The Song Scout: On “Dutchess” and Keeping the Boswells Alive

Roger Crane, The Song Scout

By Roger Crane

Unlike earlier vocal groups The Boswell Sisters were truly three voices singing as one, acting and interacting with each other as musicians and not simply vocalists. And each was a superb musician, Martha played piano, Helvetia (Vet) played violin, banjo and guitar and Connie played cello, sax and guitar. Although their career was short, roughly 1931-1936, compilations of their recordings can be found and selections including the noted “Heebie Jeebies,” the exceptional “River Stay ‘Way from My Door,” the charming “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye” and, of course, the chart topping “The Object of My Affection.”

The Sisters strong jazz flair was enhanced by the accompaniment of some of the top 1930s jazz musicians, including the Dorsey brothers, Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang. Thankfully, various CDs are now available, but the Boswell Sisters deserve much more attention. Without question, they were musical innovators and many succeeding vocal groups — male as well as female — owe their musical shape to the pattern laid down by the Boswells. And even some solo artists; for example, Ella Fitzgerald, has named them as personal favorites and a major influence on her style. No dopey melismas, no shouting, no foolish vocal acrobatics, just swinging close harmony.

Duchess is a stellar vocal group formed in 2013 that owes its musical shape to the Boswells. It consists of three New York-based vocalists – Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou. Interestingly, all three are originally from north of the 49th parallel. Amy and Melissa are from Toronto and Hilary from Alaska. Why “Duchess?” Cervini explained to writer Dan Ouellette “We were actually looking at slang from the ‘20s and ‘30s when we were choosing a name for our trio. There were a lot of words for women that were diminutive or insulting, but “duchess” was simply another name for a girl. We liked that it was a nod to the past but also was strong.”

Although Duchess takes a loving nod to their classic vocal harmonies, Gardner says they do not consider themselves a Boswells “tribute” group. She clarifies that the Duchess’ vocals are not simply a retro-leaning nostalgia exercise. For example, they choose songs from as far back as the late ‘20s but also bring a fresh look to songs such as “Lollipop,” a bit of 1958 fluff recorded by the Chordettes.

While listening to Duchess, it is clear that – as a group and individually – they enjoy and respect the Boswells. But, as Gardner further explains, “We’re intrinsically camp. We’re three girls singing together in harmony, so it’s going to be a little campy and a little retro. It’s built in. It’s in the hardware. So you can fight that—like we’re doing something very serious and very important, or you can have a good time.

“Our idea of entertainment is to be silly and not needing to have a master’s degree to get a good experience out of a jazz show. I don’t know when all of that became a liability for people in jazz. It doesn’t have to. As Judy Garland famously said, ‘Always be a first-rate version of yourself and not a second-rate version of someone else.’” Folks who have been blessed to see Duchess in live performances consistently mention the fun they exhibit.

Dan Ouellette in a May 2015 Down Beat article described Duchess as “harmonious frivolity,” which sounds very good to me.

The Duchess Site

The Boswells Official website

A breezy fan-based site for the “Bozzies

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