Obituary: Helen Ward

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The Independent Online
MORE so than most of the people who worked for him, Helen Ward was inextricably associated with the clarinettist Benny Goodman. She never tried to break the association and their friendship lasted until his death.

It was not without its stark moments. Goodman was absorbed in his music to such an extent that there was no room for ephemera in his mind. To him, Helen was "Pops". But then he never troubled to remember names and he addressed everybody, including his wife and children, by the same all- purpose sobriquet.

Helen Ward had to put up with a lot from Goodman. For most of the time he was totally unable to consider the welfare of others, being possessed of self-interest in the ultimate degree.

On one occasion in October 1958 Ward and the pianist Andre Previn went to Goodman's home to rehearse for a recording session. There were difficulties with the music and finally Ward said, "Benny, you know what the trouble is? It's just horribly cold in here."

"You know," said Benny, "you're absolutely right." He left the room and returned wearing a thick woollen sweater and went on with the rehearsal.

Helen Ward, although only 18, had been singing professionally for two years when she first encountered Goodman in 1934. She was already quite well known and didn't intend to join his newly formed band as a full-time singer when she auditioned for him. However, the impresario Billy Rose heard the audition and booked the band with Ward for his weekly Let's Dance broadcasts with NBC. It was the beginning of the swing era and of the Goodman legend.

Ward was a musical singer who could swing more convincingly than most of the girl singers of the day. Attractive to look at, she became a sex symbol for male teenagers, but it was for her sensitive and well-judged vocal style for which she will be remembered. She was ideally suited to the big band setting provided for her and was popular with Goodman's musicians who included rising stars like the trumpeter Harry James and the drummer Gene Krupa.

Goodman, a virtuoso among virtuosi in his band, picked on all of them from time to time, including the notably amiable Krupa.

"Benny was not too great at kicking off tempos," Ward recalled. "He would occasionally start a tune too slow or too fast, and Gene would try to settle into whatever the time was actually supposed to be. That got to Benny after a while."

In the summer of 1936 the Goodman band returned on tour to California where it had first achieved fame. Ward had sporadic affairs with Goodman and during the trip she was in a coffee house discussing their future with a boyfriend when Goodman came in and sat at their table. He turned to the boyfriend and said, "You know, I'm going to marry this girl." "It was completely out of left field," said Ward. "Yes, I was in love with him from the first time I heard him play and he knew it. But by now I had almost put Benny out of my head as far as marriage or anything serious was concerned, and I couldn't imagine what brought this on. My boyfriend took me home, we kissed and he left. Five minutes later the doorbell rang and it was Benny. He said, `I want to marry you,' just like that. I said yes."

When the tour reached the East Coast the band played at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. "I was standing on the end of the pier looking out at the ocean when Benny came over to me. He said, `Helen, I'm determined to make it in music and I don't think I should get married yet.' "

Outraged, Ward stormed from the band, only to be brought back by the persuasive talents of its agent, Willard Alexander.

"But it broke my heart, and after that my feelings for Benny petered out." Ward later accepted the proposition of an earlier boyfriend. "One evening before work I told Benny I was leaving. We were sitting at a little table for two in the Manhattan Room. Benny was holding one of those oversize dinner menus, and he just flung it across the table in my face."

Ward's new husband was a rich man, Alfred Marx. Although she was not with the band at the time of the band's celebrated Carnegie Hall appearance of January 1938, Marx arranged to have two recordings made of the concert on 12-inch acetates. The first set was as a souvenir for his wife, while the second was given to Goodman. The recordings were forgotten until 10 years later when they were finally unearthed, dusted down and issued to the public. They are still available as a double CD album, and must be some of the best-selling recordings CBS has ever had.

From 1937 to 1942 Ward sang only on recordings and didn't tour. During this time she recorded with bands under the leadership of Krupa, Teddy Wilson, Bob Crosby (with whom she had the hit record "Day In, Day Out"), Joe Sullivan and Harry James. Her career became sporadic and she only worked when she wanted to.

The friendship with Goodman was repaired and she sang with him on many guest appearances and recordings, particularly during the Fifties. She sang a version of "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" at a Goodman band recording session of 1958 that was so good the band applauded her at the playback.

It was 20 years after that that she returned for the final chapter of her career, performing in public and recording. In 1981 she made her final bow with an album called The Helen Ward Song Book, on which she was accompanied by the cornettist Ruby Braff, the trombonist Vic Dickenson and other noted instrumentalists.

Steve Voce

Helen Ward, singer: born New York 19 September 1916; married; died Arlington, Virginia 21 April 1998.

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