I recently acquired a big stack of older reissue LPs of jazz and swing, a selection of some of the bigger names from the '20s through the wartime Big Band (and beginnings of bop) era. So far most of my previously held notions have held true: I can't get enough Ellington, Glenn Miller is highly entertaining when there are no Ray Eberle vocals, and Billie Holliday's singing is undeniably special no matter the material.
Going even earlier, I've sampled (and enjoyed) some of Louis Armstrong's legendary Hot Five/Seven recordings, a couple volumes of The Bix Beiderbecke Story, and a Fletcher Henderson Dixie Stompers LP. However, so far the real winners were a batch of albums with material mostly from the Depression era. I almost left the Boswell Sisters behind, but for a vague recollection of some friends playing me the group once, and the fact that they cost a quarter.
The Boswells grew up in New Orleans, where they began making public appearances as a trio in 1919. According to Michael Brooks' liner notes for Nothing Was Sweeter Than the Boswell Sisters, the sisters learned piano, cello and violin at a young age and played in the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra, while at the same time were also absorbing "blues and spirituals from the three coloured members of household." Soon the trio left "straight" music behind for jazz. They first recorded in the mid-1920s, but didn't gain much national attention until leaving New Orleans, first for California in 1930 and then New York in 1931. The material on this album focuses specifically on their early sides cut for Brunswick in 1931, with the backing of players like Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Eddie Lang, and Joe Venuti & Bunny Berigan.
The Boswells started having hit records after the move to Brunswick, but this isn't like any other pop music of the time that I've encountered. The combination of then-up-and-coming swing players with the sisters' unique re-arrangements of the material -- often changing the tempos and keys intended by the composers -- made for a very special sound that's still exciting today, low fidelity 78 transfers or not. It's hard to pick out highlights on Nothing Was Sweeter…, but of particular interest are the spine-chilling "Shout Sister Shout," described in the notes as the sisters' signature tune, and "River Stay Away From My Door." From what I can tell digging through their discography, this album contains most of their singles sides from 1931.
The material on The Original Sound of "The 30's" [sic] is a mix of selections from 1932-35, and as such doesn't have the benefit of the unified sound provided by the somewhat continuous backing band on the 1931 tracks. That being said, the earlier tracks here are backed by the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, and consequently those are more of a piece with the 1931 tracks. On later songs the sisters are operating in a bit more pop sound, which is not as groundbreaking but still graced by their unusual close harmony style. Highlights include "Down on the Delta" and the dramatic "Stop the Sun, Stop the Moon."
The Boswells broke up in 1936, but lead voice Connee continued as a solo performer. Their sound stayed popular through the '40s in the more pop-oriented form of The Andrews Sisters, who began having national hits shortly after the Boswells disbanded, and even resurfaced in a reboot format in the '70s via The Pointer Sisters' early recordings.
A bit of research online turns up many, many compilations of the Boswells work, from both labels now owning the masters and collector-oriented imprints, but very few attempts to chronicle their recording career in an organized fashion -- one attempt was an out of print five-CD series on the Danish Nostalgia Arts label. The Boswells seem like an ideal project for UK budget box set labels such as Proper or JSP, since it's unlikely any American company will take it on. (Ace of Hearts/Decca UK, 1966; CBS UK, 1974)