The Sweethearts of Rhythm was an all woman swing band, with a woman bandleader, that played during the 1940s. One reason for their success was that many male musicians were serving in World War II. So when Americans at home wanted to go out and dance, it was to music performed by female bands such as the Sweethearts.
Lawrence Jones formed the Sweethearts in 1937 to raise money for a vocational school he had founded for young black children in Piney Woods, Mississippi. His daughter, Helen Jones Woods, was a member, as were Willie Mae Wong, who was of Chinese ancestry, and two young women from Hawaii and Mexico. In 1941 the Sweethearts turned professional and two white players joined, making the Sweethearts the first integrated all-women swing band in the world. This was a problem in the Deep South because the integrated band defied Southern “Jim Crow” laws. When they were in the South, the white members of the band had to wear dark makeup and wigs on stage so they could pass for black. Otherwise, they would be arrested since it was illegal for the races to mix. In the North people didn’t seem bothered by the mixed race make-up of the band, and the Sweethearts played to sold-out crowds in New York, Chicago and Washington DC. Due to their fame, African American soldiers stationed overseas started a letter-writing campaign to bring the Sweethearts to Europe to perform. In 1945 they became the first black women to travel there with the USO.
The Sweethearts disbanded in 1949. With men returning from the war, women who had played in bands and worked in other jobs such as manufacturing were asked to step aside so that the veterans could be reemployed.
Other big bands famous for swing music were led by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, Glenn Miller and Fats Waller.
Check out the Sweethearts of Rhythm on our Jazz Appreciation Month playlist.