Helen Forrest


Helen Forrest (born Helen Fogel, April 12, 1917 – July 11, 1999) was an American singer of traditional pop and swing music. She served as the "girl singer" for three of the most popular big bands of the Swing Era (Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Harry James), thereby earning a reputation as "the voice of the name bands."

Forrest was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey on April 12, 1917. Her parents, Louis and Rebecca Fogel, were Jewish.[1] Her father died from influenza when Helen was an infant so she was raised by her mother, who often blamed her husband's death on Helen's birth. She believed God had taken her husband because she had wished so much for a baby girl.[2] Helen had three older brothers: Harry, Ed, and Sam. In Helen's early teen years, the family relocated to Brooklyn. Her mother married a house painter, whom Helen disliked. Soon, Helen's mother and stepfather turned the family's home into a brothel.[2] At 14, Helen was nearly raped by her stepfather; she defended herself with a kitchen knife, injuring him. Following this, Helen's mother permitted her to live with her piano teacher, Honey Silverman, and her family.

Forrest returned to Atlantic City and began singing with her brother Ed's band.[2] She soon returned to New York City, where she visited song publishers and performed an audition for a 15-minute slot for a local radio show. Around this time, Forrest was encouraged to change her name from "Fogel" because her name sounded "too Jewish." In 1934, 17-year-old Forrest began singing for WNEW in New York. She also performed for WCBS where she was known as “Bonnie Blue” and “The Blue Lady of Song.”[2] Eventually she found a singing job at the Madrillon Club, in Washington, D.C., where she performed for approximately two years.

After seeing Forrest at the Madrillon, bandleader Artie Shaw asked her to go on tour with him; Shaw was looking for new talent when vocalist Billie Holiday decided to leave the band. Helen was hired in 1938.[2] For a time she and Holiday were both working with Shaw's band. In some venues, African-American performers were required to remain off stage until they performed. When Forrest became aware of this, she stated that like Holiday, she would also not take the stage until she was to sing.[4] She recorded 38 singles with Shaw's band. Two of her biggest hits with Shaw were the songs "They Say" and "All the Things You Are." During her time with Shaw, Helen Forrest became a national favorite. In November 1939, Shaw broke up his band.[5]

Helen joined Benny Goodman in December 1939, with whom she recorded a number of celebrated songs, including the hit song "The Man I Love."[2] Helen recorded 55 studio recordings with Goodman. She told the Pop Chronicles radio series: "Benny would look right above your eyebrows, in the middle, right on top of the brow. He was a very strange man", [6][7] and described Goodman as the most demanding band leader she sang for.[8] Forrest also stated, "The band I joined was sensational, but few special arrangements were written for me. I sang choruses, and made myself fit to the music. Benny used to drive me crazy by 'noodling' behind me on clarinet while I sang." Goodman was also reported to have been a perfectionist and a very difficult man to work with. In August 1941, Forrest quit the orchestra "to avoid having a nervous breakdown".[5][9] After leaving Goodman, Forrest briefly recorded with Nat King Cole and Lionel Hampton.[10]

In 1941, she approached Harry James, offering to work for him under one condition: that she be permitted to sing more than one chorus. Although James was looking for a more jazz-oriented singer, he allowed Forrest to audition. The band voted her in and she was hired. Several decades later, Forrest explained in an interview,[7] "Harry James was wonderful. When I joined him, I said, 'There's only one condition: I don't care how much you pay me, I don't care about arrangements. The one thing I want is to start a chorus and finish it.

At the peak of her career, Helen Forrest was the most popular female singer in the United States. Because of her work with the bands of Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Harry James, she is known as "the voice of the name bands" and is regarded by some as the best female vocalist of the swing era.[17] In addition, AllMusic describes Forrest as "a performer that some might not consider a jazz vocalist, but one with exceptional ability to project lyrics and also an excellent interpreter." Also, IMDb describes Forrest: "though Helen was not, perhaps, a jazz singer in the truest sense, she brought to her songs a wistful 'girl-next-door' quality" through her "femininity and warmth of her voice and the clear, emotional phrasing of her lyrics." In his book The Big Bands, writer George Simon wrote, "Helen was a wonderfully warm and natural singer."

Over the course of her career, Helen Forrest recorded more than 500 songs.