Obituary: Helen Forrest

Tom Vallance
Thursday 15 July 1999 23:02

DURING THE big-band era of the late Thirties and early Forties, six bands were regarded as the most popular and Helen Forrest sang with three of them - Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Harry James. She was one of the best of the band singers, and with James she had three million- selling records and countless Top Ten hits, and for two years running was voted the most popular female vocalist in America.

The Second World War years were her peak period, when she and Harry James distilled wartime emotions in song. Forrest's rich sonority and crystal- clear diction allied with James's sinuous trumpet on a ballad like "I Don't Want To Walk Without You" are still acutely resonant of dance halls, brief romances and wistful partings. "Helen was a wonderfully warm and natural singer," wrote George Simon in his 1967 book The Big Bands.

Her recording with James of "I've Heard That Song Before" was in the Top Ten for 20 weeks, and when it passed one and a quarter million in sales Columbia Records announced that it was its biggest seller of all time and that they had run out of shellac (used to make records in those days) because of its popularity.

Forrest and James also had a passionate personal relationship which ended when he married the pin-up movie queen Betty Grable, prompting Forrest to attempt suicide.

Her childhood was not a happy one. She was born Helen Fogel in 1917, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Her father died shortly afterwards in a flu epidemic, and after moving to Brooklyn her mother married a pimp who turned their home into a brothel. Forrest had three older brothers, one of whom had formed a dance band which played at the marathon dances popular during the Depression, and Forrest left home at 14 to sing with his band.

She lacked formal training but had a facility for picking up music after one hearing, and after some minor dates with other bands she was hired to sing commercials on the radio. In 1935 she had a regular slot on the CBS show Blue Velvet Hour, billed as "Bonnie Blue, the Blue Lady of Song" and singing with the trumpeter Bunny Berigan, then spent two years singing in the Madrillon Club in Washington.

Her break came in 1938 when Artie Shaw, whose swing band had become one of the most famous in the country, hired her to replace his vocalist Billie Holiday, who was shortly to leave. "She was so wonderful to me," said Forrest later of Holiday. "She was always trying to help."

A champion of civil rights, Forrest admired leaders like Shaw and Goodman for working with black musicians despite strict segregation in many towns, and in 1940 she broke tradition by making a record with Lionel Hampton and his all-black orchestra. Forrest made 41 recordings with Shaw, including such hits as "I'm in Love with the Honorable Mr So and So", "They Say" and "All the Things You Are".

In Down Beat's 1939 poll, Forrest was placed fifth in the list of female vocalists, behind Ella Fitzgerald, Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday and Bea Wain and just in front of Jimmy Dorsey's vocalist Helen O'Connell, with whom she would often be confused. "I'm always being asked to sing `Tangerine' or `Green Eyes'," she later said, "and I bet she gets asked to sing my hits."

In 1939 Forrest married Al Spieldock, a drummer with the Madrillon band, but her work with Shaw kept them apart a lot. "We never had a real marriage," said Forrest. The same year, she appeared with Shaw's band in several musical shorts, and in MGM's feature film Dancing Co-Ed, though she did not sing in the film. At the end of the year, 15 months after Forrest joined his band, Shaw broke the unit up, temporarily retiring from the business, and Forrest successfully auditioned for Benny Goodman, "a great musician, but the most unpleasant person I ever met in music. He never said one kind thing to me about my singing, but then he never said one kind word to anyone about anything."

With Goodman, the singer had her first million-seller, "Taking a Chance on Love", one of 53 songs she recorded with him including "Perfidia", "It Never Entered My Mind", "The Man I Love" and "More Than You Know". But Forrest was never happy with Goodman:

The band I joined was sensational, but few special arrangements were written for me. I sang choruses, and made myself fit to the music. Benny used to drive me crazy by "noodling" behind me on clarinet while I sang.

In August 1941 Forrest quit the orchestra "to avoid having a nervous breakdown" (Goodman replaced her with a then unknown Peggy Lee) and three months later joined the Harry James band, with whom she was to reach the peak of her profession. "I contacted Harry on a hunch. I loved the way he played that trumpet, with that Jewish phrasing, and I thought I'd fit right in with the band." James had recently added strings to his band, and had a sensational hit with his instrumental recording of "You Made Me Love You", making him "the biggest thing in the business".

His band was to win every poll as the most popular of 1942, beating Glenn Miller, and broke box-office records wherever it played. James is credited as the first white bandleader (Duke Ellington had preceded him) to build arrangements around his singers, allowing them to bring their individuality to an interpretation rather than simply provide what was usually billed as a "vocal refrain". "I'll always remain grateful to Artie and Benny," said Forrest:

But they had been featuring me more like they did a member of the band, almost like another instrumental soloist. Harry, though, gave me the right sort of arrangements and setting that fit a singer. It wasn't just a matter of my getting up, singing a chorus, and sitting down again.

The New York Times reported:

Singing with Harry James, Helen Forrest has made big-band singing an art as it never was before. She is blazing a trail for others to follow.

In successive years, 1942 and 1943, Forrest was voted the best female vocalist of the country in the Down Beat poll, ahead of Helen O'Connell, Anita O'Day, Peggy Lee, Jo Stafford, Dinah Shore, Billie Holiday, Marion Hutton, Mildred Bailey, Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald. (Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Bob Eberly were the top male singers at this time.)

During these early years of US involvement in the war, Forrest and James frequently defined the wartime longing of parted couples. Forrest's first recording with James was "He's 1-A in the Army and He's A-1 in My Heart", and other hits included "He's My Guy", "That Soldier of Mine", "I Remember You" and "Skylark". She was to sing "You Made Me Love You" with the band in the film Private Buckaroo (1942), and other films in which Forrest appeared with the James band were Springtime in the Rockies (1942), in which she introduced "I Had the Craziest Dream" (which became her theme song and also the title of her 1982 autobiography), Bathing Beauty (1944), in which she sang "I Cried For You", and Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), in which she sang "In a Moment of Madness". The band was also in Best Foot Forward (1943), but Forrest's number was cut from the film.

Forrest later stated wistfully of that time,

They were the years when Harry and I were lovers. They were the years of my greatest song hits and my greatest success. I don't cry for anyone any more. I'm tough. Toughened by the years. But if I cried for anyone or anything, I'd cry for those years with Harry.

It was during her affair with James that Forrest, wanting to appear more glamorous, had a rhinoplasty operation. Walter Winchell wrote, "Helen Forrest is now a `looker' since her prettifying job", while Down Beat commented in the style of the time, "Helen's nose, hitherto valuable essentially for breathing and blowing purposes, now perches piquantly on her attractively pert puss."

Forrest knew of James's womanising ("Most of them were one-night stands, I was a one-year stand") but fell deeply in love with him, and the couple planned to wed when free of their respective spouses. Just after James obtained his divorce, however, he met Betty Grable and eventually eloped with her to Las Vegas, prompting Forrest to climb out on to her apartment window ledge. "Maybe if I hadn't been pulled in, I'd have jumped. But I'm glad I didn't. I've had a pretty good life and a lot of laughs since then."

Though after divorcing Spieldock she married and divorced twice more, Forrest maintained that James was her only true love. Forty years later, she was to write, "I've had three marriages and I never married Harry, but he was the love of my life. Let's face it, I still carry a torch for the so-and-so." Leaving his band to freelance, Forrest signed a recording contract with Decca and was co-starred with Dick Haymes on a radio show Here's to Romance. Her first Decca disc, "Time Waits For No One", reached second place on the Hit Parade, and the radio show achieved top ratings.

Haymes was also contracted to Decca, and from 1944 to 1946 the pair recorded 18 duets, 10 of them reaching the Top Ten. Particularly successful were their versions of "Long Ago and Far Away", "It Had To Be You", "Together", "I'll Buy That Dream", "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" and "Oh, What It Seemed To Be".

During the last years of the decade Forrest headlined at theatres and clubs with great success, but the music scene was gradually changing and, though some former band singers went on to even greater fame, notably Peggy Lee, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald and (after a period out of favour) Frank Sinatra, others like Forrest, Helen O'Connell and Marion Hutton faded from the limelight.

In 1955 Forrest joined Harry James again for a record album, Harry James in Hi-Fi, which was a best-seller, but her solo career waned as rock'n'roll flourished. Her manager Joe Graydon said, "She was at an `in-between' stage in her career. Not young enough to be current. Not old enough to be nostalgia." She continued to make occasional records and perform in concerts - she was performing at Lake Tahoe with Frank Sinatra Jnr in 1963 when he was kidnapped - but work was sporadic until 1977, when a television reunion of James, Haymes and Forrest on the Merv Griffin Show led to a touring production called The Fabulous 40s (1978), followed in 1979 with a similar revue entitled The Big Broadcast of 1944.

In 1980, six months after Haymes died, Forrest suffered a severe stroke, but recovered to perform and record again, and in 1983 she starred with Vivian Blaine and Margaret Whiting in a stage revue, A Tribute to Dick Haymes. She continued to perform until the early Nineties, when rheumatoid arthritis began to affect her vocal chords.

"I live for today," said Forrest,

but it is nice sometimes to look back to yesterday. We did not know that we were living through an era - the Big Band Era - that would last only 10 years or so and be remembered and revered for ever.

In her autobiography she stated that the most dramatic moments of her life were crowded into just three years, from 1941 to 1943:

That was when the music of the dance bands was the most popular music in the country and I was the most popular female band singer in the country and Harry had the most popular band in the country. It didn't last long, but it sure was something while it lasted. Everyone should have something like it at least once in their lives. I'm grateful I did.

Tom Vallance

Helen Fogel (Helen Forrest), singer: born Atlantic City, New Jersey 12 April 1917; married 1939 Al Spieldock (marriage dissolved), 1947 Paul Hogan (marriage dissolved 1956), 1959 Charles Feinman (one son; marriage dissolved 1961); died Los Angeles 11 July 1999.

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