance to see the world. That was our reward. It wasn’t money, because we certainly didn’t see any.”
Despite the Piney Woods rift, success came fast for the Sweethearts, who proved they were more than a curio act or shill for the school. “They were a heckuva band. Some of those cats could blow. Enough to make the guys take notice,” said the late Paul Allen, a longtime Omaha club owner. As word spread of their ability, the Sweethearts became a hot booking on the night club and after hours circuit.
Actually, the band enjoyed a national reputation before ever cutting strings with Piney Woods. These darlings of the black press set box office records at an impressive roster of venues. By 1940, they’d already appeared at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. and competed in a school band contest at the New York World’s Fair. Seeing the sights in the big cities was a thrill. “I think the thing that really excited us was the first time we went to Washington, D.C. and to New York,” Helen said, “because we were just a bunch of country girls and these things, you know, you only read about in history books.”
After severing ties with the school, they worked hard preparing for their major coming out party at the Apollo Theatre, the mecca for black artists. “When we first left Piney Woods we spent two or three months just rehearsing so that when we got ready to be presented, the band sounded really good,” said Helen.
Their engagement at the Apollo, where lousy acts got hooted off stage, was a hit. “The first time we played the Apollo Theatre there were lines all the way around the block. We were amazed to think we’d come that far,” she said. Their “show stopper” was a rendition of W. C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues. Handy himself came to hear them and met them back stage. For their debut, the Sweethearts worked with comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley and tap dancer Peg Leg Bates. From that auspicious start, the band played the Apollo twice a year.
The Piney Woods girls were used to hard work and close supervision and that discipline was used by arrangers like Eddie Durham to sharpen their precise arrangements. The Sweethearts also developed a sense of style and showmanship -- from Winburn’s elegant manners and gowns to members’ high spirits and beguiling smiles. Always well-turned out, their smart ensembles epitomized class.
Unusual for a women’s band then, the Sweethearts cut recordings for RCA Victor and Guild Records. They also appeared in short films -- called soundies -- that were that pre-TV era’s music videos. Soundies were viewed on Panorams, a jukebox-with a screen popular at bars, diners and drug stores. The band also took part in gimmicks pitting them in staged “Battle of the Sexes” with male groups. “At that time, money was scarce and the more you offered people the more you got them to come,” Helen said.
Just as the band’s success made it easy to attract new blood into the group, it led other bands to steal away talent. There were bigger problems. When still a school band, the girls spent far more time playing and traveling than studying, which hurt their formal education. Even after breaking away from Piney Woods and adding non-students, players were expected to follow rigid rules. Some balked at the early curfews and the ban on fraternizing with the opposite sex. “The ones that did not adhere to following the orders would leave” -- voluntarily or not, said Helen.
Then, as many Sweethearts have described, the band’s crooked sponsors made empty promises and pilfered their already meager earnings. “They promised us everything, but we never got anything. In fact, they stole everything from us. Most of us were left with nothing,” said Helen, whose $3,000 in savings were spent by manager Rae Lee Jones. Despite the betrayal, Helen later moved to Omaha to help care for the ailing Jones. After she died, Helen stayed on here.
During the war the band became a favorite with servicemen via broadcasts on Armed Forces Radio’s Jubilee Programs. The group was requested, by popular demand, to join an overseas USO tour. In their crisp dress WAC uniforms, the Sweethearts played for appreciative, mostly black troops in France and Germany. Everywhere they went in bombed-out Germany, Helen said, the band drew stares from natives fascinated by these women of color. For their camp shows, the girls played on makeshift stages before troops sprawled out on open fields. Helen recalls one show being interrupted by an officer. “He walked up and said, ‘Stop the music. I have an announcement to make. Japan has surrendered.’ That was the end of our concert, because everybody started hollering” and celebrating.
The Sweethearts “came apart” shortly after returning from their rousing USO tour. The girls had matured into women. They wanted to get on with their lives. Some left to marry and have kids. Others to reunite with families they’d been long separated from. And still others to continue making music, including a few -- like Mary Lou Williams, Vi Burnside and Carline Ray -- who went on to individual fame.
Helen met and married her late husband, William Alfred Woods, in his native Tennessee and made a life with him in Omaha, where they raised four children. She played a while with Cliff Dudley’s Band before becoming a nurse and social worker. Her husband became Creighton University’s first black accounting grad. The couple were active in the De Porres Club, an Omaha civil rights group, and in St. Benedict’s Church. Their daughter Catherine Liggins Hughes went on to found the Radio One network, which she heads today with her son Alfred Liggins Hughes.
Attempts to re-form the band fizzled and the Sweethearts faded away like their contemporaries. They were destined to be a lost chapter in jazz history until 1980, when the Women’s Jazz Festival in Kansas City, Mo. recognized them. The event, which Helen attended and called “wonderful,” brought many Sweethearts back for a reunion celebration that sparked interest from authors, journalists, musicians and filmmakers. Since then, their story’s been retold and their music revived.
Recently, the New York-based all-women Kit McClure Band has released a tribute CD, The Sweethearts Project, that faithfully performs the Sweethearts’ music. To ensure authenticity, the Sweethearts’ original charts were transcribed from recordings and band leader McClure recruited Sweetheart Carline Ray to sing and play guitar on a couple of the tracks. A new McClure Band CD, The Sweethearts Revisited, reharmonizes the earlier group’s musical themes.
It’s a homage of the highest order and an ironic one, too, since women musicians were seldom taken seriously. As Helen said, “Some thought we did very good -- for being women. Others thought we were just cute. They wanted to date us.” Articles often discussed the band’s looks more than their music. Now, 60 years later, major jazz figures respect what the Sweethearts did. Their achievements are documented in books by D. Antoinette Handy, Marian McPartland and Sherrie Tucker. The McClure Band’s tributes acknowledge the debt that today’s women musicians owe the Sweethearts for paving the way.
McClure said of all the women bands, “it was the Sweethearts’ music that caught my imagination the most. It’s dazzling. And in trying to play it, we found it’s very, very challenging. Their tempos were really, really fast. Their precision is incredible. They must of had a lot of rehearsal time. And they had a lot of talent and so much energy. When we sat down to try and play it, we all said, ‘Oooh, these women really had it going on.’ We had to step up to the plate to try to fill their shoes.”
For McClure, the Sweethearts are both “pioneers and an inspiration. The band really gave women a chance to have a voice in the music. I feel it is so important we have some women role models that went before us who had great bands and who were great musicians,” she said. “That’s the difference I hope our CDs make. That maybe finally we can get into the school systems with this music and the kids can learn the Sweethearts’ music like they learn Ellington’s and Basie’s. And maybe young girls will come up believing they can go into jazz. Things haven’t changed much since the ‘40s. It’s very difficult for even wonderfully talented women to be accepted in the major bands. Unless these women are recognized in jazz history, it’s going to take longer to change the face and gender of jazz.”
This renaissance is sweet for Omaha’s own Sweetheart, Helen Jones Woods. She’s been interviewed by jazz pianist/author Marian McPartland and award-winning film documentarian Ken Burns, whose segment on the Sweethearts didn’t make the final cut of his jazz opus. She said it was “a proud thing” when a framed portrait of the group was displayed at the Loves Jazz & Cultural Arts Center in north Omaha -- a stone’s throw away from the group’s old 24th Street haunt, the Dreamland.
While appreciating their rediscovery, her homespun humility downplays any notion they were “all that.” McClure insists it was the music that had crowds queuing up to see them. Helen isn’t so sure. “I didn’t know whether it was to see the girls or to hear the music,” she said. “I have a serious feeling the music was secondary. People wanted to see a bunch of good looking black girls together who were clean and neat. A lot of the women entertainers were shake dancers and partiers and all that, where we weren’t allowed to. That wholesome image was really our selling point, because I don’t think people said we were the greatest thing since snuff.”
McClure “respectfully disagrees,” saying Helen and her mates had some serious chops as musicians. “I know she does downplay her ability, but I’m sorry, that trombone section was slammin’,” she said. “My hat is totally off to Helen Jones, because she was just a wonderful, funky musician. The whole band was funky, but that trombone section stood out.”
For Helen, her time with the Sweethearts wasn’t so much about the music or the history they made, as it was the experience it afforded. “I am one of the most blessed people in the world to have come up out of those conditions in the South and to be with the band, which gave me a chance to see every state and different countries and the privilege to meet some of the great old musicians. I’m just grateful for the opportunity.”
One of only a few surviving Sweethearts, Helen filled her days working with kids at Skinner Magnet Center in Omaha, until moving in with her daughter Cathy back East. Helen long thought about writing a book on her life, but never quite got started. If a book ever were to be written about her poignant Sweethearts journey, it would be a page-turner filled with sweet nostalgia for that chapter in her life. Now wasn’t that a time?