“Connie Boswell (1907-76) was a white southern singer from New Orleans, first with two family members in a close harmony vocal trio as the Boswell Sisters in the 1930s, when they were major radio stars across the US, and then as a solo artist, and in an enduring set of duets with singer and film star Bing Crosby. Her deep voice, blues-inflected and sometimes scat-oriented singing style, unique arrangements, and sense of vocal playfulness made her a ‘key figure … in the development of the voice as a carrier for jazz’ (Stras 2009, 317); she was a significant influence on the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, who recalled that Connie ‘was doing things that no-one else was doing at the time’ According to Laurie Stras, Boswell holds ‘a unique position as the only visibly disabled “A-list” female popular entertainer for most of the twentieth century’ : she was a wheelchair user as a result of contracting poliomyelitis (‘infantile paralysis’) in childhood. In an indication of the multiple roles that members of bands and ensembles can play—both musicians and facilitators, thus the ensemble is also a support network —in their early years on the vaudeville circuit in the late 1920s, the three would arrive at a small town theatre and her sisters Vet and Martha would carry Connie in a fireman’s lift to the door . On stage she would be positioned in situ, at a piano or seated, before the curtain came up, or use a disguised adapted wheelchair, or, later, a fitted lower body brace over a voluminous dress to give the appearance of
standing autonomously.Connie at White House 1931
While primarily a radio star, listening audiences could not always tell whether Connie was black or white let alone have an inkling that she was physically disabled. But, while ‘her story remains untold in most histories of jazz’ it is in Boswell’s solo turn and its concurrence with the media shift from aural (radio) to visual (film, television) delivery that her disability became more of a (public career) issue. Decades later she remembered how ‘[p]roducers who knew me only from radio or recordings would call and ask me to audition for the show. I’d go over and as soon as they saw me in a wheelchair they’d freeze. It hurt. Really hurt’ . For a while she tried opening up about her impairment, possibly inspired by her work for polio survivor President Roosevelt’s new March of Dimes campaign to eradicate polio, at least until the bookings began to dry up. So, feature articles appeared with headlines such as ‘She Has Made A Good Thing of Life in a Wheel Chair’ (New York Post), and ‘Boswell Would Refuse Cure for Paralyzed Legs to Help Economic Cripples!’ (Down Beat) (Stras 2008, 261, n. 56, n. 57). Looking back on what Stras calls her ‘post-confession career’ , Boswell recalled her normalising strategies.
When for a time I wasn’t getting booked, I wanted to know why. I found out that the getting on and offstage was a pretty painful-looking procedure. People came to night clubs to enjoy themselves, to have fun. They wanted to get away from trouble. I could understand that well enough and that’s why I went to work to smooth out my entrances and exits…. That’s how I dreamed up the skirt-covered wheelchair I use for my appearances.
Connie Disguises wheelchair with large dress when on film and TV.
The intersection of gender and disability is present in the case of disabled singer Connie Boswell, who interrogated the extent to which a (female) public figure could negotiate her disability, on stage, on screen, in print. Boswell was after all the A-list musical star who tried coming out about her disability in the same period as the wartime POTUS was engaged in his ‘splendid deception’ aimed at hiding his own polio-derived impairment from the American public”. (Source George MacKay Jazz and Disability)