Martha Tilton

Benny Goodman band singer


Martha Ellen Tilton, singer: born Corpus Christi, Texas 14 November 1915; married 1933 Dave Thomas (one son deceased; marriage dissolved), 1940 Leonard Vannerson (one son; marriage dissolved), 1953 Jim Brooks (one daughter); died Los Angeles 8 December 2006.

It might be regarded as bad luck to be starting your career at roughly the same time as the jazz singers Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald began theirs. But the competition didn't affect Martha Tilton at all, because she was playing in a different street. By comparison with the Rolls-Royce and Bentley of jazz singing, Tilton was a very reliable Ford Eight. Her singing was musicianly and she had good taste, as well as the good looks required of a girl who was going to stand in front of a band.

She was born in Texas in 1915, but, when she was a small child, her family moved to Los Angeles. Her father, who was a banker, prospered even though this was the time of the Depression.

The first well-known band that Tilton sang in was led by Jimmy Dorsey (her sister Liz sang with the Bob Crosby band). Leaving Dorsey after a few months, Martha Tilton had a role in the film Topper (1937) before joining a vocal group that sang on the Camel Caravan commercial radio broadcasts. It was here that the clarinettist and bandleader Benny Goodman heard her. He had had a string of unoriginal girl singers with the band and he was determined that in Tilton he had finally found the one he wanted.

Days after she had joined Goodman, she made the first of the 80 records she recorded with the band. Before she joined, only a third of their records included vocals. After she arrived, the proportion jumped to half. Most of her records with Goodman were straight readings of the pop songs of the day - efficient and well done, but with not much individuality. Goodman had to wait until 1941 before Peggy Lee, the greatest in the field, came along.

Tilton's place in history was assured when she appeared at Goodman's immortal concert at Carnegie Hall in New York on 16 January 1938 (she was the last surviving musician from the concert). This was the first time that jazz had broken into the hallowed classical auditorium and the echoes were to resound over the 20th century - cleaned-up editions of the concert continue to appear on CD to this day. Tilton sang the traditional Scottish song "Loch Lomond" and also "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön". In 1955 Hollywood tried to recreate the concert for the film The Benny Goodman Story, in which Tilton was shown singing her biggest hit, "And the Angels Sing", a song that wasn't written and recorded until a year after the concert had taken place.

She stayed with Goodman for almost two years during which time, she said, the band worked for 365 nights without a break. The volatile clarinettist often changed the men in his band for no good reason. There was a wave of sackings in 1939 and at the end of it Goodman told Tilton that, as long as the others were going, she might as well go too.

Tilton found work in Hollywood dubbing the singing voice of Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (1941). In various "B" movies, she sang for Helen Parrish in Where Did You Get That Girl? (1940), for Maria Montez in Mystery of Marie Roget (1942), Bowery to Broadway (1944), and South to Tahiti (1941). She did the same for Anne Gwynne in Moon Over Las Vegas (1944), Murder in the Blue Room (1944) and South of Dixie (1944), for Martha O'Driscoll in Crazy House (1943) and for Pamela Blake in Why Girls Leave Home (1945). She had on-screen roles in Sunny (1940), You'll Never Get Rich (1941), Swing Hostess (1944), Crime Inc (1945) and The Queen of the Stardust Ballroom (1975).

In radio she sang with Paul Whiteman before getting her own radio show with NBC in the early Forties. Much use was made of the tag "The Liltin' Miss Tilton" and the nickname stuck for the rest of her career.

Johnny Mercer had written the lyrics for Tilton's hit "And the Angels Sing". They became friends and in 1942 Tilton became the first artist to sign up with Mercer's then new record label, Capitol. Her solo career took off and in 1943 and 1944 she travelled with Jack Benny to perform for the troops. She left Capitol in 1949 and continued in radio with the shows fronted by Jack Benny and Bob Hope. Married, secondly, in 1953, to Jim Brooks, a test pilot, she gave up her full-time career on the birth of their daughter in 1955.

In the mid-Eighties, she toured Australia with a tribute to Benny Goodman package, returning to tour Australia and the United States in the middle Nineties with Horace Heidt's orchestra.

Steve Voce

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