Dixieland and blues singer Linda Keene worked with a number of orchestras in the late 1930s and early 1940s. After going solo in 1941, she settled into a successful radio career before ending up on the club circuit in the late 1940s. Though Keene never caught on with the general public, she proved popular with the jazz crowd. By the 1950s, however, her career had faded, and she spent the rest of that decade working lounges and small clubs around the country.
Little is known about Keene’s early life, and everything written about it in later years was a fabrication. What’s for certain is that she was born Florence McCrory in Mississippi in 1911, and by September 1931 she had married Spurgeon Suttle in Hattiesburg. Spurgeon also sang, and the couple performed together at local events. By the mid-1930s, however, Keene had begun to make a name for herself on the national stage. Originally working as Florence Suttle, she sang for pianist George Duffy’s orchestra in late 1935, with whom she was heard on NBC radio.
In April 1937, Keene and Suttle separated, and by October of that year Florence Suttle had changed her stage name to Linda Keene and was singing with Nye Mayhew’s orchestra in New York. In November 1938, she made her first recording, “Blue and Disillusioned,” with Bobby Hackett on Vocalion. In January 1939, she was with an unidentified orchestra at a hotel in Hamilton, Bermuda, when a picture of her with baseball star Lefty Gomez circulated in the national press.
In early May 1939, Keene joined Jack Teagarden’s band, staying only until July. In September, she sang with Willie Farmer’s orchestra. By November, though, she was with Lennie Hayton’s band, where she remained until early spring 1940, when Hayton became ill and disbanded. She then landed a job with Red Norvo’s new outfit, staying until Norvo broke up in late January 1941 after losing half his men to the draft. Keene then quickly found work with Tony Pastor’s band, but when Norvo reorganized in early March she left Pastor and returned to her former boss, staying only a month this time before leaving for Red Nichols in April. She stayed even less time with Nichols, quitting after only two weeks, and in May she was with Muggsy Spanier, where she did another quick exit, leaving in early July to open as a solo act at Cafe Society in New York. She divorced Suttle in June.
Keene worked jazz clubs as a single over the summer and fall of 1941, singing with Norvo again that November for one job in New Haven, Connecticut. In late fall, she joined Henry Levine’s Strictly from Dixie radio program on NBC, becoming a popular part of the show. She and Levine recorded an album of Dixieland music on RCA Victor in February 1942, with Keene singing on six songs. They also made four soundies for Minoco, some of which were released later in the 1940s. Artie Shaw reportedly tried to hire Keene in January 1942, but she turned him down.
During summer 1942, Keene did club work. That fall, she became a regular on NBC’s popular Chamber Music Society from Lower Basin Street program, and in November and December she toured stateside military bases as part of a USO unit. She sang with Norvo one last time at New York’s Famous Door in February 1943 before beginning a solo tour of the east and Midwest. She reportedly recorded on the Signature label in summer 1943 as “Linda Keene and Her Back Room Boys,” though no evidence exists that the recordings were ever released.
In January 1944, Keene headed to the West Coast, where she did club work and made a screen test. While there, she also appeared on Bob Crosby’s radio program in April. She was back in New York that fall, becoming part of NBC’s Dixieland House Party. She had remarried by that time, divorcing her second husband in November. In 1944, she recorded on the Black and White label, backed by Joe Marsala’s band. She made further sides for Black and White in 1945 and took part in another USO tour that summer. A natural brunette, she had dyed her hair blonde at some point, and in September 1946 she dyed it black.
In January 1947, Keene married radio announcer Burleigh Smith in Shreveport, Louisiana. By mid-year, she had separated from Smith and gone to the West Coast, where real estate tycoon and jazz patron Stillman Pond arranged for her to make a film short. She remained in the west for the next four years, with brief New York club appearances in 1948, before heading to Chicago in 1951 and then back east. Her star had faded by this point, however, and she drifted onto the lounge circuit. She continued singing until at least 1958. She and Smith divorced in 1948.
Linda Keene passed away from cancer in 1981 at the age of 69.
Public records show that Keene was born in Mississippi, with no town name given. Keene herself varied in what she stated was her birthplace, claiming Florida during the early 1940s, but from 1942 onwards she was said to have been born in New Orleans, likely because by that time her name had become associated with Dixieland music. ↩︎
A 1941 Down Beat article stated that she and Suttle had married in 1932, but in September 1931 a Hattiesburg newspaper reported on a “Mr. and Mrs. Spurgeon Suttle, who sang” at the local Lions club. Suttle was from Lucedale, Mississippi, and graduated from Forest County Agricultural High School in Brooklyn, Mississippi, in May 1930, where he played football, basketball, baseball, and track, winning letters in each. ↩︎
It’s unknown if Spurgeon Suttle ever sang anywhere but locally. ↩︎
Linda Keene was the name of the Ginger Rogers character in the Astaire-Rogers film Shall We Dance, released in mid-1937. It’s unknown if Keene took her stage name from the film or if it was simply coincidence that she chose the same moniker. ↩︎
Many critics complained about the length of the vocal segment on “Blue and Disillusioned”. ↩︎
A 1951 Down Beat reminiscence about Glenn Miller stated that Keene had replaced Gail Reese as the band’s vocalist in summer 1938. No contemporary sources state this, and no reports about Keene in the late 1930s or early 1940s ever lists Miller as one of the bands with which she had sang. Given that the article also, among other errors, misidentifies the first song that Miller’s 1938 band recorded, there’s serious doubt that the statement about Keene is true. If Keene had sung with Miller, that association would have been trumpeted loudly in her every mention. ↩︎
Keene’s six songs were billed as “Linda Keene with Henry Levine and his Strictly from Dixie Jazz Band.” Levine recorded six instrumental numbers to round out the album. ↩︎
It’s unknown who her second husband was. Walter Winchell reported that she had married a “soldier” in Reno and divorced him in New York. ↩︎
Keene was older than most singers of her era, and like many big band vocalists she lied about her age. Keene’s obituary gave her age at death as 64. She was actually 69. A March 1944 article said Keene was 24, which would be eight years younger than her true age at that time. ↩︎