Saturday, May 31, 2014

Ladies of Note ~ Paving the Way

The first female composer was Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) a nun who lived during the middle ages, has long been known as a mystic and author of theological works; in recent years much more attention has been paid to her compositions as well. Hildegard was a prolific writer who wrote several pieces of music. Evidence of her writings has been found and is considered the oldest of female musical compositions. Recordings of her music have become increasingly available in the last few years, and she has captured the imagination of many students of women in music as well as students of the middle ages. (More at Wikipedia)

Later in the Middle-Ages, during the 12th and 13th centuries, there were female troubadours known as trobairitz. Not much is known about these women, since many were anonymous. For the few whose names we do know, a lot of biographical details have been lost. What is interesting is that a number of their love songs were addressed to other women. Most of them still kept up the convention of having the song's "narrator" be male, but there is at least one example  the song Na Maria by Bieris de Romans  where the singer and object are both suggested to be women.

Several centuries later Venice, Italy was the center of the music world, where new genres of vocal music developed during the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods  late 16th and 17th centuries. During this time, another notable female composer, Barbara Strozzi, came onto the scene.

Unlike most women, Strozzi (1619-1677) was encouraged in her musical talents by her adopted father, Giulio Strozzi, a writer who was able to introduce her to Venice's intellectual elite. She was trained and performed as a singer and studied with important composers of the day, such as Francesco Cavalli, one of the early Venetial composers of the then-new genre known as opera. She was one of the most prolific vocal music composers of her time, writing hundreds of music in both traditional genres like madrigals and motets, and in the new genre of the cantata (Italian for "to be sung"), where she was a pioneer.

Giulio Strozzi's proto-feminist sensibilities garnered Strozzi an opportunity that would be closed to most women composers for centuries: getting published. She published eight collections of her vocal works between 1644-1664, seven of which survive. Renowned for both her poetry and her music, she was a woman far ahead of her time, as it would still be several centuries before most women could have serious careers as composers.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847), the sister of the famous composer Felix Mendelssohn, was a German pianist and composer. The two put on concerts together, and Fanny went through a mighty struggle in her life to fight convention and her own family, both of which forbade her to publish her music thinking a musical career inappropriate for a woman of her social class. Her brother praised his sister's abilities but only thought people would pay her pieces attention if he published them under his name, which he often did. 

In 1829, after a courtship of several years, Fanny married the painter Wilhelm Hensel, who was supportive of her composing. Which is why her salons  where she presented her own works, which include over 250 songs and 125 piano pieces  were able to be as influential as they were. 

Her public debut at the piano (and only known public performance) came in 1838, when she played her brother's Piano Concerto No. 1. In 1846 she decided, without consulting her brother, to publish a collection of her own songs. Among her masterpieces are Das Jahr (1841), a group of piano pieces inspired by the twelve months of the year, and her Piano Trio, op. 11, the only one of her ensemble works published in the 19th century (three years after her death.(More at Wikipedia)

Maria Anna Mozart (1751-1829), nicknamed "Nannerl", was the daughter of Leopold Mozart and Anna Maria Pertl and older sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

When she was seven years old, her father started teaching her to play the harpsichord. He took her and Wolfgang on tours of many cities to showcase their talents and, in the early days, she sometimes received top billing, noted as an excellent harpsichord player and forte pianist. However, given the views of her parents, prevalent in her society at the time, it became impossible as she grew older for her to continue her career any further. From 1769 onward she was no longer permitted to show her artistic talent on travels with her brother, as she had reached a marriageable age. In 1783 she wed Johann Baptist Franz von Berchtold zu Sonnerburg, a wealthy local magistrate, with whom she had three children.

Nannerl and Wolfgang were very close and he did not behave competitively with her. It's clear that he encouraged her to compose as there are letters from Wolfgang praising her work. Though Wolfgang was inspired to write music dedicated to his sister she existed, unappreciated, in his shadow and the voluminous correspondence of her father never mentions any of her compositions which have not survived. 

Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896) was a German musician and composer who, in the 19th century, had a fairly illustrious career. She had an ambitious father who taught her piano from an early age and had her touring Europe beginning at age nine, making her one of the era's most famous pianists and earning her the admiration of such big names in the Romantic-era piano world as Chopin and Liszt.

After her marriage to the composer, Robert Schumann, she often found her desire for a career as a touring pianist and composer at odds with her husband's lack of interest in touring himself, and his desire for a more traditional wife. But she didn't let that stop her. In fact, she used her influence as a popular concert pianist to promote her husband's compositions, and was also able to keep their finances afloat with her performing career when Robert's mental and physical health began to deteriorate.

Considered one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic era, she exerted her influence over a 61-year concert career, changing the format and repertoire of the piano recital and the tastes of the listening public. She and her husband encouraged Johannes Brahms, and she was the first pianist to give public performances of some of Brahms's works, notably the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. (More at Wikipedia

While Clara was able to get a lot of public exposure for her works, the real ball toward equality for female composers didn't get rolling until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ladies of Note ~ 19th Century (1801-1900)

Women’s music-making up to 1850 was mainly secular and centered on the home. Generally regarded as a feminine “accomplishment,” music was considered in the 18th century an ornament or social skill; in the 19th century it became a component of a lady’s education. Women typically learned keyboard instruments, harp and guitar, and were taught how to sing, but they were generally not trained as professionals, since society viewed public performance as immodest. Research into the role of women in music in this period has relied heavily on a vast prescriptive literature of etiquette manuals and educational tracts that discuss the proper place of music in a young lady’s life; classic examples of such books include John Bennett’s Letters to a Young Lady (1798) and Lydia Sigourney’s Letters to Young Ladies (1844).

Eleanor Custis
It is significant that the first conservatory in the United States was a seminary for women, the Music Vale Academy, founded in 1835. In the most general sense, music became a “feminine” field. Women were not traditionally educated for professional music activities, but their amateur presence was so strong that in the social circles in which music played an important part, music became very largely the province of women. 

Among the female counterparts to such well-known gentlemen amateurs in the late 18th century as Francis Hopkinson and Benjamin Franklin were Martha Jefferson (and her two daughters Martha and Maria) and  Eleanor "Nelly" Parke Custis (George Washington’s stepdaughter) who's estate included 8 volumes of piano music. Most of her compositions were purchased between 1789 and 1797 when she was 10-17 years of age. These were the years she lived with George and Martha Washington in New York and Philadelphia, where she studied keyboard playing and singing. In the late 1790s Eleanor won the reputation of being one of the most beautiful and accomplished women in the United States.

During the same period, the best-known professional female musicians were mostly, but not all, English singers who came to the United States to start second careers. The most important of these before 1800 was Mary Ann Pownall, known in England as Mrs. Wrighton, who was a composer as well as a performer. John Rowe Parker’s A Musical Biography (1824) contains sketches of several others, among them Dolly Broadhurst, Georgina Oldmixon and Sophia Hewitt Ostinelli, who was the daughter of James Hewitt, organist of the Boston Handel and Haydn Society 1820–30. Another early keyboard player and composer was Elizabeth von Hagen, whom O.G.T. Sonneck called “in a way the most interesting member” of a well-known family of professional musicians (Early Concert Life in America, 1907, p.231).

As for composition, very few women had works published in the United States before 1825. Bibliographies of secular music in print list about 70 pieces by women, most of them songs by English composers and a number of others published anonymously by “ladies” from various cities (e.g., The U.S. Marine March by “a Lady of Charleston” and the Titus March by “a Lady of Baltimore”). More American female composers began to have works published in the 1840s (e.g., Marion Dix Sullivan and Augusta Browne), but the English presence in American song remained strong until the end of the 1860s. Among the most popular English female composers in the 1830s and 40s were Caroline Norton and Harriet Browne; in the 1850s and 60s, Charlotte Barnard (who wrote under the penname Claribel) and Virginia Gabriel were equally well known, their major American counterparts being Faustina Hasse Hodges and Susan (Mrs. E.A.) Parkhurst.


During the second half of the 19th century, music was less often perceived simply as a social accomplishment for women—a view that had produced what the critic James Huneker deprecatingly described as the “piano girl,” the unmusical but socially adaptable dilettante. The unprecedented success of Music Study in Germany (1880, 2/1896/R), Amy Fay’s account of her time with the leading pianists of Germany, signaled the era of the “new girl,” one who was serious in her study and potentially a professional musician. The energies that had fueled “accomplishment” were redirected into a number of different channels, one of which was music teaching.

Women also organized music clubs, the most important of which was the National Federation of Music Clubs, founded by Florence Sutro in 1898. With more funding for conservatories and women’s colleges, higher education became more accessible to women; professional opportunities also increased significantly for women in the second half of the 19th century. In popular music “singing families” such as The Hutchinson Family and The Bakers, which typically included women, offered an alternative to the minstrel troupes which were all-male (as well as all-white) until after the Civil War. 

The burgeoning musical theater of the 1860s and 70s demanded women as actresses, singers and dancers in spectacles, ballets and musical plays; two performers of note were the dancers Marie Bonfanti and Lydia Thompson.

Jenny Lind
One barrier to the achievements of American women in music had been the slow growth of an audience for opera, but the increase in the number of opera companies, choral groups and oratorio societies and the custom of using operatic singers at band concerts gave rise to the first generation of American-born singers; the spectacular American debut and tour (1850–52) of the Swedish singer Jenny Lind also encouraged American prima donnas.

Outstanding among these were Adelaide Phillipps (a protégée of Lind), Lillian Nordica, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (one of the first black women on the concert stage), Emma Thursby, Emma Abbott and Clara Louise Kellogg, who was the first American singer to achieve fame in Europe as well as in the United States. Although fewer in number, women began to be accepted on the concert stage as virtuoso instrumentalists in the second half of the 19th century. Camilla Urso and Maud Powell were celebrated violinists of international repute and outspoken champions of equal opportunities for female musicians, and the Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño was soon succeeded by Fannie Zeisler and Julie Rivé-King

Women’s chamber music and orchestral ensembles included such groups as the Fadette Ladies’ Orchestra of Boston (1888), the Eichberg Ladies’ String Quartet and the Women’s String Orchestra of New York (1896).

Amy Marcy Beach
The 1890s saw some radical changes in the role of women in music. The debate over the innate creative potential of women had already begun in 1880 with George P. Upton’s fierce articulation of biological determinism in his book Woman in Music. In the 1890s the battle continued, but the question of the female composer—could she or should she compose in the “higher forms” of symphonic or chamber music?—was answered by the achievements of a pioneering generation of composers who became prominent between 1880 and 1900. Amy Marcy Beach, who was the first female composer to have a symphony performed in the United States (1893, Boston), was active well into the 1920s



Dolly Broadhurst
See A Musical Biography by John Rowe Parker

Georgina Oldmixon
In a male-dominated profession, singer-actress Georgina Oldmixon was Philadelphia's best-known female performer. Having begun her career in London's Haymarket Theatre in 1783 and married a violinist, a decade later she was part of Reinagel and Wignell's company, and appeared in both plays and concerts. She was among featured artists in a concert of February 7, 1804, in the Philharmonic Society's Hall. (More at A Musical Biography by John Rowe Parker)

Sophia Hewitt Ostinelli
Sophia Henrietta Emma Hewitt was a musician, pianist and organist. She was married to violinist, Paul A. Louis Ostinelli. More at Women Music Educators in the United States: A History by Sondra Wieland Howe & A Musical Biography by John Rowe Parker

Mary Ann Pownall
Taming of the Shrew (1780)
Mary Ann Pownall
The leading singing actress on the American stage before 1800 was Mary Ann Wrighton Pownall (nee Mary Matthews, 1751-1796). Famous as an opera and concert singer in England, after coming to America in 1792 she performed in cities along the Atlantic Coast as a member of the Old American Theater Company. Her concert repertory included her own compositions, which exhibited the flowing melodies and strophic form typical of English popular song as well as more operatic ornamentation and dramatic climaxes. She also appeared in New York, and settled in Charleston where she died during a yellow fever epidemic in 1796. (Ref. Women and Music A History; Wikipedia)

Elizabeth von Hagen
Elizabeth Joanetta Catherine von Hagen (1750-1909/10) was born in Amsterdam. She was a music educator and was known as a composer and arranger of theatrical music. (Ref. Wikipedia)

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Ladies of Note ~ 20th Century (1901-2000)

Affected not only by changes in the structure of American musical life but by the upheavals of two World Wars and the cataclysm of the Depression, American women continued to turn to music as a hospitable profession during the first half of the 20th century. The most significant generalizations that can be made about this period concern the degree of professional segregation within music, the continued importance of singing as a solo career in all musical styles and the small role women played as solo instrumentalists and composers. All these aspects of women’s role in American musical life are colored by the striking social changes that took place between the beginning of the century, when life was still governed by Victorian morality, and the end of World War II, by which time there was a considerable degree of equality for women in American society.

Between 1940 and 1950 the number of women in music and music teaching again declined, but their proportion increased. It may be that men moved into more lucrative professions in the technical or business sectors of the labor force, thereby lessening the competition, but the changes in the nature of music education may also have affected the numbers of women in music professions. With the shift from private instruction to institutions of higher education, music training became more formalized, as in other professions, with advanced degree attainments and salaried jobs becoming the rule rather than the exception; musicians began to lose their freelance status. As a result, the characterization of music as “women’s work” diminished to some extent during this period.

Occupational segregation (exemplified in the formation of all-female instrumental ensembles) was a product of the conflict between supply and demand. Discrimination against female instrumentalists was pervasive, and there was little work for the increasing numbers of female conservatory graduates. All-female groups, a phenomenon prefigured in the 1890s, were a component of musical life between 1925 and 1945. About 30 women’s orchestras flourished between the wars in such cities as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, and pioneer conductors such as Antonia Brico, Ebba Sundstrom and Ethel Leginska (who was also a pianist) relied heavily upon these groups for work. In 1938 Frédérique Petrides, a conductor and the founder of the journal Women in Music, claimed that there were 522 women playing in the eight major women’s orchestras.

The policy governing the engaging of players in the “mixed” orchestras (as sex-integrated ensembles were then known) changed slowly, mostly in response to the social and economic consequences of World War II. College marching bands became integrated as young men were drafted. German musicians lost the cachet that they had had since the middle of the 19th century. By 1945 most of the major orchestras (as classified by the ASOL), including those of Boston and Chicago, had hired their first female players; the percentage of women increased from two to eight between 1942 and 1948, affecting very few individuals but setting important precedents. 

Ethel Leginska
To start a women’s orchestra required social and economic assertiveness, and in thatrespect the phenomenon reflects  the liberalizing effects of organized feminism, which succeeded in 1920 in passing the constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. The flapper was one kind of “new woman”; Ethel Leginska exemplified another. Even before the 1920s, she championed practical dress for female musicians as the “privilege of a uniform,” allowing “the personal self to be put out of the way as much as possible” in order to assure “comfort and freedom.” The all-female groups in popular music and jazz, less bound by the formal traditions of classical music, relied more overtly on glamour. Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Orchestra was one of the best-known groups of the 1930s, and other, more jazz-oriented ensembles included Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a popular group in the 1940s.

Helen Traubel in a 1945
publicity photograph for
Columbia Records
As in the 19th century, the most important female figures in classical, jazz and popular music were virtuoso singers. In opera, where women did not compete with men for roles or jobs, the issue was not one of sex and status but of a colonial preference for European artists. Again World War II marked a turning-point, with nationalism and a shortage of European musicians increasing the demand for American singers. Helen Traubel and Rosa Ponselle were propelled to international fame. For black women, problems of racial discrimination began to be resolved only after the war. In 1946 the New York City Opera became the first major opera company to employ black singers as principals. Around the same time, the concert artist Marian Anderson established herself as the best-known black singer in American musical history and one of the world’s leading contraltos in the 20th century. Making her debut with the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, Anderson was the first black artist of either sex to appear in one of its productions.

In other forms of musical theater, too, where there had to be a girl for the boy to meet, the numbers of women and men performers were more or less equal. Among the most popular before 1950 were Fanny Brice, Jeanette MacDonald, Gertrude Lawrence and Judy Garland. Female vocalists faced more direct competition in popular music and jazz but were nevertheless able to carve out an artistic sphere in which their achievements were recognized as equal, though their commercial success as a group after 1940 was not. One bright period was the 1920s, which was illuminated by the artistry of such classic blues singers as Ma Rainey (the “Mother” of the blues), Bessie Smith (its “Empress” and the highest-paid black artist of the decade), Alberta Hunter and Ethel Waters. Swing brought about the demise of classic blues, and the folklorists’ preoccupation with country blues in the 1940s assured its obscurity until the 1970s. However, women equaled men in popularity if not in numbers as band singers in the late 1930s and 40s and were an integral part of the golden age of American popular singing. The kind of commercial success that Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan achieved after the 1950s eluded Billie Holiday, who nevertheless became one of the most influential jazz singers of the 20th history.

Mary Lou Williams
With respect to solo instrumental careers, some of the gains made in classical music at the turn of the 20th century were not sustained. Few virtuosos matched the international prominence of such celebrities as Carreño or Powell; some of the best-known were the violinist Erica Morini, the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and the pianists Olga Samaroff, Ruth Slenczynska and Rosalyn Tureck. The record of women instrumentalists in jazz is obscure. Research on the subject of jazz women has documented a hidden history in the 19th century of African American, female brass bands and in the 20th century a number of pianists, leaders of small ensembles and swing and bop trumpet and saxophone players. The best-known is undoubtedly Mary Lou Williams, who emerged as a leading pianist and composer in the 1930s, and later mentored and performed with many jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell during the birth of bebop in the 1940s.


Monday, March 31, 2014

All-Girl Bands of the 1900s

This all-female saxophone quartet was managed by Eva Darling. Like the Schuster Sisters, they played and endorsed C.G. Conn Ltd. horns. A 1920 advertisement for Conn showed them with Arthur Pryor and described them as, "A quartet of talented and charming young ladies who appear in high class Vaudeville and concert with four of the latest Conn Ltd. Saxophones of which they are justly proud." Also performed as the Four Harmony Maids.

The Darling Saxophone Four c. 1919
Photo by F.J. Lee of Tacoma, WA
Comprised of Adrienne, Genevieve, Imogene and Chloris "Honeybird" Schuster, these sisters were endorsing C.G. Conn saxophones as early as 1915.

First jazz band led by a woman pre-1920s.

Friday, February 28, 2014

All-Girl Bands of the 20s

Ivy Benson
Ivy was born in Yorkshire, England in 1913 and began playing piano when she was five. A child prodigy, she entertained as Baby Benson at working men's clubs in the north. At nine she played on the BBC program, Children's Hour. Her father, a musican in the Leeds Symphony Orchestra, taught her several instruments though she favored clarinet and saxophone. Around 1929 she joined Edna Croudson's Rhythm Girls, with whom she played until 1935. In 1939 she went on to lead Ivy Benson and Her All Girls Band. The band was eventually referred to as Ivy Benson's Showband ... ironically as a result of the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. Some members of her band, including Gracie Cole and Lena Kidd, later led their own all-female bands.

Organized about 1921-1922 (probably the date of this photo). They had quite a succession of directors over the years. It was under the direction of Dick Bressler that the band attained its greatest size, 65 members with full instrumentation, and its greatest fame. For a number of years in the 30s it played regularly in the South Bend city series to crowds as large as 8,000. Before the days of fame were many days of fun. Ruty Boyland Claussen recalled a time when some of the members could play only one note. Willingness to be taught was the only requirement. Both instruments and instruction were furnished by the company.
Left to right, Front Row: Mildred Easterday Steele, Hazel Kidder Smith, Lucille Reed Grove, Pearl Roberts, Marion Cornish Davidson, Josephine Butler Tillman, Grace Smith, Lucile Metzger Urbanek & Lillian Hege Lambdin.
Back row: Ann Sass, Grace Bleiler Wade, Fannie Kuhn Bell, Eleanor Denslow, Ruth Boyland Claussen, Irene Sones Hacker, Edith Lord, Thelma Gruber, Elizabeth Buchanan & Geneva Boyland Staunton
This all-female sextet existed at least as early as 1928. In 1929 their most famous member, Ivy Benson, joined after being discovered by Henry Croudson, a cinema organist at a Leeds, England theater. She played with the Rhythm Girls until 1935, when she went on to lead several all-female groups.

Mary Florence Egan was was born in 1897. She was not only one of the first female bandleaders but also a great violinist. Babe started her all-girl band the Hollywood Redheads in 1924. The Redheads toured not only the United States and Canada, but also all over Europe during the Vaudeville days. It was said by many female musicians in later years, that Babe and her all-girl band inspired them to get into music as professionals. The Hollywood Red Heads disbanded in 1933.

Babe Egan and Her Hollywood Red Heads

Included trumpeter Dolly Jones, later known as Dolly Hutchinson, who was one of the first women to make a jazz record.

Helen formed her All-Girl Jazz Syncopators around 1923. Around 1925 they filmed and released a Phonofilm. Despite the significance of their pioneering status, there is surprisingly little documentation of them.

Helen Lewis and Her All-Girl Jazz Syncopators
Formed in Chicago in 1925, they headlined the Ziegfeld Follies of 1927 and toured North America, Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania and South America before disbanding in 1937.

The Ingenues
From the short film Maids & Music (1938)
The Ingenues
Serenading to cows for University of Wisconsin in a scientific test
of whether cows would give more milk to the soothing strains of music.
These girls hailed from Indiana and, in 1927, billed themselves as "America's Greatest Girl-Band." They recorded a single record for Brunswick and existed primarily as a touring "territory band." After Babe Egan and her Hollywood Redheads threatened to sue over their name, they changed it to Bobbie Grice's Fourteen Bricktops.

For many of the 1940s musicians, going on the road with a band provided an escape route from less desirable situations. As early as 1926, white trombonist Velzoe Brown was delivered from a dreaded secretarial career when she added her horn case to those strapped atop the touring car of the Pollyanna Syncopators.

Friday, January 31, 2014

All-Girl Bands of the 30s


Pauline Brady on drums, Flo Dryer on trumpet, Vi Burnside on tenor saxophone, Edna Smith on base and Shirley Moore on piano.

In the early 1930s, Clara had been a saxophonist with Leo Selinsky's Blue Jazz Ladies. In 1935, Clara formed Clara de Vries and Her Jazzladies. In 1935 she formed Clara de Vries and Her Jazzladies.

Clara De Vries and Her Jazzladies


Margaret Fern Knechteges was born in 1905. By the age of 7 she was touring with dance troupes and performing with her father's groups on the piano and violin. Known for her tremendous skill as a saxophone player, Peggy not only led but performed with her first all-girl band The Melody Girls and received rave reviews and were broadcast nightly over a local radio station in Sioux City. During WWII she toured Alaska in an all-female show. After the war, as the men came home and took up their previous occupations, girl bands faded in popularity.

Peggy Gilbert All-Girl Orchestra
Millie & Dolly
All-female bands weren't limited to the jazz genre. While they aren't what most people think of as a "band", The Girls of the Golden West were two of few female country artists of their time. When they first started out, it was suggested they were born and raised in Muleshoe, TX, but they were actually from Illinois. They started recording for Bluebird Records as early as the 1930s. Throughout the 30s and 40s the girls made hundreds of personal appearances at state fairs and radio stations throughout the south, where they would sing and yodel. Although they stopped performing in the late 40s, their influence lived on with future singers they inspired, like Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline.


The Kohala Girls was a female band that played steel guitars. The band was created by Letritia Kandle in Chicago in 1932. Letritia learned Hawaiian guitar when it was fashionable in the 30s. In 1937, agw used the first guitar amplifier, the "Grand Letar".

Lil Hardin
Lillian Harden was born in Memphis, TN in 1898. She played 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 but divorced him in 1931 after learning of an extramarital affair. In the 1930s, she formed Lil Hardin's All-Girl Band and performed regularly on the NBC radio network. From the 1940s on, she worked primarily as a solo pianist.

INA RAY HUTTON'S MELODEARS (The "Blonde Bombshell")
Odessa "Ina" Cowan was born in 1916. When she was a child, the US Census listed her family as "Negro" and "Mulatto", though it appeared she chose to "pass" throughout her career. At 18 she was named bandleader of the newly-formed Melodears, set up by Irving Mills and Alex Hyde. Although she was called the "bandleader", this was just a front. For five years, she managed and toured with them, dishing out hot jazz and flashy performances, changing her skimpy gowns multiple times during each show (with reportedly 400 gowns to choose from) and tap dancing and flirting with the audience. The Melodears was one of the first all-girl bands to be filmed and recorded, including a gig in The Big Broadcast of 1936

Click here to listen to Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears
It wasn't until later on in her career, around the time she dropped the all-girl band and started her all-male orchestra, that she had become trained in music enough to feel confident in leading her band. Ina drew even greater success with her all-male orchestra, although later down the line when the opportunity arose to have her own television show, she seized the chance to revive the all-girl band, once again. In the 1950s, all-girl bands still held on to some popularity and Ina joined the television age with her Emmy-award winning five year sting on The Ina Ray Hutton Show.

Lily May Ledford, Rosie Ledford, Esther Koehler, Evelyn Lange and Minnie Ledford of Cincinnati, OH formed The Coon Creek Girls, an all-female, hillbilly string band.

The Coon Creek Girls

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Letritia Kandle

Found at

from Vintage Guitar Magazine


When you run down the list of early electric guitar innovators, an all-male group comes to mind. Les Paul, Alvino Rey, Charlie Christian, Merle Travis, and the like—there isn’t a female on the list. This is the story of a woman named Letritia Kandle who, although virtually unknown until now, deserves to be on that short list of those who pioneered the electrified instrument back in the 1930s.

The list of innovations contained within Letritia’s 1937 ‘Grand Letar’ console steel guitar is impressive—the first guitar amplifier with two speakers, the first console steel guitar (first steel guitar that was not a “lap” steel), the first steel guitar with more than two necks, a series of tuning advancements that predated the modern pedal steel guitar, and perhaps most incredibly, a built-in moving light show with lighted front, sides and fretboards. You read it right, a built-in light show—in 1937!

This story is really about two people. Firstly, Letritia Kandle, the musician and steel guitar pioneer who is the subject of this article, and secondly, Paul Warnik, the tireless researcher and steel guitar historian who recently uncovered Letritia’s amazing story.

Paul Warnik is a Chicago-area steel guitar collector who has seen just about everything over the years. However, one image always haunted him—a photo from the National guitar chapter in Tom Wheeler’s book ‘American Guitars.’ The photo caption in Wheeler’s book merely said “Teacher Letritia Kandle poses with National’s Grand Letar Console Steel.” A photo shows a pretty young woman from decades past posing in front of a large multi-neck steel guitar. The steel guitar was highly unusual, certainly no standard National instrument, and with no other information given, Paul filed the image away in his mind.

Information on Letritia Kandle was nonexistent, and years went by with no clues. When Paul purchased a National lap steel at a vintage guitar show in the early 1990s, it had a signed receipt from Letritia Kandle’s guitar studio with a Chicago address, which told him that she was from the Chicago area, but Paul assumed that she must have passed away. More years went by, and finally in 2007 Paul met one of Letritia’s former students at a steel guitar convention in Illinois, who informed Paul that Mrs. Kandle was still alive and living in the Chicago suburbs! This person was able to put Paul in touch with Letritia, who had been quietly living her life under her married name since she gave up music in the 1950s.

When Paul finally got in touch with Letritia at her home, the real story began to unfold. Letritia’s story had been unfairly relegated to the dustbins of history. However, thanks to her incredible memory, and the amazing photos and press clippings of the era that survive, her story can now be told.

Letritia Kandle was born in Chicago in November 7, 1915, the only child of Charles and Alma Kandle. In her early years, Letritia was a very typical young lady of the era. She took piano lessons, but when she was thirteen years old, she saw Warner Baxter play the Spanish guitar in the film ‘The Cisco Kid.’ This film made such an impression that immediately Letritia wanted to play the guitar instead of the piano. Her instructor advised her that the Hawaiian (also known as “steel”) guitar was becoming popular, and helped Letritia get started on the acoustic Hawaiian guitar.

Letritia’s father was always supportive of his daughter’s efforts, and after demonstrating she was serious about the Hawaiian guitar, she had top-of-the-line instruments for her musical endeavors. Her early acoustic instruments included a Weissenborn Koa guitar, and a National Style 2 (and later, a top of the line Style 4) Resophonic Hawaiian guitar. When Letritia saw an old turn-of-the-century double-neck harp guitar (possibly made the by Chicago maker Almcrantz) hanging in a second-hand shop, she asked her father to buy it for her and help her convert it from a harp guitar to a Hawaiian raised-nut instrument with a standard neck and a 12-string neck capable of different tunings.

At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, Hawaiian music and culture was all the rage. There, Letritia met George Kealoha Gilman, who mentored her in Hawaiian lore—speaking the Hawaiian language, Hula dancing, and making leis and grass skirts. The following year, in 1934, Letritia formed an all-girl ensemble known as The Kohala Girls. The Kohala Girls specialized in Hawaiian music, and had matching National Resophonic guitars.

Unlike many young musicians, Letritia was continually thinking of ways to not only improve her own musicianship, but ways to improve the steel guitar itself. After a few years of playing with the Kohala Girls, during which time electric lap steels and double-neck lap steels began to come on the scene, Letritia had a vision for a brand new revolutionary instrument.

Letritia wrote the story herself of how the National ‘Grand Letar’ console steel guitar came to be, for a series of articles in ‘Music Studio News.’ Here, directly from the source, is how this incredible instrument came into being:

“Have you ever indulged in dreaming? If you have, you know that there are primarily two different kinds—one where the dreamer tries to escape from the reality of living, and one where the dreamer sets a mental goal for himself, and then tries by hard, honest endeavor to reach it in reality. The second type of dreamer is responsible for many of the advancements of our Modern way of life.

“And so while waiting for an appointment on one of the upper floors of a tall office building in Chicago, the idea for a 26 string guitar was born. It was summer and through the large window facing the West from where I was sitting, the sun, like a huge ball of fire, surrounded by a myriad of colors, sky blue, pink, yellow, purple, and green was dropping by the horizon, there appeared an instrument seemingly blown of glass. I kept looking at the sky, when the crisp friendly voice of the receptionist called my mind back to this world. In those few moments of daydreaming, I knew what I wanted.

“A guitar that would enable me to stand while playing it, one that would sound full, like an organ, and yet produce tones like a vibraharp—one with not less than 26 strings, for complete harmony, and one that would change colors as the different tones were produced. When I arrived home, later that evening, I told my father of the dream. Although my dad is an engineer and not a musician, he offered to help build the ‘dream instrument’ for me, if I would help.

“The problems we encountered were many, each one had to be dealt with separately—a metal had to be chosen for the casting, that would not expand or contract when in contact with heat—sizes of strings, electronics, etc. until finally after many days, weeks, and months of labor, emerged a finished instrument.

“Now that the instrument was finished a name for it had to be selected, so, from my first name, Letritia, we took the first three letters, and from the word guitar we chose the last two letters. With this combination, the ‘dream instrument’ became the GRAND LETAR!!!”

During the first part of 1937, after Letritia had this vision of her dream instrument, her father worked on constructing the Grand Letar to his daughter’s specifications. The instrument was a large console, with the top part of the steel guitar made of a poured aluminum casting. The sides and “console” were made of wood and covered with a chrome-plated steel wrap. This was the first time that a steel guitar was not held in the lap, so it was a radical construction for the time. Additionally, no steel guitar had ever had more than two necks on it before this one. Letritia’s Grand Letar appeared to have four necks on it, three six-string necks and one eight string neck, but in reality it had three six-string necks and two four-string necks on it (more on that later).

Letritia’s father built the console of the steel guitar, then went to see Louis Dopyera at National Guitars. Letritia had been playing National Resophonics with The Kohala Girls, and already knew the Dopyera family at National. Mr. Kandle brought the basic body of the Grand Letar to National, where they installed pickups and an internal 20-watt National amplifier with two 12-inch Lansing (JBL) field coil speakers. This built-in amplifier happens to hold the distinction of being the first guitar amplifier to use two speakers—a full ten years before Leo Fender made the Dual Professional, and twenty-odd years before Leo began offering the Twin with JBL speakers as an option! Letritia’s Grand Letar with the dual speaker setup was a veritable Marshall stack in its day.

The coup de grace of the Grand Letar was the built in light show, which is so complex that it’s difficult to describe. Letritia and her father worked on an idea that utilized Mr. Kandle’s engineering know-how to realize Letritia’s vision. The fretboards, sides, and front of the steel guitar were etched glass that displayed lights that shone from within the guitar. The front panel of the Grand Letar was originally a rising sun motif, which came from Letritia’s initial vision of the instrument. Unfortunately, due to World War Two and the Japanese Invasion of Pearl Harbor, Letritia was eventually forced to change the rising sun motif to an art deco motif with musical notes.

Inside the steel guitar was a 1930’s vision of the future—an extensive network of 120 bulbs in four colors that flashed and changed colors as a large motor in the base of the Grand Letar engaged electrical contacts on a large flywheel. On the rear panel of the Grand Letar, a control panel with four rheostats and twelve toggle switches was used to control the brightness and other aspects of the internal “light show.”

When the Grand Letar was finished, National built a road case to transport the instrument. Because of all the etched glass, the instrument could not be transported unless it was secured in the custom-built road case. Unbelievably, the Grand Letar was 265 pounds by itself, and 400 pounds in the road case! 

Letritia was playing with the well-known Big Band leader Paul Whiteman during this time, and it was actually Paul Whiteman who came up with the name “Grand Letar.” Letritia played the Grand Letar with Whiteman during a residency at the Drake Hotel in Chicago during 1937.

Letritia demonstrate the Grand Letar at the 1937 National Music Trade Convention in New York City, the NAMM show of that era. All the major musical instrument manufacturers displayed their products at the convention, and many of the great names in music performed as demonstrators for the various companies. National signed an endorsement deal with Letritia in July, and agreed to transport the instrument to New York and provide her room and board in exchange for Letritia demonstrating the instrument at the National booth.

While demonstrating the Grand Letar at the New York trade convention, a very interesting thing happened. Letritia looked up while performing at the trade show to see none other than her idol, Alvino Rey, watching her demonstrate the remarkable new instrument. Letritia idolized Alvino Rey, who was one of the country’s greatest steel guitar players and bandleaders. Before the song was over, Alvino had quickly left the room, and Letritia never did meet him in person. Letritia was crushed, but more than likely the reality was that Alvino’s mind was blown at what he saw.

Whatever Alvino thought when he saw Letritia performing on the Grand Letar, the fact was she had predated him on a major evolutionary step of the steel guitar. While Gibson guitars had built many experimental steel guitars based on Alvino’s ideas, the Grand Letar was a huge step beyond anything that Gibson had ever conceived of up to then.

What is interesting about this happenstance is that within two years, Alvino Rey and Gibson guitars came out with the Console Grande steel guitar, which was Gibson’s first multi-neck console steel guitar. Alvino’s exquisite Console Grande steel influenced many later players and instrument makers, but the evidence points to Alvino getting the idea after seeing Letritia demonstrating the Grand Letar at this 1937 trade convention.

The dates of Letritia’s innovations can be verified through national press articles about her new instrument. ‘The Music Trades’ ran an article about Letritia and the Grand Letar in their September 1937 issue. ‘Down Beat,’ the highly regarded jazz magazine, also ran an article in October 1937. The dates are important because during the mad rush of stringed instrument innovation during the 1930’s, it is often difficult to prove who “got there first.” The articles written in 1937 prove that Letritia was indeed there first with her impressive list of innovations.

One of the ideas that Letritia had for the multi-neck arrangement of the Grand Letar was the tuning of the necks. Until the Grand Letar, lap steels and double-neck lap steels were usually tuned with one or two standard tunings, such as the low bass A tuning for Hawaiian playing or the C6 tuning for jazz. Letritia envisioned being able to cover all harmonic and chordal bases using a playing style that necessitated switching back and forth between the necks many times during each song. The basic ideas that Letritia came up for chord inversions were later utilized by pedal steel players, with their pedals achieving the same result as Letritia’s idea of switching between necks.

The first neck on the Grand Letar was tuned to an A-major (high bass) tuning, A-C#-E-A-C#-E. The second neck was tuned to an E7 with the standard old-school E7 tuning, B-E-D-G#-B-E. The third neck was an A minor tuning which could also make C6th inversions. Lastly, the fourth neck, which was an 8-string, was arranged in two small clusters, with four strings for each. One was tuned to an augmented chord, F-A-C#-F, and one was tuned to a diminished chord, F#-A-C-E.

The Grand Letar proved to be very unwieldy to transport, so it was mostly used for big engagements and residencies. In 1939 Letritia and her father came up with a more portable instrument, which was essentially like the Grand Letar without the built in amplifier and light show. This new instrument was called the “Small Letar.” Most notably, Letritia added a 7thstring to each of the standard necks, with one interesting variation on the E7 neck—she added a high F# string on the top of the E7 neck, which when played turned it into an E9 chord, predating the now-standard Nashville E9 tuning by twenty years!

There were several inquiries to National in regards to manufacturing and selling Grand Letar consoles, but the excessive cost and weight prevented another from being made. National promoted Letritia’s involvement with the company by picturing her in the 1940 catalog holding a National Princess lap steel.

In 1941, Letritia became the featured soloist of the 50-piece ‘Chicago Plectrophonic Orchestra,’ which featured Letritia playing classical numbers such as “Blue Danube Waltz” as well as other pop and Hawaiian numbers. When her mentor, conductor Jack Lundin, passed away in 1943, Letritia took over as conductor of the Orchestra.
The decade of the 1940s found Letritia teaching hundreds of students at her guitar studio in downtown Chicago. She was featured in the ‘Who’s Who Of Music,’ and also acted as a judge in many talent competitions (shades of ‘American Idol’). Letritia made the cover of the prestigious ‘B.M.G.’ magazine, and wrote articles for ‘Music Studio News’ and others.

Letritia continued her interest in advancing the steel guitar. In the late 1940’s, she endorsed the new Harlin Brothers Kalina Multi-Kord steel guitar, one of the early attempts at a pedal steel guitar.

In 1955 Letritia married Walter Lay, the former string bassist for the Chicago Plectrophonic Orchestra. After that, both Walter and Letritia went to work for Letritia’s father, who had begun a business that manufactured earth-boring equipment. Letritia essentially retired from music at this point, choosing to concentrate on raising a family.

Letritia’s story and her early innovations could easily have been forgotten and relegated to obscurity. Since she never made any recordings (beyond a few radio transcriptions which just recently surfaced), or pursued fame beyond her own musical endeavors, she never entered the public consciousness the way that Les Paul or Alvino Rey did.

Luckily, Letritia and her husband Walter retained all of their old magazines and publicity photos documenting Letritia’s music career. Best of all, the magnificent Grand Letar lay in its road case, completely untouched, underneath the basement stairwell, for nearly 55 years.

When collector Paul Warnik finally tracked down Letritia in 2007, he was not only blown away by the fact that Letritia was still alive and well (with great memory for detail), but that Letritia and her husband Walter had kept all her instruments and documentation of her music career.

After forging a friendship with Letritia and Walter, and making inquiries about the Grand Letar under the stairwell, Letritia surprised Paul by making arrangements for him to become the caretaker for all of her instruments (sadly, Walter, Letritia’s husband of over 53 years, passed away on December 15, 2008).

The Grand Letar had to be brought up the stairs in its road case, with a crew of piano movers hired to remove it from its half-century cold storage. When Paul began to restore the Grand Letar, it was essentially in good shape, but needed restoration of the amplifier and the light show. Jeff Mikols, Southside Chicago’s amp wizard, rebuilt the amplifier section. The electrical wiring for the light show and field coil speakers was restored by Sue Haslam, a technician at Peterson Strobe Tuners in the Chicago suburb of Alsip, Illinois.

Now that Letritia Kandle’s story is coming out, and the Grand Letar is back in action, the 94-year old electric guitar innovator remains nonplussed. In her words, “All I ever tried to do was elevate the steel guitar into a more versatile instrument that was capable of playing other styles of music, like modern and classical…not just Hawaiian music.”

Letritia Kandle at her Chicago Home (Sept 2009)
Letritia’s modest statement belies the fact that her accomplishments deserve a great deal of recognition. This article serves to set the record straight—70 years too late, but better late than never. We all owe a debt of thanks to the early electric guitar innovators—people like Les Paul, Alvino Rey, Charlie Christian—and Letritia Kandle.

Deke Dickerson

POSTSCRIPT: Letritia Kandle became ill during the writing of this story and was hospitalized. When the issue of Vintage Guitar magazine finally came off the presses, T.C. Furlong rushed a copy to her hospital room so she could see it. Letritia saw the article, and died three days later, on June 9th, 2010. She was 94 years old. All who were involved with the story feel like she hung on just long enough to see her life story in print. Rest in Peace, Letritia.

Special thanks to Letritia Kandle, Paul Warnik, T.C. Furlong, Sue Haslam, John Norris, Jeff Mikols, and Kay Koster.