Best remembered today for her work with Benny Goodman and her marriage to Harry James, vocalist Louise Tobin began her career at an early age. A native Texan, Tobin was born in Aubrey, one of eleven children, and lived for a while in Plainview before her family settled in Denton. She began singing while in high school, performing in local shows and benefits. In 1934, she sang with the Texas State College for Women orchestra. Active in high school, Tobin competed in declamation, read poetry at recitals, and participated in various groups and committees.
During the summer of 1934, at age fifteen, Tobin made her professional debut at the Palace Theater in Dallas, where she was held over for three weeks. Her Palace appearance was followed by runs at the Metropolitan Theatre in Houston and a theater in Beaumont, Texas. During this time she first met James, whose family had settled in southeast Texas. Tobin then returned to the Dallas area, performing multiple weeks at the Sylvan Theater near Arlington in October and then at the Palace again. She sang over radio stations WFAA and WBAP that fall before joining Art Hicks’ orchestra in November for a tour of Texas. The tour later took Tobin and the band east to New York.
Returning to Denton in June 1935, Tobin joined Ligon Smith’s orchestra for the summer, broadcasting over radio station KTAT and traveling across Texas with the band. She and James married on July 18, 1935, in Shreveport, Louisiana. Tobin was only sixteen years old at the time. She then finished up her contract with Smith and left with James for Chicago, where he was to play with Ben Pollack’s orchestra and she had a singing job lined up. In January 1936, she appeared on Chicago station WGN.
Tobin had returned to Texas by summer 1936, where she again worked with Smith’s orchestra. By late 1936, she was in New York, performing in theaters and night clubs, including the Loew’s State in New York that October. James joined Goodman in December of that year. According to a popular story told by columnists at the time, Tobin was doing nightclub work in late 1938 at Nick’s Greenwich Village when musicians from Goodman’s band heard her sing and told James he should go listen, after which James calmly informed his surprised bandmates that she was his wife.
Tobin performed in Chicago in December 1938 and early 1939. She was singing with Bobby Hackett’s band when Goodman signed her in mid-1939 to replace the departing Martha Tilton. She made her first recordings with Goodman’s orchestra. Rumors constantly flew that Tobin was leaving the band, which she finally did in November after she fell critically ill. She had returned to singing by late April 1940, joining Jack Jenney’s band, which broke up mid-year. After plans to record on Columbia under the supervision of John Hammond failed to materialize, Tobin briefly joined Will Bradley in July, leaving at the end of September when she learned that she had become pregnant with her first child. She then returned to Denton to stay with her family.
Though Tobin was married to Harry James, she never sang with his band. Informally, reports said that James didn’t feel comfortable with his spouse working for him, though in an exclusive article for Down Beat magazine in October 1939 he gave a different reason, stating that Tobin could learn more from Goodman and make better money there. Tobin reportedly called her husband’s attention to singer Frank Sinatra, whom she had heard on the radio.
Tobin gave birth to a son in February 1941, after which she returned to New York and took up residence. False rumors had her joining Bradley’s band again in mid-1941. Reports in mid-1941 also stated that Tobin planned to file for divorce from James, though that did not happen, and the couple had another son in March of the following year. She and James finally separated in 1942, with Tobin retired from singing and settled in California to raise their sons. In spring 1943, James requested a divorce after he’d met and become engaged to actress Betty Grable while working on the film Springtime in the Rockies. Tobin granted him a quick Mexican divorce, and James married Grable on July 5.
After her divorce from James, Tobin lived quietly in Los Angeles until late 1945 when she returned to singing, performing with Emil Coleman’s orchestra in a soundie for RCM that year and appearing on the Ted Steele Presents radio show over KMPC in early 1946. She then recorded as vocalist with Tommy Jones and His Orchestra on Sterling later in 1946. Tobin appeared with the Three Bachelors vocal group in late 1947, creating an act called Three Bachelors and a Lady. In 1948, she joined Ziggy Elman’s orchestra, staying with the band until at least 1951.
Tobin returned to Denton around the beginning of 1953, where she settled and raised her two sons. In 1954 and 1955, she recorded for the MGM label. She semi-retired in the late 1950s, performing only sporadically in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and often for various causes. In 1957, Tobin sang at a fundraiser in Dallas, presenting “safe and sane renditions of popular dance tunes,” and in 1959 she appeared in a variety show sponsored by the Girls’ Service League at the famous Casa Mañana theater. She resumed her professional career in 1960 after her youngest son had graduated high school.
In 1967, Tobin married clarinetist Peanuts Hucko, with whose various groups she sang and recorded. The couple moved to Denver in the 1970s, where they operated a nightclub. They later settled in her native Texas, living in Denton. In 1987, the couple assumed leadership of the Benny Goodman Alumni Orchestra, with whom Tobin sang and toured.
Tobin passed away on November 26, 2022, at the age of 104.
The school changed its name from the College of Industrial Art to Texas State College for Women in 1934, often just called Teachers College, though articles continued to refer to it as CIA for the next few years. Some early sources say that Tobin was a student at the college, which is untrue. ↩︎
Tobin’s mother accompanied her during her time with Hicks. According to contemporary sources, Tobin performed with several “well-known” orchestras while in the East, though none are ever named. It was probably just PR speak. ↩︎
What caused Tobin’s illness is never mentioned. ↩︎
Denton newspapers, instead of reporting her pregnancy, stated that she was “temporarily retiring for a needed rest.” Other reports say she was “ill.” ↩︎
James left Goodman in December 1938 to form his own band. ↩︎
James’ band struggled in its early years and was always one step away from breaking up due to financial issues. ↩︎
Tobin was apparently under a radio contract that prevented her from signing with any band. ↩︎
Elman was a former Goodman and James band member who often fronted the James orchestra when Harry was absent. ↩︎