Thelma Carpenter

Photo of Thelma Carpenter

Singer Thelma Carpenter be­gan per­form­ing at an early age, ap­pear­ing on New York ra­dio as a child. During her teen years, she worked in lo­cal night­clubs and in 1938 won an am­a­teur con­test at the Apollo Theater, at­tract­ing the at­ten­tion of jazz phil­an­thropist John Hammond, who con­nected her with Teddy Wilsons or­ches­tra. She sang and recorded with Wilson in 1939 be­fore join­ing Coleman Hawkins band later that year. She re­mained with Hawkins un­til early 1943, when she be­came fe­male vo­cal­ist for Count Basies or­ches­tra. She left Basie briefly in September 1943 to go solo but re­turned in November. She re­mained with the band un­til January 1945.

Striking out on her own again, Carpenter recorded with the Herman Chittison Trio on Musicraft in early 1945 and then opened on Broadway in the short-lived Memphis Bound in May. She signed with the Majestic la­bel later that year, where she recorded un­til 1947. In 1948, she be­gan record­ing on Columbia.

In September 1945, Carpenter be­came the fea­tured fe­male vo­cal­ist on Eddie Cantor’s ra­dio show. While Cantor was hailed as a cham­pion of racial equal­ity when he hired her, Carpenter found the re­al­ity to be much dif­fer­ent. Cantor never gave her enough time to fully sing a num­ber, of­ten rush­ing her through a song in 45 sec­onds. The writ­ers also had trou­ble work­ing her into scripts, and when they did it was at Carpenter’s ex­pense. She re­fused to do race com­edy how­ever, and Cantor dropped her from the show af­ter her 26-week con­tract ex­pired. In her place, he hired a 14-year-old white girl, whom he gave am­ple time for singing and bragged he was go­ing to build her into a star, fur­ther sour­ing Carpenter’s ex­pe­ri­ence with the show.

After Carpenter pub­licly aired her gripes, Cantor apol­o­gize and blamed his writ­ers, say­ing that he did­n’t ap­prove of her treat­ment and did­n’t want her to leave the show but his writ­ers and pro­gram staff had pushed him to re­lease her. Cantor’s wife in­vited Carpenter to their house for din­ner as a ges­ture of apol­ogy.

Carpenter went on to have a suc­cess­ful solo ca­reer through the rest of the 1940s and into the 1950s, ap­pear­ing on her own NBC ra­dio pro­gram and per­form­ing in the 1955 Broadway mu­si­cal com­edy Ankles Aweigh. She con­tin­ued record­ing into the 1960s. By 1966, though, she was no longer get­ting work as a singer. Finding her­self broke, she went to an em­ploy­ment agency and took a job as file clerk at Mott’s, the ap­ple­sauce com­pany, where she stayed for three years. Determined to work her way back into show busi­ness, in November 1969 she landed the role of Pearl Bailey’s un­der­study in the all-black tour­ing ver­sion of Hello, Dolly, launch­ing an act­ing ca­reer that came to in­clude roles on tele­vi­sion and an ap­pear­ance in the 1978 hit mu­si­cal film The Wiz.

Thelma Carpenter passed away in 1997, age 75, the re­sult of a heart at­tack. She never mar­ried.


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  • She's Funny That Way
    Coleman Hawkins (Thelma Carpenter), Bluebird (1939)
  • I Didn't Know About You
    Count Basie (Thelma Carpenter), Columbia (1944)
  • Just a Sittin' and a Rockin'
    Thelma Carpenter, Majestic (1945)
  • Bill
    Thelma Carpenter, Majestic (1945)
  • Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man
    Thelma Carpenter, Majestic (1945)
  • These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)
    Thelma Carpenter, Majestic (1945)
  • Hurry Home
    Thelma Carpenter and the Deep Reiver Boys, Majestic (1945)
  • My Guy's Come Back
    Thelma Carpenter and the Deep River Boys, Majestic (1945)

All recordings are from the Internet Archive's 78rpm collection. Copyright owners, please see our removal policy.


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. “Thelma Carpenter to Single.” Billboard 25 Sep. 1943: 14.
  3. “On the Stand: Count Basie.” Billboard 20 Nov. 1943: 15.
  4. “In Short.” Billboard 13 Jan. 1945: 26.
  5. “On the Stand: Count Basie.” Billboard 20 Jan. 1945: 18.
  6. “Record Reviews.” Billboard 26 May 1945: 74.
  7. “Broadway Opening: Memphis Bound.” Billboard 2 Jun. 1945: 34.
  8. “Summer Heat Still Testing Net Shows.” Billboard 15 Sep. 1945: 10.
  9. “Thelma Carpenter Added to Cantor's Radio Show.” The Afro-American [Baltimore, MD] 13 Oct. 1945: 22.
  10. “Music Popularity Charts.” Billboard 10 Nov. 1945: 31.
  11. “Script Reference to Color Irks Thelma Carpenter Fan.” The Afro-American [Baltimore, MD] 26 Jan. 1946: 10.
  12. “Thelma Carpenter Tells Why Cantor Show Dropped Her.” The Afro-American [Baltimore, MD] 13 Apr. 1946: 8.
  13. Matthews, Ralph. “Behind the Scenes: Thelma vs. Eddie.” The Afro-American [Baltimore, MD] 10 Aug. 1946: 3.
  14. Advertisement. Billboard 8 Mar. 1947: 20.
  15. “Record Reviews.” Billboard 9 Oct. 1948: 104.
  16. “Thelma Carpenter, She Once Climbed to the Top and Might Do It Again.” The Virgin Islands Daily News 10 Feb. 1969: 10.
  17. “From the Jazz Circuit to 'Barefoot in the Park.'” The Milwaukee Journal 13 Oct. 1970: Green Sheet, 1.