Popular vocalist Martha Tilton toured with several orchestras in the mid-1930s, including Jimmy Dorsey’s band in 1935. Though she spent more than a year with the elder Dorsey, she never entered the studio. She eventually joined the vocal group Three Hits and a Miss, with whom she was singing on the radio when Benny Goodman hired her in 1937 to replace Betty Van.
Tilton made her first recordings with the King of Swing. Goodman, intending to give her a good build-up during her debut, would introduce Tilton as a singer “that’s really going places.” During one of her first appearances, she forgot her cue, and when she didn’t appear Goodman turned to the audience and joked, “Boy, she isn’t going places, she’s already gone!”
Known as “Liltin’ Miss Tilton,” she remained with Goodman until 1939, when she was “asked” to leave during the shake-up following the departure of Harry James. After exiting Goodman, she settled into radio work and briefly sang with Artie Shaw’s orchestra. A popular vocalist, she placed tenth in Billboard’s annual college poll for best female band vocalist in 1940 and fifth the following year.
Tilton appeared on radio regularly during the early 1940s, both as a guest and on her own programs. In 1941, she was hired as singer with the Billy Mills Orchestra on the Fibber McGee and Molly radio program. She proved not popular with the audience and only remained with the program one season.
In 1942, Tilton signed with the new Capitol label, recording solo and providing vocals for orchestras on the diskery, including those of Paul Whiteman and Gordon Jenkins. She remained with Capitol throughout the 1940s, except for a brief period in which she left for Majestic in 1947. In 1950, she signed with Coral.
Tilton appeared in several musical shorts and Hollywood films during the early and mid-1940s. Her last silver screen appearance was in the 1956 biopic The Benny Goodman Story. In 1975, she starred in the made-for-TV movie Queen of the Stardust Ballroom. She continued to sing and record solo through the 1950s, often partnering with singer Curt Massey, with whom she had a popular radio program in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Tilton also owned, managed and ran The Silver Thimble lingerie shop in Carmel, California, opened in 1947.
Tilton walked down the aisle three times, the first time in 1937 to David Scott. In 1940, Tilton married Leonard Vannerson, Benny Goodman’s business manager, and in 1953 she married test pilot Jim Brooks, who accidentally dropped her and broke her leg when attempting to carry her across the threshold of their home four days after their wedding. The couple remained together for the rest of her life.
Martha Tilton passed away from natural causes in December of 2006. Her sister, Liz, was a band vocalist as well.