In 1946 William D. Alexander began the production of a series of one-reel shorts, half-hour featurettes and feature films that would serve a dual purpose. These black cast subjects would be released to theaters that welcomed African American audiences; concurrently, the music segments would be excerpted from the films and released as Soundies. Ultimately, sixteen of Alexander’s musical shorts reached the Panoram screen, spotlighting the bands of Lucky Millinder, Billy Eckstine, Henri Woode and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. (Alexander actually produced four films with the Sweethearts, three ten-minute short subjects and one feature, although some of the performances turns up in more than one film; only three performances saw release as a Soundie.)
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm grew out of a band formed in the 1930s at the Piney Woods Country Life School, an institution – in part an orphanage – for poor African American children. A member of the music department had apparently taken note of the success of Ina Ray Hutton’s Melodears and decided that an all-woman band composed of school members might lead to something special. While they performed locally, the ISR did not begin to hit its stride until it left Piney Woods and became a professional touring outfit in 1941. The band was certainly “international” in nature, and its ranks included African American, Latina, Chinese, Indian, White and Puerto Rican musicians. In 1941, Anna Mae Winburn joined the orchestra as front woman and featured vocalist.
During the war years Maurice King joined the band as both arranger and band manager.
Born Clarence King in 1911, King played reeds and later became a fine swing arranger. While here we recognize his composition and arrangement for the Sweethearts – he called this tune “She’s Crazy with the Heat ” – King is best known for his longtime association with Barry Gordy and Motown Records for which he served as director of artist development. He worked closely with vocal groups, teaching the singers how to voice and phrase together. “Maurice brought sophistication and class to Motown,” said session musician Johnny Trudell.
By 1946, the Sweethearts was recognized as one of the finest African-American bands in jazz. They recorded for Guild and RCA Records, broadcast regularly for the Armed Forces Radio Service, and toured Europe entertaining the GIs. While much of the success was due to Maurice King’s arrangements, the band’s musicians were all strong, and a special nod must go to Viola Burnside, one of the most neglected tenor soloists of the 1940s. I chatted with my friend Roz Cron, a member of the Sweetheart’s reed section, shortly before her passing. When I thanked her for her contribution, she paused and said, “Yeah, we were one of the best, one of the very, very best.”