Helen Forrest Biography

Helen Fogel, 12 April 1917 or 1918, Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA, d. 11 July 1999, Los Angeles, California, USA. Forrest began singing as child and by her mid-teenage was appearing regularly on radio in New York City. Many of her appearances were on CBS, with whom she held a salaried job, and this led to her being heard by Artie Shaw who hired her in 1937. The other band singer with Shaw was Billie Holiday whose colour prevented her from appearing at some venues and on some radio shows. Forrest was thus given opportunities she might well have preferred to avoid. Certainly, she held Holiday, her primary influence, in high regard, declaring later: ‘Billie was just wonderful to me. Always trying to help, she used to tell Artie to let me sing some of her songs. She was really a great, caring person.’

When Shaw abruptly disbanded at the end of 1939 Forrest moved onto the Benny Goodman band. Here, the clear evidence of her almost-40 recordings with Shaw, that she was a singer of merit, was considerably enhanced by Goodman arranger, Eddie Sauter, who had previously worked with Red Norvo, writing charts for Mildred Bailey who was Forrest’s other main early influence. Sauter admirably tailored several charts to suit Forrest’s fine, clear and expressive voice, among them ‘Darn That Dream’, ‘Yours Is My Heart Alone’ and ‘The Man I Love’. In 1941 Forrest quit Goodman and joined Harry James where she recorded a succession of beautifully crafted performances including ‘I Had The Craziest Dream’, ‘I’ve Heard That Song Before’, ‘I Don’t Want To Walk Without You’, ‘Skylark’, ‘Time Waits For No One’ and ‘I Cried For You’. This band’s other singer was Dick Haymes and with him Forrest duetted on a succession of hit recordings, among them ‘Long Ago And Far Away’, ‘It Had To Be You’ and ‘I’ll Buy That Dream’. On all of the songs she sang with James, the direction sign-posted by Sauter was fully exploited and the singer is intelligently and exquisitely showcased.

Romantically linked with James, Forrest quit when he married Betty Grable but her singing career continued apace. In the 50s she sang in clubs, worked in radio, recorded albums under her own name and in reunion with James, and toured extensively throughout the USA. During the next decade the tours continued, including trips to the UK and Australia, and she made yet more records with James. Through the 70s she worked on as a club singer and also appeared in packages that teamed her with Haymes and others from her golden days. A stroke in 1980 barely gave her pause and in 1983 she was back to the recording studios, this time for a jazz-slanted album with a group including Hank Jones and George Duvivier. This, together with reissues of her earlier work, helped ensure that her name stayed in the limelight albeit never in the full glare of publicity that sometimes surrounded lesser singers from the swing era.

Forrest’s pure, clear and well-phrased voice, allied as it was to a fine interpretative gift with lyrics, drew the respect and admiration of many other singers, including Dolly Dawn, Connie Haines and Frankie Laine. She was regarded by many, including the noted historian, Gunther Schuller, as being one of the best white singers of the swing era, and, Bailey apart, headed the list until the emergence of Frank Sinatra.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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