One of the most popular female vocalists of the swing era, Helen Forrest worked with three top bands. Born to Russian Jewish immigrants, accounts of Forrest’s early life come mostly from her autobiography, published in 1982. The youngest of four children and the only girl, her father died while she was an infant. Her mother later moved the family to New York and remarried. According to Forrest, her mother and step-father used their house as a brothel while the children were at school, and as she got older her step-father tried to accost her. After threatening him with a knife when she was fourteen, she went to live with her piano teacher, who encouraged her to sing.
In the early 1930s, one of Forrest’s brothers, Ed, formed his own band, and she moved back to Atlantic City to work as his vocalist during the summer of 1931. Deciding to pursue a career as a singer, she returned to New York and began to visit publishers and audition for radio shows. During one audition, a musician convinced her that her last name, Fogel, was “too Jewish,” and she changed it to Forrest. She landed her first professional job in 1934, singing commercials on radio station WNEW, often under pseudonyms. She later landed a network spot on the Blue Velvet program for CBS, billed under the name Bonnie Blue. While at CBS, she worked with popular network orchestra leader Mark Warnow, older brother of Raymond Scott.
When Ed, whose band was playing in Washington, D.C., called and told her there was a vocalist spot open at that city’s Madrillon night club, a top spot frequented by politicians, Forrest auditioned and won the job. There she quickly began to gain a reputation as a singer, catching the ear of bandleader Artie Shaw, who offered her the chance to join his orchestra in 1938. Shaw’s singer at that time was Billie Holiday, which presented problems at some venues. Shaw needed a white female vocalist as well. Shaw also couldn’t use Holiday for recordings due to her being under contract with a different label than the band. Forrest refused at first due to her romantic involvement with the club’s drummer, Al Spieldock. The couple decided to marry, however, and she signed with Shaw, making her first recordings with the band in November 1938. Holiday, who had grown increasingly frustrated working for Shaw, left the band that same month, leaving Forrest the sole female vocalist.
When Shaw got fed up with the music business and disbanded in November 1939, saxophonist Georgie Auld took over the band, turning it into a cooperative effort. Forrest, however, did not remain. Instead she joined Benny Goodman in December, with Goodman vocalist Kay Foster trading places and joining Auld in what many at the time believed to be a backroom deal. While Forrest had never made much of a splash with Shaw, mostly due to the chaotic nature of the band during that period, with Goodman her popularity soared. Singing on a number of Goodman sides and appearing with the orchestra on radio, both critics and the public began to notice. She placed eighth in Billboard’s 1940 college poll for best female band vocalist and third in 1941. She placed fifth in Down Beat magazine’s 1939 poll for best female vocalist, fourth in 1940, and second in 1941.
In mid-1940, Forrest 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.
When Goodman temporarily disbanded in July 1940 due to medical issues, he kept Forrest on salary, and she became part of his new outfit that August. She finally parted with Goodman in August 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 planned to go solo but instead joined Harry James in October, 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. Forrest appeared in four films with the band, singing her biggest hit, “I Had the Craziest Dream,” in Springtime in the Rockies. She earned fourth place in Billboard’s 1942 poll and first in 1943. She placed first for female vocalist in Down Beat’s 1942 poll and third in 1943.
Forrest left James in late 1943 to pursue a solo career. She gave 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. Her breakout as a single attracted much attention from the press, with Forrest appearing on the covers of both Down Beat’s January 15, 1944, issue and Billboard’s February 5, 1944, issue. At the same, her husband filed for divorce, the couple having separated soon after she had joined James. Gossip columns had often linked her and James romantically, and her love life continued to be a regular topic of discussion for the next few years.
In August 1944, bandleader Bob Chester, with whom she was touring theaters on the same bill, offered Forrest a fifty percent guarantee on net profits to join his band, the top offer made to any vocalist thus far, which she declined. In September, she joined Dick Haymes on the NBC radio program Everything for the Boys. She and Haymes had briefly worked together and became close friends during her time with James. They also shared the same agent, Bill Burton. Their friendship was so close that she often covered for Haymes, a notorious womanizer, when he was cheating on his wife, Joanna Dru, telling her that they were working together when he was actually out with another woman. Forrest and Haymes recorded together and toured with the U.S.O. When she left the show in 1947, NBC retitled it The Dick Haymes Show.
As a recording artist, Forrest found continued success. She placed several songs in the Top Ten for Decca from 1944 to 1946. In 1946, she was the third best selling female recording artist of the year. In 1947, she signed with the MGM label. Forrest placed second in Down Beat’s 1944 poll for best girl singer not in a band. Her popularity began to decline in the late 1940s however. She placed fifth in Down Beat’s poll in 1945, eleventh in 1946, and fourteenth in 1947. Forrest sang in the 1945 Bob Cummings and Lizabeth Scott film You Came Along, her last motion picture, for which she dyed her hair blonde.
In 1947, Forrest married aspiring actor Paul Hogan, and her career slowed down. She continued to sing, but by the early 1950s she had become much less active. Many people assumed she had retired. After separating from Hogan, she came out of her semi-retirement in spring 1954 to headline at the Casa Vegas in Long Beach, this time working with a trio rather than a big band. She recorded on the Derby label in 1953, Bell in 1954, and for Capitol in the mid-1950s. In 1956, she sued RCA for $650,000 over unauthorized use of her voice in an Artie Shaw reissue package.
Forrest married Charlie Feinman in 1959. The couple had a son the following year, but the marriage was dissolved in 1961. She made her first television appearance in 1950 and her last in 1980. She continued to sing, often in big band nostalgia programs, until the early 1990s, when arthritis forced her to retire. Helen Forrest passed away from heart failure in 1999, age 82.
Down Beat’s early polls made no distinction between band singers and solo artists. ↩︎
Down Beat critic George Frazier disliked Forrest and constantly panned her. In the July 7, 1941, issue, a reader politely questioned Frazier’s judgement, saying he’d given Forrest a listen on record and on the radio and thought she was terrific. The letter was signed Sam Fogel, who just happened to be one of Helen’s brothers. Whether Down Beat realized the connection or not is unknown. It’s an amusing aside either way. ↩︎
Interestingly, Forrest never signed a contract with James. Neither of them felt it was necessary. ↩︎