Vocalist Betty Bradley began her career in hotel and ballroom orchestras, but it was with Bob Chester’s swing band that she made her name. A Brooklyn native of Russian descent, Bradley started singing at age 12 and landed her first major vocal job at age 17 with Gray Gordon’s tic-toc orchestra in early 1939. She remained with Gordon until July, when the band went into the Westchester Country Club in Harrison, New York. The club didn’t allow female vocalists, and Gordon, not willing to pay her while she sat out the orchestra, let her go, but not before finding her work with Sonny James. While with Gordon, Bradley made quite the impression on one journalist, who wrote this gushing review in the Cumberland Evening Times on May 24, 1939:
Once in a great while a singer comes to the front with that “certain something” that sets her apart from her contemporaries. It may be a captivating way of delivery—or a clear ungarbed diction. It may be just an unusual or “freak” voice that stamps her as being a shade better than other singers. There is a catch, a lilt, a sob that comes out true and clear when she sings. This “certain something” is at once noticeable. It creeps into the hearts of her listeners definitely, unquestionably the second you hear it—and it stays, making Betty’s song portrayals something to listen to.
Bradley appeared on radio stations WOR and WMCA and spent time with Eddie Varzos before joining Johnny McGee in mid-1940, with whom she made her first recordings. She remained with McGee until November, when Chester picked her to replace the suddenly departed Dolores O’Neill in his orchestra. While Chester’s band was heavily influenced by Glenn Miller, he had gotten his start in the mid-1930s leading a hotel and ballroom orchestra, making Bradley a perfect choice. O’Neill’s vocal style had been jazzier, but Bradley proved a capable swing singer.
With Chester, Bradley found a long-term home. She remained with the band for four years, becoming an integral part of its sound and operation. Often called “La Bradley”, her voice proved popular with audiences, and during times when Chester was out sick she stepped up to front the band in his absence. Bradley proved so good at leading the orchestra that in mid-1942 she was asked by an unnamed Midwestern bandleader to take over for him when he went into the service. The Standard record label also borrowed Bradley that year as an experiment into the pop music field. She recorded one side for a disc, with former fellow Chester vocalist Bill Darnell recording the other.
In August 1944, Bradley married Chester’s road manager, Phil Kahl, and when Chester decided to disband in November of that year the couple settled down on the West Coast, where Bradley began a solo career. In mid-1945, former bandleader turned manager Ben Pollack signed Bradley as his client and recorded her for his newly-founded record label, Jewel. Bradley soon found herself in the spotlight, with positive reviews of her recordings and her picture on the cover of Down Beat magazine’s December 1, 1945 issue.
After a successful run at the Bandbox club in Hollywood during the summer, where she was held indefinitely, she joined Rudy Vallee’s NBC radio program in the fall and toured with Vallee’s night club show. Bradley also earned her own twice-a-week ABC program. She was scheduled to record further sides for Jewel in 1946.
Bradley traveled to New York in late 1946, where she spent a year before returning to Hollywood. In summer 1948, she joined Milton Berle’s popular, two-hour night club show, touring the country with him until the end of the year. She continued performing as a solo artist at least through mid-1949.
Bradley enjoyed painting with watercolors and loved satire.
There’s much confusion and many inaccuracies on IMDb’s page for Betty Bradley (as of June 25, 2022). First, Bradley is listed as being born in Texas on June 12, 1916. Down Beat gives Bradley’s birthday as December 13 and her age as 17 in May 1939. They also note that she’s a Brooklyn native. A newspaper article in 1939 reported that she was just barely out of high school. IMDb also claims Bradley was a member of the Stardusters vocal quartet in the film Trocadero. Bradley was never a member of the Stardusters, and the blonde female member of that group in the film is clearly not Bradley, who was noted for her black hair. Bradley does not appear to have been in Trocadero at all despite the appearance of Chester’s band, who backed both the Stardusters and Ida James on screen. IMDb also lists Bradley with an uncredited role in the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock thriller Foreign Correspondent. While Bradley did make a screen test in 1939, it was in New York, and she remained centered around New York, where the bands she worked with were located, throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, while Hitchcock’s filming location was Los Angeles. Bradley was with Gordon, James, Varzos, McGee, and Chester during that period of time and would hardly have had the opportunity or financial incentive to travel to the West Coast for a short, uncredited part, and if she had it would have been noteworthy enough to make either Down Beat or Billboard. Given that so much of IMDb’s entry on Bradley is wrong, it’s doubtful that the date of death they list is correct either. ↩︎