The Boswell Sisters: Close Harmony

Funded with Kickstarter

Overview

After many years of dreaming and research and pre-production and anticipation, this hour-long, public television documentary about the jazz vocalists, Connie, Martha, and Helvetia “Vet” Boswell, is ready to become a reality -- but only if you join us in our Kickstarter campaign.

Ever since the trio retired from show business in 1936 there have been all too infrequent resurgences of interest in their work. Their devoted admirers have continued to sing the praises of this truly revolutionary music over the years, but now the Sisters are about to experience a real Renaissance with the opening of a major exhibit at The Historic New Orleans Collection, the completion of a book about their lives and career, and the premiere of this film. So for those who already know and love their unique and unrepeatable “close harmony” style, as well as those who are about to be forever changed by the experience of hearing their first Boswell Sisters songs, it’s high time for celebration … once we’ve reached our $24,800 goal.

Or, as Connie, Martha, and Vet would sing, “Let’s spend it, lend it, send it rolling right along!”

Boswell Sisters

The Need for Funding

The first and foremost challenge and expense we face is purchasing the rights to use the Boswell Sisters’ films, photographs, and recordings. While much of this content is easily viewable (and quite ubiquitous on YouTube) legal negotiations with all of the individuals, unions, agencies, studios, and record companies is complex and time consuming enough that it requires us to hire a permissions consultant along with having substantial funding ready to acquire these performances and images that are absolutely essential to the documentary as well as the DVD and CD that will accompany it.

In order to complete the necessary research and conduct the 5 to 7 interviews that are required to create the definitive Boswell Sisters documentary, our team will need to make a number of trips to locations such as New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Portland, Oregon. Along with airfare and lodging these trips will also demand that we ship the needed production equipment or rent it on location.

All of our considerable skills as creative artists and technical capabilities as a production company will be required to shoot, write, and edit a story that is nearly as original as the Sisters’ vocal arrangements. And while this project is a longtime labor of love and respect, for which Joshua Tree Productions has already secured initial financial support, we will also need to commit this additional Kickstarter funding to the costs of facilities, recording studio time, equipment, and crew.

Boswell Sisters

The Story

“We put the cart before the horse; that is, we start at the end of a number and begin arranging forward … We couldn’t think of beginning at the beginning as most mortals do. We never put our arrangements in black and white, as we learn them by ear, and once learned, they always stay in our minds.”

Connie Boswell

"The three of us made one good person."

Vet Boswell

Over the course of five years during the darkest days of the Great Depression, the Boswell Sisters enlivened the world of popular music with their crazy, but intricately crafted vocal arrangements. They had grown up in New Orleans in the early years of the 20th Century and were steeped in the mélange of blues, classical, and gospel sounds that coursed through the city’s consciousness. Friends and family remembered them, when they were just girls, breaking into song at the same time in the same key from separate rooms of their Camp Street home. They took instrumental lessons from the unfortunately named Professor Otto Finck who endured their irrepressible pranks only because of their obvious virtuosity. All on their own the three sisters could have formed a uniquely American band of piano, cello, violin, banjo, and saxophone. But once they began playing and singing “that noise” called “jazz,” they attracted the best young musical talents to what must have been the hottest house parties in Uptown – much to the dismay of their father, and the neighbors.

Boswell Sisters

During their professional debut at the Orpheum Theatre in 1925 the place was packed with their classmates who had been excused from school to cheer them on. Their big break came by accident in the shape of a form letter sent to all the talent at the Orpheum inviting them to a “try-out” in Chicago. But when it was time for the Sisters to audition they were too nervous to play the instrumental piece they had prepared, so they fell back on performing a familiar, “close harmony” vocal, which caused one musically challenged manager to complain, “Don’t you girls do anything but sing?”

But sing they did, and because they came of age during “the Roaring Twenties,” they were able to take full advantage of historic new freedoms for young women who wanted to work and travel and express themselves. So the early years of their career played out like a saga of depression-era America as they struggled through a grueling Vaudeville tour of dust-bowl Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas, then joined the Westward exodus of economic refugees as they journeyed cross-country by car to California in an attempt to get so far away from home they wouldn’t be able to return until they succeeded. Sometimes they were poorly paid, so they went hungry, and once they stole food for a birthday dinner. And, if it’s possible, they grew even closer as their harmonies became more extra-ordinary, their performance schedule became more demanding, and certainly because Vet and Martha frequently had to physically carry Connie due to a childhood disability that made it difficult for her to walk.

Boswell Sisters

Finally their persistence and brilliance paid off, in true rags-to-riches fashion, as they progressed from “ghost-singing” for the stars on the early Hollywood talkies, through endless rounds of radio programs and late-night recording sessions, to acclaim in New York City and two triumphal tours of Europe. And during this time their innovative music was being shaped by, as well as influencing, the rise of the recording and radio industries. They perfected the state of the art techniques of “syncopated” and “microphone” singing, and even performed on the first television broadcast.

With the enthusiastic backing of brilliant bands that included the Dorsey Brothers, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Joe Venuti, and too many others to mention, they recorded some of the most seriously wild yet precisely charted arrangements of Tin Pan Alley’s sturdiest standards, from Shine On, Harvest Moon to Alexander’s Ragtime Band. But the sheer exuberance and eccentricity of their renditions ultimately put them at odds with record producer, Jack Kapp, who demanded that they “stick to the melody.” His determination to commercialize their act drove him to hire the most conventional arrangers to keep the Sisters from embellishing their tunes. Even though Bing Crosby had taken them under his wing and they were much admired by fellow musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald their career suddenly ended, in classic screwball-comedy fashion, with a series of misunderstandings and multiple marriages.

While their body of work is rich with their characteristic high spirits and great good humor, there is also a touch of poignance in this story of three nearly forgotten, but nonetheless genuine, American geniuses who may have peaked at the wrong time, retired too early, were badly mis-managed, or had such original ideas that they could never be properly packaged for the masses. The Boswell Sisters haven’t yet earned anything near the acclaim that they deserve – but this documentary will create welcome new interest in a trio that has inspired swing, country, pop and rock vocalists from the Andrews Sisters to The Manhattan Transfer, Bette Midler, Wynonna Judd, Diana Krall, Fiona Apple, and the list keeps growing ...

And, indeed, their music will enchant anyone who has an ear for “close harmony” sung from the heart.

Boswell Sisters

The Production

Before her death, “Chica” Boswell Minnerly, the daughter of Vet, allowed the Joshua Tree Productions team to film her only interview in an extensive, 2-hour session. Also providing historical and musical context through his own interview is New Orleans native, David McCain, who, since the 1970’s, has dedicated his considerable skills and passion to researching the Sisters and keeping their legacy alive. Interviews are also planned with Kyla Titus, Vet’s granddaughter, who is working on the definitive Boswell biography, as well as other performers, scholars, and fans who admire the trio’s work and speak so knowingly of their lasting, but often under-appreciated influence on American music.

The documentary will be a visual treasure because the family has offered the producers access to rare photographs and newly restored 16mm movies of the Sisters’ lives at home, in Manhattan, and on tour. A number of their performances have also been preserved in a variety of feature films, short subjects, and even cartoons of the period.

Of course, the sound track will be a breath-taking playlist of their ground-breaking arrangements with all their Boswellian syncopation, gibberish riffs, and breakneck key and tempo changes. But there may also be some unexpected delights from the family’s collection of recordings that haven’t been heard since they were first broadcast in the 1930’s.

Boswell Sisters

The Creative Team

Daniel Garrison is the Writer, Producer, and Director of The Boswell Sisters: Close Harmony. He studied acting and playwrighting at Northwestern University where he learned to love, and teach, the works of Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov with all their universality and humanity. As a graduate student in television and film at Syracuse University he began his documentary career by filming the restoration of a 19th Century “Hudson River School” art collection and gallery. He has been a writer, producer, teacher, narrator, and on-air host at various PBS stations. His documentary history of water in the Mojave Desert, The Water Rules, received the first of numerous regional Emmys, an Edward R. Murrow Award, as well as recognition from the National Education Association for the Advancement of Learning through Broadcasting. Other natural history documentaries have taken him to Tanzania to study endangered black rhinos, Alaska to survey the peregrine falcon population, and Yellowstone to track the interactions between grizzly bears and gray wolves. But his work has always returned to the Arts and other cultural subjects because of parents who made music and poetry and history important influences in their family’s life. And the song now goes on with his two teenage sons whose vocal and instrumental studies have given them the opportunity, so far, to perform at Canterbury Cathedral, Lincoln Center … and even Carnegie Hall — three times!

Paul Bean is the Director of Photography and Editor of the documentary. He has over 30 years of television production experience. His credits include the Physicians Update series which aired on the Lifetime Network, and Houston Astros Baseball, which was broadcast nationally. For his work as Director on the PBS documentary, Oil, the Coming Crisis, he received the prestigious Gold Award from the Texas Broadcasters Association. When he came to Las Vegas he served as Videographer/Editor and received an Emmy for Outdoor Nevada. As the founding partner of Joshua Tree Productions he directed, shot and edited the year-long Millennial Moments series of short documentaries for Vegas PBS as well as a wide variety of productions for HBO, TruTV, the Travel Channel, and the History Channel.

Kyla Titus, Vet Boswell’s granddaughter, has experience as a writer that spans decades and covers a variety of styles including technical, business, proposal, grant, report, presentational, newsletter and journalistic writing (including a New York State Press Association Award for best column in 2001). She holds a B.A. in Cultural Studies & Communications from Empire State College in New York and began graduate work at Albany University in Educational Theory and Practice before committing to write a biography of the Boswell Sisters that tells the human story behind their music, fortune, and fame. Her expertise on the subject is unequaled because she is a direct descendant and has in her possession thousands of artifacts, letters, images, and historical memorabilia in addition to a wellspring of family fact and lore.  Her purpose is to honor the contributions of the Sisters to America’s entertainment and musical cultures by preserving their memory and sharing their accomplishments with as many people as possible.

David W. McCain is originally from New Orleans, just like his beloved Boswell Sisters. His research (much of which has been donated to several New Orleans institutions) into the history of harmony singing quickly led him to the Boswell Sisters’ musical genius. David was captivated by their sound, but needed to know more about its origins. He found himself full of questions that he felt only Vet Boswell could answer. After their first meeting a close friendship ensued until her death in 1988. His relationship with Vet’s family continues, and he is currently working with her granddaughter, Kyla Titus, on the biography of the Sisters, as well as other projects, to perpetuate and celebrate the highly influential Boswell Sound.

Cynthia C. Lucas is a Hoosier-born Texan who studied Theater and Communications at Indiana State, the University of Houston, and Texas Tech. After pursuing her dreams as an actress and singer, the need to pay bills on a regular basis led her to a career in marketing and advertising. She first discovered the Boswell Sisters’ music in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, then proceeded to research and write a play about the storm and the Sisters, and develop the bozzies.org website. In 2007 she produced a three-day Boswell Centennial in New Orleans that drew international speakers, performers, and fans to celebrate Connee Boswell’s 100th birthday. Related events that she either developed or helped publicize followed in Austin, Texas and Peekskill, New York and other cities. She served as President of the Boswell Museum of Music and helped oversee the donation of its archives to The Historic New Orleans Collection.

Randall Riley is an Austin, Texas-based, independent filmmaker and audio engineer who was bitten by the Boswell bug while in his teens. Since then, he has collected all of Connee Boswell’s solo recordings and produced the documentary short subject, Connee Boswell – Life is a Song, which premiered at the Boswell Sisters Centennial in New Orleans in 2007. He also digitized the Boswell Museum’s audio archive and David McCain’s 5,000-plus page clipping collection, both of which were donated to the Historic New Orleans Collection in 2011. His company, The Swing Shift, specializes in digitizing and re-mastering vintage audio recordings as well video editing and production.

Contact the Filmmaker

You can reach Daniel Garrison, writer/producer/director of Close Harmony, at dan@joshuatreetv.com.

Boswell Sisters

Thank You

To the following generous supporters of The Boswell Sisters: Close Harmony


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