Helen Forrest

aka Bonnie Blue

Photo of Helen Forrest

One of the most popular female vocalists of the swing era, Helen Forrest worked with three top bands, her voice appearing on several hit songs. She launched a successful solo career in late 1943, charting more songs over the next few years and co-starring with Dick Haymes in her own radio show. Her popularity began to decline after the war, however, and she semi-retired in the late 1940s. Forrest returned to full-time singing in the mid-1950s and remained active into the 1990s.

Born to Russian Jewish immigrants in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Forrest was the youngest of four children and the only girl. Her father died in early 1920 during the Spanish flu epidemic. By 1930, her mother had moved the family to New York, where she later remarried. According to Forrest in her autobiography, published in 1982, 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, Forrest’s brother, Ed, formed his own band, and she moved back to Atlantic City during the summer of 1931 to work as his vocalist. Deciding to pursue a career as a singer, she returned to New York when the season was over 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.

Band Years

Later in the 1930s, prompted by brother Ed, whose band was then playing in Washington, D.C., Forrest audition for and won a vocalist position at that city’s Madrillon night club, a top spot frequented by politicians. 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 a problem as some venues required that he also employ a white vocalist. Shaw also couldn’t use Holiday for recordings due to her being under contract with a different label than the band. Forrest turned down the offer 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 vocalist.

Forrest stayed with Shaw until November 1939, when he suddenly quit the music business and left the country. The band voted to remain together as a cooperative unit under saxophonist Georgie Auld, but Benny Goodman saw an opportunity. He arranged a trade in December, sending his then vocalist Kay Foster to Auld in exchange for Forrest. 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.[1]

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 musicians and vocalists. 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.[2]

Post-Band Career

Forrest left James around the first of December 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.[3] 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 time, 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 Dru 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.


  1. Down Beat’s early polls made no distinction between band singers and solo artists. ↩︎

  2. 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 and thought she was terrific. The letter was signed Sam Fogel, who just happened to be another of Helen’s brothers. Whether Down Beat realized the connection or not is unknown. It’s an amusing aside either way. ↩︎

  3. Interestingly, Forrest never signed a contract with James. Neither of them felt it was necessary. ↩︎


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. Libby, Bill and Helen Forrest. I Had the Craziest Dream. 1st ed. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1982.
  3. Walker, Leo. The Wonderful Era of the Great Dance Bands. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972.
  4. Prigozy, Ruth. The Life of Dick Haymes: No More Little White Lies. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006.
  5. Becker, R. Whitney. “Sure, Artie's Band Is Great, But Give His Men Their Share of Credit.” Down Beat Feb. 1939: 4.
  6. “The Reviewing Stand: Artie Shaw.” Billboard 9 Sep. 1939: 13.
  7. “Shaw Retracts Duress Charges In Suit Brought by Oberstein.” Billboard 9 Dec. 1939: 11.
  8. “Tony Pastor Lining Up His Outfit.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1939: 2.
  9. “Contest Results: Fem Chirpers.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1940: 13.
  10. Hampton, Lionel. “Swing.” The Afro-American 27 Jul. 1940: 13.
  11. Dexter, Dave Jr. “Artie Shaw Grabs Goodman's Men.” Down Beat 1 Aug. 1940: 1.
  12. “Final Poll Results: Girl Singers.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1941: 13.
  13. “99 Pounds of Vocal Dynamite.” Down Beat 1 Jun. 1941: 13.
  14. Fogel, Sam. “Pans Frazier for Panning Helen Forrest.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1941: 11.
  15. Hampton, Lionel. “Swing.” The Afro-American 22 Jul. 1941: 9.
  16. “Fond Farewells.” Down Beat 1 Sep. 1941: 1.
  17. “Helen Forrest Getting Set.” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1941: 9.
  18. “Forrest Hints Hope To James.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1941: 7.
  19. “Poll Tabulations: Fem Chirps.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1942: 22.
  20. “Campus Picks Top Chirps.” Billboard 2 May 1942: 19.
  21. “Poll Results: Female Vocalists.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1943: 14.
  22. “Students Select Winners.” Billboard 5 Jun. 1943: 20.
  23. “Singing Wives Discuss Wedlock.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1943: 9.
  24. “Helen Forrest to Join Burton Warbling Agency.” Billboard 18 Sep. 1943: 15.
  25. “Bill Burton Signs Up Helen Forrest.” Billboard 30 Oct. 1943: 15.
  26. “Helen Forrest to Solo About Dec. 1.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1943: 1.
  27. “Talents and Tunes on Music Machines.” Billboard 27 Nov. 1943: 100.
  28. “Forrest Bows As Single Act.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1943: 2.
  29. “List of Winners.” The Billboard 1943 Music Year Book New York: Billboard, 1943. 138.
  30. “1943 Band Poll Winners: Girl Singers.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1944: 13.
  31. “Helen Forrest On the Cover.” Down Beat 15 Jan. 1944: 1.
  32. “Marital Trouble Rocks Musikers.” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1944: 15.
  33. Cover. Billboard 5 Feb. 1944: 1.
  34. “Helen Forrest.” Billboard 5 Feb. 1944: 4.
  35. “Five-Way Pick-Up.” Billboard 22 Jul. 1944: 13.
  36. “Forrest's 50% Chirp Deal?” Billboard 26 Aug. 1944: 13.
  37. “Helen Forrest On Radio Show.” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1944: 4.
  38. “Poll Results: Girl Singer (Not Band).” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1944: 13.
  39. Emge, Charles. “On the Beat in Hollywood.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1945: 7.
  40. “Haymes Forrest Set For Roxy Run.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1945: 1.
  41. “Poll Results: Girl Singer (Not Band).” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1946: 16.
  42. “Poll Results: Girl Singer (Not Band).” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1947: 20.
  43. “1946 Music Disk Toppers.” Billboard 4 Jan. 1947: 3.
  44. “Advanced Record Releases.” Billboard 29 Mar. 1947: 31.
  45. “Helen Forrest MGM Firsts.” Down Beat 9 Apr. 1947: 8.
  46. “Haymes, Forrest On Summer Tour.” Down Beat 23 Apr. 1947: 3.
  47. “Forrest Opens.” Down Beat 22 Oct. 1947: 1.
  48. “Poll Results: Girl Singer (Not With Band).” Down Beat 31 Dec. 1947: 12.
  49. “Shaw Bouquet.” Down Beat 29 Jun. 1951: 3.
  50. “Derby Signs Forrest.” Down Beat 11 Mar. 1953: 5.
  51. “Today's Bands Listless: Helen Forrest.” Down Beat 5 May 1954: 5.
  52. “RCA Sued By Helen Forrest.” Down Beat 18 Apr. 1956: 41.
  53. Sklar, Debbie L. “Helen Forrest's Voice Earned Spot in History.” The Sunday Courier [Prescott, Arizona] 25 Jan. 1995: 6A.
  54. “Helen Forrest, Sang with Big Bands.” Bangor Daily News [Bangor, Maine] 13 Jul. 1999: B6.
  55. “New Jersey, Reclaim the Records, Geographic Birth Index, 1901-1929,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:6N9W-3VQ9 : Wed Nov 15 05:38:21 UTC 2023), Entry for Helen Fogel, 12 Apr 1917.
  56. “United States Census, 1920,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M4P6-1TP : Sun Mar 10 10:29:54 UTC 2024), Entry for Rebecca Fogel and Harry Fogel, 1920.
  57. “United States Census, 1930,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:X4J1-RP6 : Fri Oct 06 19:42:55 UTC 2023), Entry for Rebecca Fogel and Samuel Fogel, 1930.
  58. “California Birth Index, 1905-1995,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:V2BL-8NL : 27 November 2014), Forrest in entry for Michael F Feinman, 07 Nov 1960; citing Los Angeles, California, United States, Department of Health Services, Vital Statistics Department, Sacramento.
  59. “United States Social Security Death Index,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VM9R-MYM : 11 January 2021), Helen Forrest, 11 Jul 1999; citing U.S. Social Security Administration, Death Master File, database (Alexandria, Virginia: National Technical Information Service, ongoing).