Best remembered today for her work with husband Boyd Raeburn’s progressive jazz orchestra of the mid-1940s, Chicago native Ginnie Powell sang with several top leaders during the big band era. Well-liked by critics and audiences alike, Powell tied herself to her husband’s various orchestras in the latter half of the decade, working with him until she tragically lost her life at a young age in 1959.
Powell started performing with local bands while still a high school senior, singing for the campus band at Northwestern University, led by Dick Lewis, in early 1943 and Norm Faulkner’s orchestra in March of that year. She made her professional debut soon after, the week she graduated high school, with Raeburn’s jump orchestra at the Band Box in Chicago. By December, she’d joined Jerry Wald’s group, where she stayed until becoming part of Gene Krupa’s outfit in October 1944. Krupa also kept vocalist Lillian Lane in the band, prompting Powell to leave in January 1945 because she felt that the orchestra had too many singers. She then joined Charlie Barnet’s band in March, replacing Kay Starr. Powell was out of Barnet’s orchestra in August, with Starr returning.
After leaving Barnet, Powell rejoined Raeburn, whom she secretly married in September 1945, singing for his new progressive band. When Raeburn put his orchestra on hold in early 1946, Powell joined Harry James on February 7, refusing to sign a long-term contract with the trumpet-playing leader so that she could be available when her husband put together a new band. When James took his group East in June, Powell stayed behind on the West Coast to remain with Raeburn, once again becoming his female vocalist. She sang two numbers on Raeburn’s groundbreaking Innovations album in 1946 and appeared in one musical short with the orchestra.
Powell famously appeared on the cover of Down Beat magazine’s April 8, 1946, issue. The cover, which featured the seemingly nude upper half of Powell, her breasts tastefully covered, with her hair glamorously tossed back, quickly became a collector’s item.
Raeburn eventually lost interest in his band, and in November 1947 he and Powell planned to sign with the Majestic label, where Powell was to sing with solo billing, backed by his orchestra. The deal fell through in December, though the couple had already recorded five masters by then, despite the fact that no contract had been signed. Majestic gave copies of the masters to Raeburn, and the couples’ agent, Willard Alexander, shopped them around to various labels. Atlantic Records, a new company at that time, eventually purchased them in April 1948 and later released them. Majestic’s masters were auctioned off in October of that year after the label went bankrupt.
Powell kept busy as a solo artist with radio and nightclub work in 1948 and 1949, taking time off at the end of 1948 to give birth to her first child. She made appearances as a vocalist on Morey Amsterdam’s radio and television programs from 1948 to 1950 and also on Ed Sullivan’s television show in 1949. In early 1949, she signed with Decca, releasing two sides in February. Raeburn put together short-lived touring outfits in 1949 and early 1950 with Powell as vocalist. She took a break from show business in late 1950 to have the couple’s second child in December. In the spring of 1951, she returned to singing in clubs and on the radio until taking another, much longer, break late the following year for the birth of their third child.
When Raeburn formed a new commercial dance band in 1956, Powell returned to singing, recording with the orchestra on Columbia that year and touring with them through late 1958, when Raeburn gave up his music career. The couple then moved from their New York home to Nassau in the Bahamas, where Raeburn emceed at the Drake Hotel while Powell sang with the hotel’s jazz trio. Sadly, Powell would not live much longer, passing away from meningitis and pneumonia on July 25, 1959. She was only 33 years old.
Powell suffered from a speech impediment all her life and stammered, especially on the telephone. She once admitted to using carrot juice on her hair to bring out its “red glints.”
Powell’s first name is often misspelled “Ginny.” Record labels of the time and publicity material released by her agent, Willard Alexander, spelled it “Ginnie.” ↩︎
If Down Beat magazine is to be believed, in late 1944 Powell travelled with her cocker spaniel named Spoo, whom she kept backstage in her dressing room. ↩︎
Powell and Raeburn married in Mexico on September 23, 1945, after Raeburn had obtained a Mexican divorce from his first wife. An American divorce was later obtained with, as Down Beat put it, “the friendly co-operation of the first Mrs. Raeburn.” The couple made their marriage publicly known in mid-1946. ↩︎
Sources at various times cited Powell as having sang for Benny Goodman, though no contemporary sources support that claim. ↩︎