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Cats Who Swing and Sing
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In this episode:

Women Singer-Pianists of the 1940s and 1950s


Nellie Lutcher, a star pianist and singer of the late 1940s who mixed boogie and swing riffs on the keyboards with sly and humorously suggestive lyrics, once remarked that it was 1930s performer Cleo Brown who'd "sort of started a trend for girl piano players and vocalists" with her recording of the song "It's a Heavenly Thing." There had been an even earlier, blues-oriented practitioner of the style, Kansas City's Julia Lee, in the 1920s, but she wasn't widely heard on records until the late 1940s. With the commercial success of singles such as Lutcher's "Hurry On Down" and Lee's "King Size Papa," these performers were able to gain a larger audience, and to showcase vocal and instrumental skills that drew on deeper musical nuance and artistry than their risque hits sometimes seemed to suggest.

In addition to Lutcher, Brown, and Lee, we'll also hear music from singer-pianist Hadda Brooks, a mainstay of the 1940s Central Avenue club scene in Los Angeles. Brooks can be seen and heard performing in Humphrey Bogart's 1950 film noir In a Lonely Place; in the early 1950s she also became the first African-American woman to host her own television show. Musically she alternated between boogie-woogie ("Swingin' the Boogie") and a slow, torch/club-blues style ("That's My Desire"). All of these artists elevated the profile of women musicians at a time when it was very difficult for female instrumentalists in the jazz world, particularly after the "all-girl bands" of the World War II years had dispersed; by combining their piano-playing with vocals, they were able to enjoy the spotlight of a singer and to put their keyboard talents on display as well.

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