Remembering The Liltin’ Miss Tilton

Although I’ve often written about various Songbirds — the ladies who sang with the big bands — in no way should it be assumed that I’ve done so with any kind of priority or ranking. In fact, their stories are all equally fascinating to me, even though some ladies might have found more lasting fame than others. For example, I’ve always thought that the gorgeous Martha Tilton was one of the best singers around, even though she might not be quite as well remembered as some. One reason for that might be that the song she’s best known for was actually a showcase for someone else — but more later about that.

The ‘Liltin’ Miss Tilton (as she was later often called) was born in Texas but grew up in Los Angeles, a good location for someone with an eye on a musical career. By the early Thirties she was singing in front of a dance band on local radio even though she was still in high school. Within a few years she’d logged time with several bands, had been part of a vocal quartet, and had even made brief singing appearances (uncredited) in a couple of movies. Eventually she joined Jimmy Dorsey’s band, but it was her next stop that would define her career.

Benny Goodman offered Martha the chance to replace his departing regular vocalist, Helen Ward, and she was more than ready. She proved to be popular with fans all over the country, and was also on hand for the band’s ground-breaking 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert. Her rendition of “Loch Lomond” was a big crowd favorite, but it was another song  — trumpeter Ziggy Elman’s “And The Angels Sing” — that ended up selling the most records. Ironically, Ziggy’s own extended trumpet solo dominated the song, but it’s still remembered as Martha’s biggest hit. (Martha and Ziggy recreated their triumph years later in the Benny Goodman Story. You can see it on the post dedicated to the song.)

During the war years, Martha spent a lot of her time doing radio shows and selling records of songs like “A Fine Romance,” “I’ll Remember April,” and “I’ll Walk Alone.” She also made appearances on the USO tour, but in the post-war years she began to slow down on performing and spend more time with her family. By the Fifties she’d pretty much retired from music, but she did resurface decades later, when swing music was enjoying a new life. She died in 2006 at age 91.


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