Best remembered today for her work with Benny Goodman, Martha Tilton proved a controversial choice for the King of Swing. Despite misgivings about her vocal talents, she earned her place on the stand, vocalizing on one of the band’s most memorable songs, “And the Angels Sing,” and as part of Goodman’s famous Carnegie Hall concert in 1938. Nicknamed “Liltin’ Miss Tilton,” she went on to a successful solo career during the 1940s.
Born in Texas, Tilton’s family later moved to the West Coast, where she began her singing career. Tilton worked with Hal Grayson’s orchestra in early 1935, appearing with the band on an episode of Bing Crosby’s radio show in May of that year. She joined Jimmy Dorsey’s band in Los Angeles in mid-1936, where she replaced Vicki Joyce, who was filling in after Kay Weber had left. She remained with the elder Dorsey’s orchestra through mid-1937, though she never entered the studio with them.
After leaving Dorsey, Tilton appeared in three, small film roles and eventually joined the vocal group Three Hits and a Miss, with whom she was singing on the radio when Goodman hired her in late 1937 to replace Betty Van. Intending to give Tilton a good build-up during her debut, Goodman would introduce her 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!”
Despite Goodman’s intentions, fans had mixed reactions to Tilton. Down Beat received so many negative letters about her that they decided to tabulate her approval rating. Based on the percentage of positive or negative remarks in reader letters, they found it to be only 68% positive. “Martha Tilton is rotten,” wrote one reader. “She stands stiff as a beanstalk and looks as if she’s going thru an operation when she sings.” Others defended her. “Where do readers get that stuff that Martha Tilton can’t sing?” wrote another. “Seems to me Benny knows something about singers, and I doubt that he would keep Martha with his ace-high outfit if she were not tops.” Down Beat writer George Frazier became infamous after declaring “Martha Tilton stinks.” Billboard writer Maurice Zolotow called her a “bloodless canary.” Tilton herself kept quiet all through the controversy, never responding to her detractors. Ironically, Down Beat magazine readers voted her third best female band singer for 1937. She placed tenth in Billboard’s 1940 college poll.
Tilton remained with Goodman until May 1939, when she was “asked” to leave during the shake-up that followed the departure of many key Goodman personnel earlier that year. Official reports said that she was ill and needed a rest. Tilton was engaged to Goodman band manager, Leonard Vannerson, which may also have played a role in her departure. Down Beat called the changes in Goodman’s outfit “the most radical in the band’s history.” Tilton and Vannerson married in early 1940. Tilton had previously been married to David Thomas, whom she divorced in 1937.
After exiting Goodman, Tilton settled back on the West Coast, performing in clubs and doing radio work for NBC. She appeared on radio regularly during the early 1940s, both as a guest and on her own programs. In fall 1941, she was hired as singer with the Billy Mills Orchestra on the Fibber McGee and Molly radio program. She proved unpopular with the audience and only remained with the program one season. That same season she also appeared on the network’s Best of the Week program aired to Latin America.
Tilton recorded two songs with a studio orchestra put together by Artie Shaw in May 1940 when the bandleader was between bands. She made several musical shorts in 1940 and 1941 and also appeared in four films during that time, three of which were uncredited roles. In mid-1941, she made her first solo recordings for Decca. When Ginny Simms left Kay Kyser’s band at the end of that year, he offered Tilton her position, but she refused, preferring to remain a single. She placed fifth in Billboard’s 1941 college poll for the category of best female band singer, despite the fact that she hadn’t been with a band in two years.
In 1942, Tilton signed with the new Capitol label, recording solo and providing vocals for Paul Whiteman and Gordon Jenkins. That year she also sang with Jan Savitt’s orchestra in a musical short and appeared in other shorts during 1942 and 1943. In 1942, she appeared as herself in the musical comedy Strictly in the Groove. She took time off from performing in late 1942 to give birth to her first child, a son, in January 1943. In fall 1943, she moved to CBS, where she worked on Dick Powell’s radio show. She made at least three more film appearances in 1944 and 1945. After her husband entered the navy in early 1944, Tilton joined Jack Benny’s USO troupe that summer for their South Pacific tour. Before she left the States she asked mothers to send her fruitcakes to deliver to their sons stationed there.
In early 1945, Tilton joined Milton Berle’s radio show. That fall she appeared with Whiteman’s orchestra on ABC’s Radio Hall of Fame series. Tilton also made a V-Disc in 1945 with a group featuring Billy Butterfield on trumpet. In May 1947, she appeared for four weeks on Your Hit Parade with Andy Russell. She toured with Russell that fall and then joined Dick Haymes radio program late that year. In November, Tilton made headlines when she lost $10,000 worth of jewelry in Chicago while traveling from her hotel to the theater.
Late 1940s and Beyond
Feeling overshadowed at Capitol by the label’s more popular female singers, Jo Stafford, Peggy Lee, and Margaret Whiting, Tilton asked to be released from her contract during summer 1947 so that she could sign with Majestic, who offered more money. Capitol complied. Majestic was one of the many small labels that had sprung up after the war to take advantage of the increased market for music. They signed a number of name artists. Like many of those new, smaller labels, however, they were cash poor, and they began to run out of money at the end of the year. They initially tried to impose lower payments to their artists but eventually were forced to file Chapter XI bankruptcy to protect them from creditors while they restructured their debts. Those creditors included Tilton and the other artists signed to the label. Capitol allowed Tilton to return, re-signing her in January 1948. She remained with the label until late 1949, when she moved to Decca’s new Coral imprint, where she often did duets with other popular singers, including Harry Babbitt and Connie Haines.
In 1947, Tilton opened The Silver Thimble lingerie shop in Carmel, California, which she devoted part of her time to manage and run. She appeared two days a week on Jack Smith’s radio program in late 1948, and in late 1949 she became part of Curt Massey’s show, remaining with it through at least 1951. She and Massey often sang together during the 1950s. In 1950, she made an uncredited appearance in the film Lilli Marlene.
Tilton and Vannerson separated in the late 1940s. They attempted to reconcile in 1950 but had divorced by 1953, when Tilton married test pilot Jim Brooks. Brooks 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.
Tilton continued singing throughout the 1950s, recording with Les Brown in 1952 and returning to the silver screen one last time for the 1956 biopic The Benny Goodman Story. She sang with Goodman in concert that November as well and recorded on the Tops label in 1957. Tilton was often featured as part of jazz and big band events in the late 1950s. In 1958, she appeared with the King of Swing at the Newport Jazz Festival. She recorded with Massey on Capitol in 1958 and solo on the budget Crown label in 1963. Tilton appeared on Massey’s television program on Los Angeles station KCRA in the early 1960s. She was named the outstanding local female television personality in 1961 by the Los Angeles chapter of the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences. She performed with Goodman’s band on NBC television in 1961 and also sang with Brown’s band in early 1961.
In the 1970s, Tilton took part in the big band nostalgia wave that swept through that decade. In 1975, she sang in the made-for-TV movie Queen of the Stardust Ballroom, and in 1978 she reunited with Goodman at Carnegie Hall for the 40th anniversary of his famous concert.
Martha Tilton passed away from natural causes in December of 2006. Her sister, Liz, was also a band vocalist. The two recorded together as The Liltin’ Tiltons on Coral Records in 1952 and 1953. Tilton’s cousin, Lynn, also worked as a band singer, serving with Ralph Flanagan’s orchestra in 1950.
Tilton had joined Goodman by late October 1937. ↩︎
Being ill was often the reason officially stated when a singer left a band. ↩︎
Vannerson later became Tommy Dorsey’s band manager and by extension Frank Sinatra’s when the singer left Dorsey. The two parted ways after Sinatra paid off Dorsey to tune of $50,000 to free himself of the bandleader’s 33% interest in him. Vannerson also owned ten percent of Sinatra, which Dorsey refused to pay to him, so Vannerson quit. ↩︎