Singers helped to add romance, glamour, and style to the big bands. But unless they also played an instrument, they usually received the least pay.
"Bob Eberly was a good friend of mine," trombonist Vincent Lopez Jr., son of the famous pianist - bandleader, said to me recently. "I remember we were talking onetime . . . about all these television stations were reproducing recordings of originals, saying, alright, 'Here's Tangerine with Bob Eberly," and so forth. And I said, 'Do you get any residuals for this?' He said, 'No! If we did, we'd be millionaires . . . we'd go off the road with the Jimmy Dorsey band, we'd go to New York, and we would record, literally, five or six cuts a day . . . I got $35 a record . . . that was a lot of money to me. So it was a one-shot deal, whether the record sold one or a million and one, I still got $35.'"
Of course, there was no retirement plan or health insurance for singers like Eberly.
"It's sad," Lopez Jr. observed, "because here's people of stature, that are recognizable names from 'the big band era,' from the heyday of that music, and they're penniless or terminally ill in the hospital, such as Bob was. I remember, his niece, Jan, and I were working with the band (I forget where-the-hell we were working at), and I said something about Bob being in the hospital and she said, 'Yeah, he's in Sloan-Kettering.' Of course, he was dying from lung cancer at the time. She said, 'He got a visitor the other night.' I said, 'really? Who was that?' She said, 'Frank Sinatra walked into the room after one of his shows, walked into Bob's room, and said, 'Bob, I know that you and I were both with different bands and we never really met up with each other through the business, but don't worry about the hospital bills. It's taken care of.' I thought that was a helluva thing, and I never really cared that much for Frank Sinatra [laughs] but I just thought it was a helluva thing. From what I understand . . . he had done a lot of things like that."
Witnessing the plight of Eberly, other singers began to worry about ending up in the same way, and wondered who would take care of them?
So in March 1984, a group of songbirds formally organized to help themselves, incorporating as The Society of Singers, to assist professional singers who face financial, medical, family or other crises. ("SOS," as the organization refers to itself, defines a singer as someone who has earned a living being a singer for at least five years.) Services are financial aid, case management and referrals, housing, scholarships, and community outreach.
Among the founding members were Gilda Maiken, one of The Skylarks, a vocal group which performed with Harry James' band in 1949, and Ginny Mancini, wife of composer - pianist Henry Mancini and once part of the Mello-Larks, a group that sang with the Tex Beneke/Glenn Miller Orchestra in 1946-47.
Bea Wain, featured vocalist with Larry Clinton during 1937-39, volunteered her time and talents with The Society from the start. She's still active, and when I spoke with her over the phone recently, I asked her about it.
"I'm now in Los Angeles," she said. "And a lot of the singers are around here, that I knew."
Many of them had settled down or retired to the West Coast. Sadly, a number have since died.
"There were a few singers that were down on their luck, they were hungry," she recalled.
Assistance from The Society is strictly confidential, though some gave permission for their plights to be told. One was Ella Mae Morse, who recorded Cow Cow Boogie with Freddie Slack's band in 1942. Although that hit disc was one of Capitol Records' first big money-makers, Ella Mae, years later, was having a tough time making ends meet.
"[She] was working in Sears, a Sears store," Wain said. "She had to get a job."
Another was Bonnie Lou Williams, a vocalist with Tommy Dorsey's orchestra in 1944-45, who, according to an SOS release, later "became terminally ill, and while unable to pay her medical bills, she was served with an eviction notice compounding her humiliation."
Mancini, Maiken, and the others said they had to do something about people like Morse.
Wain took a moment to tell me about Ginny Mancini. "You know, she is now heir to remarkable music, I mean Henry's songs," she commented. "There's a lot, a lot of money in royalties there. She's a woman that has the money and does the right thing with it, which is really wonderful."
The bulk of the Society's present operating capital is raised through memberships, which begin at $50.
"You don't have to be a singer to be a member of The Society of Singers," Wain noted. "You just have to pay the dues."
More funding comes from benefit affairs and showcases held every eightteen or so months. The first such major event, in 1989, presented honors to Ella Fitzgerald, and thereafter The Society named the award for her. As part of that year's program, Wain, Martha Tilton, Helen Forrest, Kay Starr, Helen O'Connell, Kitty Kallen, Fran Warren, and The Clark Sisters were featured in a special tribute, "The Ladies Who Sang With the Bands."
One-time band vocalists Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Joe Williams, Tony Martin, and Rosemary Clooney were among those to receive an "Ella" award in the years following.
"We have wonderful affairs," Wain observed. ""The people love the singers, everybody loves the singers. It's a really good group and we help a lot of people."
For more information, view The Society of Singers website: SOCIETY OF SINGERS