Female singers have been popular since ancient times. Earlier this year a tomb was discovered in Egypt housing the earthy remains of Nehmes Bastet, a singer who lived and died some 2,900 years ago and is to date the only female buried in the Valley of Kings not related to the royal families.
Nearly 3,000 years after her death, female singers were still popular. As far as female musicians, at least in the western world, they mostly played piano or harp and few did so professionally. All-female bands didn't begin to appear until the 1920s AD. An important development in all-female bands was Lee De Forest's invention of Phonofilms in 1919. Before then, a few early attempts at marrying music to short films with Kinetoscopes, which were hampered by their length of 22 seconds. Many Phonofilms were essentially music videos and some of De Forest's first subjects were female musicians. Soon, Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes, Visual Music and Photophones followed. (Read about early music videos here).
Predictably, a large part of the appeal of the all-female bands that formed afterward were chosen as much for their looks as their musical talent and even though many included capable musicians and in some cases talented performers, they've never really been the subjects of serious academic attention and information, when available, is usually scant. As Sherry Tucker's book Swing Shift (one of the few books on the subject) put it, the public "looks first and listens later."
Helen Lewis and Her All-Girl Jazz Syncopators were possibly the first all-female band, beginning sometime around 1923. Around 1925 they filmed and released a Phonofilm. Despite the significance of their pioneering status, there seems to be surprisingly little documentation of them, as well as many of their all-female peers.
Babe Egan was born in 1897. She was a talented violinist and formed Babe Egan and her Hollywood Red Heads in 1924. They disbanded in 1933. Egan died in 1966.
The Parisian Red Heads hailed from Indiana and in 1927 billed themselves as "The World's Greatest Girl Band." They recorded a single recording for Brunswick, existing primarily as a touring "territory band." After Babe Egan and her Hollywood Redheads threatened to sue over their name, they changed their name to The Bricktops.
All-female bands quickly took off internationally as well. Yorkshire, England's Edna Croudson's Rhythm Girls existed at least as early as 1929. One of their most famous members, Ivy Benson, played with them until 1935. In 1939 she went on to lead Ivy Benson and Her All Girls Band.
Violinist Harry Waiman also directed an all-female band in the 1920s, The Debutantes.
In the 1930s, there were a few more significant all-female bands, most of which continued their predecessors' lead by performing the Vaudeville circuit.
Lil Harden Armstrong was born Lillian Hardin in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1898. She played in several jazz groups in New Orleans and Chicago before joining King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in the 1920s. In 1924, she married King Oliver's second coronetist, Louis Armstrong. In 1931, after she learned of an extramarital affair, she divorced and sued him. In the 1930s she formed Lil-Hardin's All-Girl Band, who performed regularly on the NBC radio network. From the 1940s on she worked primarily as a solo pianist. She died August 27, 1971.
Ira Ray Hutton was born Odessa Cowen around 1916 in Illinois. She formed Ira Ray Hutton and Her Melodears in 1934. They recorded a few sides for Victor and Vocalion and appeared in the Paramount film, The Big Broadcast of 1936. In 1940, she broke up the band and formed and all-male one which she also led. In 1950, she formed another all-female band. She died in Ventura, California from complications resulting from diabetes in 1984.
In 1935 in the Netherlands, tenor saxophonist Clara de Vries formed Clara de Vries and Her Jazzladies. In the early 1930s, de Vries had been a member of Leo Selinsky's Blue Jazz Ladies.
The Swinging Rays of Rhythm were formed in 1937 by Laurence C. Jones, who organized the group to raise money for Mississippi's Piney Woods Country Life School, a school he founded to serve poor and black children in 1910. In the early 1940s they integrated and changed their name to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. In the Jim Crow South, some of the white members resorted to passing as black to avoid arrest for defying segregation.
Other pre-War all-female bands included Nelson "Cadillac" Williams's The Dixie Rhythm Girls and The Harlem Playgirls.
All-female bands weren't limited to the jazz genre. The Girls of the Golden West, comprised of just two members (one on guitar) aren't what most people think of as a "band" but are worth mentioning as pioneers in the Western genre. A few years later, in 1937, Lily May Ledford, Rosie Ledford, Esther Koehler, Evelyn Lange, and Minnie Ledford formed the all-female, hillbilly string band, The Coon Creek Girls in Cincinnati, Ohio.
During World War II, big bands struggled with many musicians and band leaders being drafted to fight in the war. Just as women began to fill many occupational roles traditionally held by men (Swing Shift Maisies and Rosie the Riveters), they began to be sought after in bands organized by men. Examples include Phil Spitalny's Hour of Charm Orchestra, Al D'Artega's All-Girl Band, Count Berni Vici's All-Girl Theater Band, The Prairie View Coeds, Virgil Whyte's Musical Sweethearts, Herb Cook's Swinghearts, and Eddie Durham's All-Star Orchestra. In later years, Eddie Durham explained another motivation for organizing all-female bands - to avoid being drafted into the military.
Other bands were lead by women. Ada Leonard and Her All-American Girl Orchestra were the first all-female band signed by the USO. Joy "Queen of the Trumpet" Cayler's all-female Joy Cayler Orchestra formed in Denver, Colorado in 1940. Other female-led bands of the era included Sharon Rogers All-Girl Band, Frances Grey's Queens of Swing, The Pollyanna Syncopators, Jean Parks and Her All-Girl Band, Nita King and Her Queens of Rhythm, Betty McGuire's Sub-Debs, The Darlings of Rhythm, Rita Rio and Her All Girl-Orchestra, Viola Smith and the Coquettes, and The Marilyn Merle All-Girl Orchestra.
Another all-female band of note was led by Blanche Calloway, the older sister of Cab Calloway. In 1921 she'd become the first woman to lead any band, the otherwise-all-male Joy Boys. As a bandleader who was both black and female in the early 20th century, she battled both racism and sexism. That band broke up in 1938 and she formed an all-female band in 1940 which, somewhat shockingly, I can't find the name of anywhere. She retired in 1944. In the 1950s she managed a nightclub in DC. In the 1960s, she worked as as DJ in Miami, Florida. She died in 1978 from breast cancer.
Both male and female-organized bands of the era played primarily American GIs on the so-called Foxhole Circuit. When the war ended, most of the women, who were always viewed mostly as a patriotic girlie show and temporary musicians, were pushed aside. Their patriotic duty fulfilled, they could now move into pink collar jobs or live as homemakers. Some female musicians found work in integrated bands but it was rare.
Actress Thelma White's Thelma White and Her All Girl Orchestra were one of the all-female bands of the Foxhole Circuit. However, they continued to perform for several years after the war ended. Nowadays she's best recognized as Mae Coleman from 1936's Reefer Madness. She died of pneumonia in 2005.
One of the last, significant (but still obscure) all-female bands of the pre-Rock 'n' Roll era was the four-piece Sarah McLawler And The Syncoettes released several records on Premium and King in the 1950s. Sarah played piano, organ and sang. Vi Wilson was on bass, Hetty Smith was on drums, and Lula Roberts was on sax.
Nowadays, millions of women continue to entertain as singers and even though all-female bands aren't the novelty they were in the Jazz Age and GI Generation, they're still vastly outnumbers by auto-tuned ingenues groomed and marketed to tweens who's skills as a musician can't even be realistically called an afterthought. Before Women's History Month is over, I'll try to post about some of the great, pioneering all-female bands of the Rock era.