Considered by many to be one of the best female vocalists of the big band era, Marion Hutton is remembered today primarily for her work with Glenn Miller’s orchestra. Though later overshadowed by her younger sister, actress Betty Hutton, Marion held her own as one of the most popular singers of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Hutton, with her animated style of performance, typically sang swing and novelty tunes rather than ballads. While she never had a hit song with Miller, she appeared on some of the band’s most popular ensemble numbers, including “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamzoo” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” and often sang along with the Modernaires. Despite her success in Miller’s band, she struggled all throughout her solo career, never managing to distinguish herself enough from her sister to make a name of her own.
Born in Fort Smith, Arkansas, Hutton’s father, a railroad worker, abandoned the family when Marion was only four-years-old. In order to support her two daughters, the girls’ mother opened a small speakeasy in their home, where Marion and Betty would often perform for the patrons. Trouble with police kept the family on the move, and eventually they ended up in Detroit. Young Marion had plans to become a doctor but was forced to drop out of school at age 16 to help support her family by working at a drugstore soda fountain.
In the late 1930s, Marion and Betty began performing around the Detroit area. Singing in an energetic and animated style that was quite different from most vocalists of the era, they soon caught the attention of bandleader Vincent Lopez, who hired them in 1938 and gave them the last name of Hutton based on numerology. Marion didn’t stay long with Lopez. Glenn Miller, who was looking to liven up his new orchestra, heard the two sisters sing one night in Boston. Though Betty was the one who captured the public’s eye, Miller thought Marion would be easier to handle, and in September he invited her to join his group.
Hutton was well-liked by everyone in Miller’s orchestra, both for her vocal talents and for her bright personality. Miller himself loved the girl-next-door aura that she projected and briefly changed her name to Sissy Jones. As a member of Miller’s band, Hutton sang and performed in a more subdued manner than she had while working with her sister. Miller allowed no stars in his orchestra, and Hutton had to become just another member of the band.
In the summer 1939, Hutton collapsed on the bandstand due to exhaustion, and Miller brought in Kay Starr to take her place while she recovered. Hutton rejoined the orchestra that fall. She inadvertently made it on the cover of Down Beat magazine in December when Miller, who preferred not to be in the limelight, stepped back into the shadows as the photographer prepared to snap a picture, giving Hutton the focus. Hutton, who wore her hair in an atypical style, wrote an article for Down Beat, published in September 1940, about the importance of appearance for a singer:
Just a nice appearance alone isn’t enough, in my humble opinion. If a girl can look nice and still look a little different than the competition, she’s a jump ahead.
In September 1940, Hutton married Jack Philbin, who managed several bands. All went well until December 1940 when a gossip columnist discovered that she was pregnant. She could have easily sang with Miller for several more months despite her condition, but the embarrassment proved too much for her and she left the orchestra, stepping back from the bandstand in mid-December but staying on Miller’s radio program until her replacement could join the band. For that, Miller chose Bobby Byrne vocalist Dorothy Claire, who had a similar singing style to Hutton’s. Claire took over Hutton’s duties on January 6, 1941, but after Byrne sued Miller and Claire for breach of contract, which they both denied, Miller let Claire go to avoid the legal complications and hired Paula Kelly to replace her.
In April 1941, Hutton began to hint that she wanted to resume her career after becoming a mother. She gave birth to a son in May and returned to Miller in August, with Kelly leaving to make way for her. Hutton rejoined the band in time to appear in their 1942 film Orchestra Wives. 20th Century Fox executives expressed an interest in her, comparing her to Betty Grable, but never followed up. Marion stayed with Miller until the orchestra’s final night, September 27, 1942, after which Miller disbanded to enter the Army Air Force. She couldn’t make it through the performance, bursting into tears and running off stage in the middle of “Kalamazoo.”
After Miller disbanded, Hutton and three of the Modernaires initially planned to form a quartet for radio work but instead joined together with fellow Miller vocalist Tex Beneke — and a new fourth Modernaire — to go out on the road in a combined act called the Glenn Miller Singers. When Beneke left to join Horace Heidt’s band in December, Hutton and the Modernaires continued the act without him, with sax playing Modernaire Johnny Drake taking Beneke’s parts. Though they were highly successful, making an appearance in the Universal film Crazy House, Hutton left in August 1943 to pursue solo work. Paula Kelly replaced her. Hutton and the Modernaires performed one last time with Miller on September 2, 1944, via a three-way radio link for a program broadcast to soldiers in England and France.
Hutton was popular as Miller’s vocalist, winning fourth place in Billboard’s 1941 college poll for best female band vocalist and capturing second place in 1942. Post-Miller, though, her popularity began to fall. She placed a very weak fourth in the 1943 poll. Part of the reason for the decline was that, without Miller’s influence, she quickly reverted to her prior exuberant style of performance. With her sister’s recent meteoric rise in Hollywood, audiences and critics felt that Marion was imitating her. Not helping this illusion, Marion’s 1943 act featured many novelty tunes, including the song “His Rocking Horse Ran Away,” which her sister performed in the 1944 film And the Angels Sing.
Betty’s popularity stifled her sister’s career in multiple ways. In 1944, Marion signed a two picture contract with Universal Studios, making In Society, with Abbott and Costello, and Babes on Swing Street, where she played herself as a band singer with Freddie Slack’s orchestra. Universal decided not to renew her contract, however, citing her close resemblance to Betty. Warner Brothers rejected her the following year for the same reason after she made a screen test for the role opposite Cary Grant in Night and Day.
Despite these setbacks, Marion continued singing, signing with Decca in June 1945, where she was initially paired up with Randy Brooks’ orchestra. She took most of 1946 off after the difficult birth of her second child, needing “several” blood transfusions. She became active again the following year. She consciously tried to change her style to be less like Betty, even donning a black wig in 1948, but she never completely overcame the resemblance. She worked especially hard at it in late 1947 and early 1948, which paid off with a recording contract for the MGM label and a spot on the Revere’s All-Star Review radio program, with Andy Russell, the Pied Pipers and Ray Sinatra’s orchestra, though neither avenue proved particularly fruitful. She made her night club debut in mid-1948.
Marion also co-starred in the Marx Brothers’ 1949 film Love Happy and that same year became a regular on Jack Carson’s radio program. As part of the show, Marion toured with Carson and fellow cast member Robert Alda, and she and Carson performed for President Truman. She appeared on Carson’s television program in 1950 and 1951.
In late 1947, Marion and Philbin separated, later divorcing, and Hutton married radio writer Jack Douglas in July 1949. Though she considered retirement, she ended up partnering with Douglas in a musical comedy act. The couple recorded on MGM. Their act was largely panned, and Marion soon went back to performing solo. She recorded again on MGM in 1953, but success continued to elude her.
In December 1954, Marion married Vic Schoen, noted arranger and long-time music director for the Andrews Sisters. In early 1955, she recorded together with Betty on Capitol as the Hutton Sisters. By that time, however, Betty’s career was also flagging, and nothing came of it. Marion then retired from show business for good, performing only sporadically in Miller tribute shows and on her sister’s 1960 television program.
Marion struggled with alcoholism and prescription drug abuse in her later life until seeking treatment in 1965, after which she devoted her life to helping other women with the same problem. Going back to school in 1972, she earned a master’s degree in family counseling. She and Schoen eventually settled in Kirkland, Washington, where Marion served as director of Residence XII, an alcoholic treatment center for women, a position she held until her death in 1987 after a long bout with cancer. Marion Hutton was 67.