One of the most popular female vocalists of the Swing Era, Helen Forrest began her professional career in 1934 soon after her high school graduation, singing on radio station WNEW. She later landed a network spot on the Blue Velvet program for CBS, billed under the name Bonnie Blue.
Forrest later moved to Washington, D.C., with her mother and began singing at the Madrillon, a top nightclub frequented by politicians, where bandleader Artie Shaw heard her and asked her to join his orchestra. She refused at first due to her romantic involvement with the club’s drummer. The couple soon married, however, and she signed with Shaw in 1938. At that time Billie Holiday was also a Shaw vocalist. Forrest was a champion of civil rights and refused to sing in any theater or ballroom that wouldn’t also allow Holiday to perform.
When Shaw disbanded in late 1939, Forrest joined Benny Goodman, with whom she recorded many memorable numbers. In 1940, she also went into the studio with fellow Goodman member Lionel Hampton. While with Goodman, Hampton occasionally recorded for RCA Victor under his own name using hired men. The King Cole Trio and Forrest’s husband also took part in the sessions. Forrest did not sing with Hampton’s orchestra as is often stated.
Forrest parted with Goodman in 1941, though the leader refused to accept her notice and she ended up sitting out of the band for a month before her release. She then joined Harry James, where she hit her peak in popularity. James used her to her full extent, having arrangements written that featured her vocal talents. He also allowed her to sing full numbers, whereas Goodman and Shaw had used her as they did any other singer. While with Goodman, she placed eighth in Billboard’s 1940 college poll for best female band vocalist and third in 1941. With James, she earned fourth place in 1942 and first in 1943.
Forrest left James in late 1943 to pursue a solo career. She gave her notice and signed with a management agency in September but stayed with the band until they completed filming the MGM musical Bathing Beauty, setting December 1 as the date of her departure. She made her theater debut at New York’s Roxy a week later and earned the cover spot on Billboard’s February 5, 1944, issue.
As a solo artist, Forrest found continued success. She placed several songs in the Top Ten for Decca from 1944 to 1946, including a number of duets with Dick Haymes, on whose long-running radio show she appeared. In August 1944, bandleader Bob Chester offered her a fifty percent guarantee on net profits to join his band, the top offer made to any vocalist thus far, which she declined. Her streak of hits ran into the late 1940s. In 1946, she was the third best selling female recording artist of the year. In 1947, she began to record for the MGM label.
Forrest continued to sing until the early 1990s, when arthritis forced her to retire. She appeared in several films and television programs up until the early 1970s. Helen Forrest passed away from heart failure in 1999, age 82.