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 Wilson’s 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 Basie’s 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.