Native-Texan Louise Tobin (b. 1918, Aubrey, TX) grew up in Denton in a large family that sang and played music together. She was the fourth youngest of eleven children and the only one to make music her profession. After winning a CBS Radio Talent Contest in 1932, she toured the larger Texas cities as part of the Interstate Theatre Circuit, singing with society dance orchestras, led by such figures as Hyman Charninsky and Al Kvale. After joining Art Hicks and His Orchestra in 1934, she met Harry James who was playing first trumpet. This ensemble was one of several Texas territory bands of the 1930s that ventured outside the state in hopes of reaching a national audience. In late 1934- early 1935, they made their way to Albany, New York, with stops in Oklahoma and Ohio. By this time Benny Goodman had hit; the swing era had begun. Shortly after their arrival in New York, the Art Hicks orchestra disbanded, and Harry and Louise married in May 1935. The newlyweds were now looking for work. Harry accepted an offer to play third trumpet with the Herman Waldman Orchestra. “He hated it!” Louise recalls. With the help of Texan-band leader, Ligon Smith, Louise found work around Texas, singing with orchestras led by Smith, Charlie Davis, and Carlos Shaw.
An invitation for Harry to join Ben Pollack’s orchestra brought the couple to Chicago at the height of the Depression. While Harry was working and touring with Pollack, Louise was finding work in Chicago with the Leonard Keller Band and the Michael Todd Show and at Loew’s State Theatre in New York City with comedian, Harry Savoy, for whom she pitched lines and sang songs as part of the show. According to Louise, “This was a long, hard period.”
In December 1936 Harry was asked to join Benny Goodman and his orchestra. While Harry was well on his way to the big time, Louise was considered by him and others more as an “orchestra wife” than a serious performer, despite her continuing work with a variety of orchestras and jazz bands. Indeed, during the famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert of the Goodman orchestra, Louise snuck backstage with the other wives to hear the performance from the wings. “None of the wives were allowed around the band,” she recalls. She could not have known at the time that she would be the featured singer with the orchestra at Goodman’s second Carnegie Hall performance in the fall of 1939.
Shortly after Harry left Goodman to start his own orchestra, Louise heard a young Frank Sinatra on the radio; she woke up Harry, who was napping, on the couch and said, “You ought to listen to this guy.” While Harry was putting together his band, Louise started singing with trumpeter Bobby Hackett at Nick’s in the Village. Jazz critic and producer John Hammond heard her and brought Benny Goodman to a performance. Soon after, she received a call, inviting her to join the band, beginning a whirlwind schedule of rehearsing, performing, recording, and touring. A few of the songs that she recorded with the orchestra were ‘There’ll Be Some Changes Made’, ‘Comes Love’, ‘What’s New?’, ‘Scatterbrain’, ‘Love Never Went to College’, ‘Blue Orchids’, and written for her by Johnny Mercer and arranged by Fletcher Henderson – “Louise Tobin Blues.”
Despite her skyrocketing career, after a brief illness she decided to concede to Harry;s wishes and leave Goodman’s orchestra to be with him and start a family. About a year after a recording with Will Bradley and his orchestra, singing ‘Deed I Do’ and ‘Don’t Let It Get You Down’, she gave birth to sons Harry and Tim in 1941 and 1942, respectively. After leaving Louise and the boys for Betty Grable, Harry proceeded with a very public divorce in 1943.
While Louise’s touring days were essentially over, she still accepted invitations to perform and record while she was raising her boys. In 1945, she recorded ‘All through the Day’ with Tommy Jones and his orchestra, and later that year ‘June Comes Every Year’ with Emil Coleman and his orchestra. In 1946, she performed at the Melodee Club in Los Angeles with Skippy Anderson’s Band, and in 1950 she recorded ‘Sunny Disposish’ with her friend from the Goodman band, Ziggy Elman and his orchestra.
In early 1960, The Washington Post entertainment section included the announcement: “Louise Tobin, ex-wife of Harry James, will resume her career as a vocalist.” It was a combination of her boys having finished school and an invitation from jazz critic and publisher George Simon that brought her out of her “retirement.” She accepted Simon’s offer to sing at the 1962 Newport Jazz Festival, where she met her future husband, clarinetist Peanuts Hucko. Whitney Balliett’s review of the festival published in The New Yorker included the statement: “Louise Tobin sings like the young Ella Fitzgerald.” Soon after, she began to perform regularly with Peanuts. In 1964, they attended the first of Dick Gibson’s Colorado Jazz Parties. Peanuts was invited to perform every year. Louise attended, but “Gibson rarely asked singers to perform,” she recalls. They both performed at the Gibson-inspired Odessa Jazz Parties years later. In 1965, Peanuts and Louise performed together at a regular engagement at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. They married in 1967 and moved to Denver, Colorado, where they were co-owners and the house band of the Navarre Club.
After performing with the Lawrence Welk orchestra starting in 1970, in 1974 Peanuts led the Glenn Miller orchestra, touring worldwide with Louise singing various numbers with the band. (Peanuts played in the original orchestra under the leadership of Glenn Miller.)
In 1977, Louise recorded ‘There’ll Be Some Changes Made’ with Peanuts on an album titled “San Diego Jazz Club Plays the Sound of Jazz.” In the early 1980s they performed together with the Pied Piper Quintet, touring Europe, Australia, and Japan. It was during this decade that they also recorded the tribute albums: “Tribute to Louis Armstrong” and “Tribute to Benny Goodman”, Louise sang several numbers on both. In 1992, Starline Records issued “Swing That Music”, which included a vocal duet with Peanuts and Louise singing ‘When You’re Smiling.’ This would be their final recording made together.
Peanuts recalled in a 1981 interview with Alice Berthelsen of the Odessa American newspaper that “despite the international success of his musical career and the many notables he’s met along the way, meeting his wife, Louise, has been the high point of it all.” Peanuts Hucko died in 2003. Louise Tobin now lives with her son, Harry James, Jr., in a suburb of Dallas, Texas.
–Kevin Mooney, Texas State University-San Marcos