Considered one of the best vocalists of the swing era, Helen Ward is most remembered as Benny Goodman’s singer from 1934 to 1936. In addition to her sensuous stage presence and warm voice, Ward had a fine sense of musical timing. Singing on such classics as “Goody Goody” and “These Foolish Things,” she helped set the tone for the emergence of swing as a national craze in 1935.
Prior to working with Goodman, Ward had appeared with Freddy Martin and Enric Madriguera, recording with the latter in 1934. Goodman famously disliked vocalists, feeling that jazz should be instrumental only. He knew, though, that in order to have commercial appeal he needed them for his new band. He favored Ward, believing her to be the only vocalist who could properly sing swing.
Ward appeared with the orchestra on the popular Let’s Dance radio program, a live music broadcast with featured a thousand people in its studio audience. The show opened with Kel Murray playing thirty minutes of sweet dance music and Xavier Cugat following with a Latin set. Goodman finished out the program. In between vocal numbers, Ward would join a set of studio dancers to help entertain the audience, pairing up with a male singer. The show aired on NBC Saturday nights, sponsored by the National Biscuit Company to help promote their new product—Ritz crackers.
Goodman never found a male vocalist he particularly liked. He constantly hired and fired them, often giving their numbers to Ward. As such, she became a key part of the orchestra’s sound and by extension the sound of the swing era itself. Early radio set lists tended to feature vocal numbers for half the show, though Goodman finally settled into a pattern of three vocal tunes each program, with Ward typically as the only singer.
Ward and Goodman dated on and off during her period with the band. Goodman was notoriously difficult to get along with. He lacked people skills, and his musicians often described him as cold, calculating and blunt. During his “on” periods with Ward, he would bring her a white gardenia every day. When he drifted into an “off” period, he would typically ignore her. Ward told that once, during a time when they weren’t seeing each other, he caught her out with another man and quickly asked her to marry him. She refused. While she believed that he did genuinely like her, she also felt that he’d only proposed to keep her from leaving the band. Goodman’s fears came finally true in October 1936 when she met him at restaurant to announce that she was leaving to marry wealthy jazz patron Albert Marx. Goodman flung his dinner menu at her face.
Ward stayed through the end of the year, recording with the band in December. Though she no longer toured after her marriage, she continued singing, recording with Teddy Wilson that same year and Gene Krupa in 1938 on his band’s first session. In 1939, she recorded with Bob Crosby’s band and appeared on their Camel Caravan radio program. She recorded with Wilson again in 1940 and Harry James in 1941.
Ward later returned to full-time band work, joining Hal McIntyre in February 1943, staying until October. Rumors that month had her signing with either Harry James or with Goodman again, but neither panned out. James signed Judy Williams instead, though in January 1944 reports had Ward set to replace Williams. It never happened. 1944, instead, found Ward recording a V-Disk with Red Norvo. She then drifted back to private life with sporadic singing work.
In later years, Ward occasionally reunited with the King of Swing. In 1952, she recorded an album of Dixieland tunes with Wild Bill Davison, and in 1956 she sang with Larry Clinton on an album recreating his hit tunes. She also made a number of later recordings as a solo artist. In 1979, she came out of retirement to sing in New York clubs. She eventually retired to Falls Church, Virginia.
Helen Ward passed away in 1998.