Vocalist Frances Wayne is best remembered today for her work with Woody Herman’s band, though she also had a successful solo career. A Boston native, Wayne stuck close to the jazz world all throughout her life. As such, she never managed a popular hit, and modern audiences have mostly forgotten her. Though she was very well respected as a jazz singer, she divided her focus between performing and raising a family which put her at a disadvantage when building a long-term career.
Wayne arrived in New York during the early 1940s and quickly began to make a name for herself. She spent time with Sam Donahue’s band before joining Jerry Wald’s new orchestra at the Roseland Ballroom in early March 1942, staying only a few days with Wald before jumping to Nick Jerret’s six-piece combo at Kelly’s Stables when it debuted in New York that same month. At the end of March, Charlie Barnet signed her for a reported salary of $225 a week, an astronomical sum for a vocalist, especially one who had little experience She stayed with Barnet until September, recording with the band on one of its classic numbers, “That Old Black Magic.”
After leaving Barnet, Wayne hit the nightclub circuit for a year, sometimes singing with Jerret. She joined Woody Herman in November 1943 at a point when the band was at the height of its musical output. She quickly became popular with critics and audiences alike, singing on some of Herman’s most memorable numbers. She became particularly noted for her vocals on the orchestra’s 1945 hit “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” a very difficult song for singers. Down Beat magazine featured Wayne on the cover of their June 15, 1945, issue.
Wayne’s vocal talents put her in high demand during this period. In July 1945, Herman’s then current label, Decca, agreed to lend Wayne to Victor for one disk so that she could record with Duke Ellington. In September, Columbia, where Herman had moved, gave her permission to cut solo material on the Musicraft label. It was an unusual decision, and the first time that a singer had been allowed to record solo on another label while still remaining with their band.
In late 1945, Herman accidentally left Wayne behind when the band traveled from an engagement at the Norfolk naval base to Camp Lee, both in Virginia. The musicians traveled in two different airplanes, and each group thought Wayne was with the other. An extra plane had to be commandeered to get her to Camp Lee in time for her first song.
All throughout Wayne’s time with Herman, rumors constantly flew that she would leave the band for a solo career. In November 1945, she married Herman trumpet player Neal Hefti, and when Hefti quit the band in January 1946 she departed soon after, reportedly over a disagreement on salary. She also wanted to remain with her husband in New York when the band went west.
Hitting the nightclub circuit again, 1947 proved to be Wayne’s year when she wowed critics and impressed audiences with improved vocal performance and showmanship. In May, she became vocalist on the California Melodies radio program, and in June she signed a one-year deal with the Exclusive label, where she was backed by the orchestras of Buddy Baker, Les Robinson, and Hefti. She also appeared with Shorty Sherock’s orchestra that year in their self-titled musical short.
In February 1947, Down Beat published an article by Wayne in which she called out bandleaders who criticized singers for struggling to keep up with increasingly intricate arrangements:
Since when should singers, what with trying to look good, have to keep their fingers crossed in the hopes that they’ll catch ungodly modulations, stay in pitch with backgrounds that don’t show them any respect, and then heave a sigh of relief upon finding that they ended together with the band! That naturally makes for tenseness, and strained singing produces flat notes…
Beware of the bandleader who says “Maybe the singer wasn’t good, but did you hear that background?”
In 1948, Wayne and Hefti settled in Hollywood, where she made “several television films” and sang with Hefti’s combo at local clubs. She appeared on the cover of Down Beat a second time on December 1, 1948.
In 1949, Wayne retired from singing to give birth to her first child. She didn’t remain completely inactive however. In early 1950, Hefti joined a small group put together by Barnet to tour the West Coast. Wayne was initially announced as vocalist but pulled out at the last minute, causing an uproar among club owners who had to refund tickets because Wayne had been advertised. That spring, she spent five weeks in her hometown of Boston appearing at a night club and on local television with her own fifteen-minute program. Wayne and Hefti moved back to the East Coast at some point in the early 1950s.
Wayne fully came out of retirement in April 1951 to record on the London label. In July of that year, she and Hefti signed as a couple to Coral Records. The label planned to market them as a Mr. and Mrs. band, backed by studio musicians. Wayne signed a separate contract with Coral in late 1951 to record solo under her own name.
In early 1952, Hefti put together a touring band, with Wayne as vocalist. When it hit the road in May, the orchestra impressed critics, who called it the most exciting new group on the East Coast. Hefti temporarily disbanded at the end of the year. When he reorganized in early January 1953, Wayne didn’t rejoin. She announced intentions to work as a single but instead ended up retiring again to have her second child.
Wayne came out of retirement in November 1955 to sing with Hefti’s new band at Birdland. At the time, she was undecided on her future. She didn’t intend to travel with the group and wasn’t sure she would record again. She eventually went back on the nightclub circuit before rejoining her husband as vocalist with his new jazz combo in August 1956. In early 1957, she and Hefti moved to New York, where she began appearing as a solo act on the jazz and supper club circuit. Wayne recorded solo on Epic in 1956, with Hefti providing backing, and on Atlantic and Brunswick in 1957. She retired again in 1958 to take care of their two children.
In 1960, the couple moved to California. Wayne never performed again except for a comeback appearance in November 1974, after their children had grown. She planned to continue her singing career at that time, but it never materialized. Francis Wayne died from cancer in 1978, only 58 years of age.