I was listening to one of my favorites recently, and as I enjoyed the music I thought to myself that it was a perfect example of how the singers who performed in the big band era did their job. The song, performed by Harry James and his orchestra with a vocal by songbird Helen Forrest, was the aptly-named “Skylark,” with Harry’s trumpet dominating early and Helen coming in much later. That’s how it worked at that time — the bandleaders were usually the superstars and the singers were part of the supporting cast. But some of the vocalists would eventually become stars in their own right, and Helen was one who built a nice career along the way.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the Songbirds, the name that’s often given to the ladies who sang with the big bands. (Just do a search on this site for “songbirds” and you’ll see what I mean.) However, it is the first time I’ve featured Helen Forrest, and she was one of the best.
A New Jersey native whose real name was Helen Fogel, she got her start as a very young singer for her brother’s band. By the late 1930s, she’d worked her way into a spot with Artie Shaw — replacing the legendary Billie Holiday — but Shaw soon went into one of his many sabbaticals so she was out of a job. Luckily, she was able to catch on with another clarinet superstar, Benny Goodman. How’s that for landing on your feet?
During the war years, Helen worked with Lionel Hampton and others, and eventually began her stint with Harry James, one that would lead to a lot of hit records. She sometimes billed herself as Bonnie Blue or the Blue Lady, and was always a hit with fans. She continued to diversify by making the occasional spot appearance in movies, and also by teaming up with crooner Dick Haymes on his popular radio show. The duo also teamed up for a series of hit records.
By the 1950s, Helen had started to cut back on her performing. Over the next couple of decades she made occasional appearances, and was still cutting records in the 1980s, but within a few years she was pretty much retired from music. She died in 1999, but will always be remembered as one of the best of the songbirds.