Betty Bennett: the chick singer carries on

An update on the 98-year-old singer who was equally at home with Charlie Ventura's Bop for the People, in swing bands led by Claude Thornhill, and among arrangements by husband André Previn

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In October, Betty Bennett celebrated her 98th birthday and is now beset with financial difficulties. A spirited and stylish singer, she sang with swing era bands, bop groups, and had a distinctive touch with classic popular songs.

She was born 23 October 1921, Lincoln, Nebraska. As a child, she hoped to become an opera singer, studying voice and piano. Her direction was changed when, by way of records, her mother introduced her to the music of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Loving what she heard of these jazz musicians, Bennett quickly became proficient in jazz singing, displaying a natural talent for the form.

While still very young, she joined Georgie Auld’s band and then in quick succession spent time in the late swing-era big bands led by Claude Thornhill, Alvino Rey and Charlie Ventura (and she was also briefly with Stan Kenton and Woody Herman). The Ventura band bore the promo tag “Bop for the People” and Bennett’s contemporary vocal styling was a perfect fit. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she was at ease with both swing and bop and comfortably bridged the stylistic gap.

Bennett’s recording career began formally in 1949-1951 (there are earlier airshots). From sessions with the Ventura band come Yankee Clipper, Too Marvelous For Words and I Can’t Get You Out Of My Mind. As a solo singer, Bennett recorded her first album for Trend in 1953. Entitled Betty Bennett, this included Nobody’s Heart, Time After Time and You’re Nearer. Two years later, she recorded for Atlantic Records with the accompaniment of a band led by André Previn, whom she had married in 1952. In the band for Nobody Else But Me were Shorty Rogers (who with Previn also wrote the charts), Frank Rosolino, Bob Cooper, Jimmy Giuffre, Barney Kessel and Shelly Manne. Similarly star-studded were the trio and quartet Previn fronted for a 1959 United Artists date, the aptly titled I Love To Sing, on which are Conte Candoli, Red Mitchell, and Irv Cottler.

Bennett began appearing on the jazz festival circuit and after divorcing Previn (with whom she had two daughters, editor and singer Claudia Previn Stasny and violinist Alicia Previn), in 1975 she celebrated a new personal relationship when she and Mundell Lowe were married at a ceremony held at the Monterey Jazz Festival. This was also a joining of musical minds and Bennett and Lowe would occasionally appear together in live performances and there is also a 1990 Fresh Sound album, The Song Is You. Here, accompanied by Bob Cooper, George Cables, Monty Budwig and Roy McCurdy, the couple perform fine interpretations of songs such as You Must Believe In Spring, No More Blues, I Thought About You and The Eagle And Me.

After stopping singing, Bennett remained active and when Lowe’s eyesight deteriorated she drove him to gigs around San Diego until 2017, the year of his death, by which time she was 95. Bennett and I first met in 1980 and only a few times after that but we corresponded regularly by email. In her messages she found humour in her advancing years, complaining wryly when her driver’s license was revoked because she had reached 96, and engagingly signing her emails “Chick Singer”.

Bennett’s singing, lyrically profound and musically adventurous, allowed her to create memorable interpretations of standards from the repertoire of both jazz and popular song. Her experiences in her early years in jazz are entertainingly recounted in her autobiography, The Ladies Who Sing With The Band, published by Scarecrow Press in 2000. Her extensive collection of photographs and other memorabilia is now with Rutgers University’s Institute of Jazz Studies. More photos can be seen on Marc Myers’ JazzWax website on which there is also a long interview. In 2018, she appeared briefly on the NAMM Oral History program. Anyone wishing to contribute to her health care can do so on her GoFundMe page.