Radio and band singer Nan Wynn reached the height of her popularity during the late 1930s. From 1938 to mid-1940, her voice was heard regularly over the airwaves and on a number of memorable recordings. In the early 1940s, Wynn shifted her focus to acting, appearing in film and on Broadway before a diagnosis of throat cancer effectively ended her career in 1949. She is best remembered today for her work with Teddy Wilson and Hal Kemp and as Rita Hayworth’s first vocal double.
Born in York, Pennsylvania, Wynn grew up in Wheeling, West Virginia, and by early 1935 had made her way to New York, supposedly alone, at age 16. By February of that year, she had become part of the Champagne Cocktail vaudeville unit as a singer, where she remained until at least late March. In 1936, she appeared in a musical short with Vincent Lopez for Warner Bros.
In early 1937, Wynn became vocalist for the Hudson-DeLange Orchestra, with whom she made her first recordings. She soon began to attract attention, and by January 1938 she had left Hudson-DeLange for CBS radio, where she appeared regularly with her own fifteen-minute sustainer and on other programs, including Musical Gazette. In March and June 1938, Wynn recorded with Emery Deutsch on Brunswick, and in July she began a series of recordings with Teddy Wilson on the same label. She also signed with Vocalion in mid-1938, releasing solo recordings over the next year billed as “Nan Wynn and her Orchestra,” though it was only a studio band. Wynn’s vocal style fooled many into thinking she was black, and the press often went out of their way to clarify that she was actually white. One reviewer compared her voice to a cross between Mildred Bailey and Ella Fitzgerald.
Wynn substituted for Durelle Alexander in Eddy Duchin’s band in mid-September 1938 when Alexander had to return home for a family emergency, and on October 1 she made her night club debut as a solo artist at the Belmont Plaza Hotel. On October 9 she began a new sustainer program on CBS with Walter Gross leading the orchestra, recording two songs on Vocalion with Gross backing her. Wynn made two musical shorts for Paramount in 1938 and a third in 1939. In February 1939, she opened at the Famous Door night club.
In early May 1939, Wynn joined the new CBS program Time to Shine, sponsored by Griffin shoe polish and featuring Hal Kemp’s orchestra. When Kemp’s female vocalist, Maxine Gray, left the band two weeks later, Wynn took her spot, touring and recording with Kemp over the next five months. She was not an employee of Kemp however. She and Kemp were both under contract to CBS and Griffin. When Griffin ended Time to Shine in October, Wynn and Kemp parted company. Her time with Kemp, however, proved popular with the public. She placed ninth in Billboard magazine’s 1940 poll for favorite female band vocalist.
After leaving Kemp, Wynn continued her solo career. In February 1940, she joined the Concert in Rhythm program, which featured Raymond Scott’s studio orchestra and Jack Leonard as male vocalist. She also toured the theater circuit. During opening night at Atlanta’s Roxy Theater on April 4 a small fire under the stage started by a cable shortage caused smoke to fill the theater. Not realizing what was going on, both the audience and Wynn found the appearance of the smoke amusing. One audience member asked her to sing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” which she obliged before everyone was finally told to leave the building.
In mid-1940, Scott, better known at the time for his eccentric compositions, decided to try his hand at leading a straight dance band. Since Wynn had been singing with Scott on radio for the past few months, CBS contracted her as his vocalist. She was guaranteed three songs on each broadcast and would record with the band as well. Known as Raymond Scott and his New Orchestra, the group debuted in July, hitting the theater and hotel circuit. They attracted much publicity, but Wynn was unhappy, and she quit both Scott and the radio show in early September after the band’s engagement at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago, saying she would never work with a dance band ever again.
Scott was notoriously difficult to work for, especially for a singer of Wynn’s experience and caliber. He expected his vocalist to follow arrangements exactly. He allowed no improvisation, and he often handed them a new song to learn only hours before a performance. Wynn’s comments to Down Beat after she left reflect her frustration:
Working with a straight dance orchestra doesn’t give a singer much scope… A singer—especially a girl—is decidedly limited singing with a dance band. Often the leader is more interested in vocal backgrounds than he is the vocal itself. Besides, I’ve long wanted to do more serious music, tunes by Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and the rest. And being on my own, I can set my own tempos and have the backgrounds I want, for a change.
After leaving Scott, Wynn remained in Chicago, opening on September 26 in the swank Pump Room of the Hotel Ambassador. Billy Strayhorn provided arrangements. Her ultimate goal, however, was to make the switch to motion pictures, and to that effect she studied dramatics during the fall. Moving to Hollywood, her hard work paid off when Warner Bros. signed her to a contract on February 1, 1941. She made her screen debut as an actress soon after in the low budget noir thriller A Shot in the Dark, playing the lead female role, a night club singer. The film did little to advance her prospects however.
To supplement her film work, Wynn continued to appear on CBS radio, singing as a regular with Al Pearce in 1941 and Eddy Duchin in 1942. In 1943, she was part of both the Lockheed-Vega program and the America—Ceiling Unlimited show. She recorded two sides for RCA Victor in 1941. In March 1943, Wynn and Harry James teamed up to win a bandleader’s dance contest in Hollywood.
Wynn’s acting career faltered. Warner Bros. proved to have more interest in using her to dub vocals or provide musical interludes than it did in giving her substantial roles. She most famously dubbed Rita Hayworth’s singing voice in My Gal Sal and You Were Never Lovelier. After her contract expired in 1942, she made one film for Universal, Abbott and Costello’s Pardon My Sarong, in which she played a singer.
In early 1943, Wynn signed a new film contract with Columbia, who promised her leading roles. Her first picture for the studio was Jam Session, a musical revue that showcased multiple acts, though Wynn was given feature billing. Columbia also assigned her the female lead in the Ted Lewis biopic Is Everybody Happy? Neither film brought much success, and in early 1944 she gave up her dream of becoming a motion picture star and returned to New York. In June of that year, she married radio writer Cy Howard.
In New York, Wynn set her sights on Broadway, making her debut in December 1944 as part of the Billy Rose musical revue Seven Lively Arts which ran to May 1945 at the Zeigfeld Theater. The following month she toured with a four-week package show headlined by Jack Benny sidekick Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Wynn made her first night club appearance since Seven Lively Arts at the Copley Plaza Oval Room in Boston in November. In January 1946, she was in Miami. In 1947, she made a brief return to Hollywood to appear as a dinner club singer in the George Raft film Intrigue, produced by Star Films.
Wynn and Howard divorced in May 1947. At the beginning of 1948, she made her first recordings since 1941, released by Decca. In May 1948, she opened at the Blue Angel in New York and then spent a brief time later that year starring as Sharon Lonergan in the Broadway production Finian’s Rainbow, replacing Dorothy Claire. In January 1949, Wynn married Doctor Thomas Wolfe and in the early part of that year appeared in an ABC radio series sponsored by the Army for recruiting purposes. The program featured pop singers performing theater songs. And then tragedy struck.
In early 1949, Wynn was diagnosed with throat cancer. The subsequent operation to remove the tumor damaged her voice, and she retired from show business. She and Wolfe divorced in 1952. Wynn worked hard to regain her singing voice, and in 1955 she attempted a comeback, recording for RCA Victor. Her voice was different, and Victor used that in promotional material, taking out full-page ads calling it “the incredible come-back story, it’s the new voice…the new sound of Nan Wynn.” The recordings received favorable reviews, and in January 1956 she toured with other RCA Victor stars as part of the ten-day, eleven-city “Starliner” train tour to raise money for the March of Dimes. She failed to catch the public’s ear, however, and Wynn’s comeback attempt was over by early 1956.
Wynn married industrialist John Small in Mexico in April 1956. In the early 1960s, she made appearances at American Cancer Society state meetings, providing entertainment in the form of a musical program that highlighted her life story and told what the ACS had done for her. She also appeared on the CBS talk show PM with Mike Wallace in April 1962 discussing her story. Small passed away in 1969. Wynn died two years late at age 52.
Wynn’s age was given as 22 in a September 1940 Down Beat article, which would correspond to the usual birth year given for her of 1918. Down Beat stated, though, that she was 17 years old at the time she arrived in New York. Her birth date of May 1918 and mentions in a February 1935 issue of Billboard would make her age at that time 16 however. Down Beat’s article is the only one of any type that gives Wynn’s age. It’s possible she may have been older, but there is no other contemporary source for comparison. ↩︎
Wynn was never a part of Teddy Wilson’s orchestra as many bios state. Wilson didn’t have an orchestra at this point in time. He was still with Benny Goodman, though he made several recordings during this period with pick-up bands using a variety of vocalists. These recordings were often labeled as Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra. Wilson didn’t actually form an orchestra until later in 1939. ↩︎
Anita O’Day, who took Wynn’s place in Scott’s orchestra, lasted even less time than Wynn, being fired after a few days because she’d forgotten part of the lyrics to a song Scott had given her only hours before and was forced to improvise. ↩︎
Cy Howard went on to create the 1950s television sitcom My Friend Irma. He also worked as a writer for the Smothers Brothers during the late 1960s. ↩︎
Bios of Wynn often state that she sang with a variety of orchestras, including those of Richard Himber and Rudy Vallee. She sang with many orchestras during her radio career, but she was only ever a member of those led by Hudson-DeLange, Kemp, and Scott. ↩︎