Woody Herman

Photo of Woody Herman

Clarinetist and vocalist Woody Herman led a cooperative band formed by a group of ex-Isham Jones sidemen in the mid-1930s. Though he was slow to get started, Herman produced a string of hits from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s and is remembered today as one of the most popular bandleaders of all time. With an ear for staying contemporary, Herman remained active and vital long after the majority of his peers had hung up their batons.

Herman began his career in show business at age six, singing and dancing in vaudeville. He later studied the saxophone and clarinet and worked with Myron Stewart and Joe Lichter before joining Tom Gerun’s band in 1929 as both an instrumentalist and a singer. He remained with Gerun until 1934 then briefly worked with Harry Sosnik and Gus Arnheim before being hired by Isham Jones. When Jones retired in 1936 due to illness, many of his musicians opted to stay together. They formed a cooperative unit and elected Herman as president and leader, debuting at the Roseland Ballroom in New York in October. The band incorporated in February 1937.

Going by the moniker “The Band That Plays the Blues,” the orchestra struggled at first to gain acceptance. Recognition finally came in 1939 with their first big hit, “Woodchopper’s Ball.” By 1940, the year they made their first profit, the band had become generally known by its now famous nickname, Herman’s Herd. Always staying on top of innovations in jazz, by 1943, heavily influenced by Duke Ellington, they had begun to move away from the blues and had started combining bop themes with swing arrangements, much to the critics’ delight. The band even attracted the attention of classical composer Igor Stravinsky, who became a big fan. Stravinsky wrote a special number, “Ebony Concerto,” for the group to perform at Carnegie Hall in 1946. Herman’s band recorded on Decca from 1936 to 1944, when the moved to Columbia.

Vocalists and Key Musicians

Herman himself sang male vocals, with the occasional member of the band also singing, most notably trumpeter Steady Nelson. Sharri Kaye was the orchestra’s first female vocalist, joining the band in mid-1937. Sue Mitchell sang in mid-1938. Mary Ann McCall had joined by February 1939, remaining until early December when Carol Kay took her place. Kay remained until April 1940, when she retired after getting married. Herman then hired a new discovery, Dillagene Plumb, whom he had heard during a one-nighter in Oklahoma. Dillagene soon dropped the Plumb from her billing and went only by her given name. She married Herman drummer Frankie Carlson later that year and in October was on notice with the band, intending to retire from show business for the domestic life.

By November, Dillagene was out of the band, supposedly ill. Kathleen Lane filled in as vocalist until Herman hired Muriel Lane, no relation, five days before Christmas. Lane left the band in August 1941, replaced by Carolyn Grey, who remained with Herman almost two years and whose voice became associated with many of its hit recordings. Grey quit the band suddenly in May 1943, on the day of the orchestra’s opening at the Hollywood Palladium, leaving Herman without a female singer for the duration of the engagement. In June, Herman hired Anita O’Day, who remained only a month, not wanting to travel east with the band when it left the West Coast. In mid-1943, the band featured a vocal group called the Four Woodmen. In 1945 and 1946, their vocal group was called the Blue Moods.

Musicians with the band over the years included trumpet players Neal Hefti, Pete Candoli, and Sonny Berman, drummer Davey Tough, bassist Chubby Jackson, pianist Ralph Burns, tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips, and vibraphonist Red Norvo, who joined at the beginning of 1946. Herman also broke conventions and hired two female musicians, trumpet player Billie Rogers and vibraphonist Marjorie Hyams. Rogers, who joined in mid-1941 and remained until late 1943, also sang novelty numbers. Former Ellington sax player Ben Webster recorded several songs with the band in 1943. The band backed several singers in the studio, including Mary Martin, Connee Boswell, and Bing Crosby, on whose radio show they appeared in 1941.

In November 1943, Herman hired Frances Wayne as female vocalist. Wayne, who married Hefti, became another long-term member of the band. She proved a popular vocalist, scoring a big hit in 1945 with “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” a very difficult song for singers. Her talents put her in high demand, with Decca lending her to Victor so that she could record with Ellington. The band then moved to Columbia, who gave Wayne permission to cut solo songs on the Musicraft label, an unusual decision and the first time that a singer had been allowed to record solo on another label while still remaining with their band. Wayne stayed with Herman until January 1946, when she followed her husband out the band. Lynne Stevens replaced Wayne, remaining until September. Betty Perry initially filled Stevens’ place, with Mary Ann McCall returning by the end of the month.

Later Years

By the end of the war years, Herman’s orchestra was the most popular in the nation, winning both the Metronome and Down Beat polls in 1945. With the band’s success, though, came increasing pressure on Herman. Financial problems and booking issues added up, and in December 1946 Herman became one of several bandleaders to announcement that he was disbanding, giving no reason for the move. Recent criticisms that the Herd had gone commercial sent rumors flying that Herman had broken up because he wanted to play sweet music, rumors which Herman called “a crock of baloney.” He told Down Beat:

We split purely and simply because I had by far the biggest payroll in the country and we simply couldn’t make it in the face of present-day bookings. I could have been playing Lombardo style with the Phil Spitalny chorus thrown in, and we still would have busted—the load was too great.

After a stint as a disc jockey and a few sessions with pick-up bands, Herman finally formed a new group, the Second Herd, in mid-1947. The new band featured a modern, “cooler” sound, with such musicians as Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Clark Terry, and Oscar Pettiford. The orchestra recorded its biggest hits, “Four Brothers,” on Columbia in 1947, and “Early Autumn” on Capitol in 1948. McCall returned as vocalist, remaining with the band until summer 1949. Herman disbanded in December of that year for the same reason he had his previous band. He couldn’t line up enough bookings to pay his costs. During the 1950s, Herman formed a Third Herd, and later he organized the New Thundering Herd.

Sadly, Herman’s life ended on a sour note. After financial problems in the 1960s, caused by an inept band manager, Herman ended up owing back taxes. He was forced to continue performing during the 1980s in an effort to pay off his debt. Illness finally prevented him from touring and the IRS seized his assets, including his house. He died soon after, in 1987, from complications of pneumonia.

Vocalist Timeline

Note: Dates may be approximate. Some vocalists may not be listed due to lack of information on their dates of employment.


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. “Woody Herman Incorporates.” Billboard 20 Feb. 1937: 15.
  3. “Another Incorporated Band Goes To The Top.” Down Beat Aug. 1937: 12.
  4. Dickler, Milton Karle. “Woody's Blues and Barrel-House a Hit in Pitt.” Down Beat Aug. 1937: 26.
  5. “The Reviewing Stand: Woody Herman.” Billboard 13 Aug. 1938: 13.
  6. “Bert Lown Dusts Off Baton.” Down Beat Mar. 1939: 14.
  7. “Vaudeville Reviews: Paramount, New York.” Billboard 29 Jul. 1939: 20.
  8. “Who's Who in Music: Presenting Woody Herman's Band.” Down Beat Aug. 1939: 12.
  9. “Movie Views and Reviews.” Reading Eagle [Reading, PA] 22 Sep. 1939: 21.
  10. “Vaudeville Reviews: Hippodrome, Baltimore.” Billboard 4 Nov. 1939: 22.
  11. “The Reviewing Stand: Woody Herman.” Billboard 9 Dec. 1939: 12.
  12. Advertisement. “Woody Herman.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1939: 25.
  13. “Perky Pigeon.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1940: 20.
  14. “On the Down Beat.” The Gettysburgian [Gettysburg, Pennsylvania] 15 Feb. 1940: 2.
  15. “Woody Herman's Gang Takes Up Polo.” Down Beat 1 Apr. 1940: 2.
  16. “Aggie Action.” The Daily Ardmoreite [Ardmore, Oklahoma] 14 Apr. 1940: 7.
  17. “Carol Kay Out Of Herman Ork.” Down Beat 1 May 1940: 2.
  18. “Cowgirl Vocalist.” Down Beat 15 May 1940: 2.
  19. “Woody Herman in Market for Thrush.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1940: 2.
  20. “Dummy Sax Man.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1940: 7.
  21. “Comes Through in the Clutch.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1940: 12.
  22. “Herman Herd Gets New Girl Singer.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1941: 2.
  23. “Makes Big Jump.” Down Beat 15 Jan. 1941: 2.
  24. “Who's Who in Music: Woody Herman's Band.” Down Beat 15 Jan. 1941: 18.
  25. “Woody Has Girl Trumpeter.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1941: 2.
  26. Photo. Down Beat 1 Dec. 1941: Cover.
  27. “Vaudeville Reviews: Earle, Philadelphia.” Billboard 3 Jan. 1942: 25.
  28. “Making Wax.” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1942: 14.
  29. “Profiling the Players: Woody Herman and His Orchestra.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1942: 15.
  30. Smith, Ed. “Two Eye-Filling Attractions with Woody Herman's Band.” San Jose Evening News 17 Apr. 1943: 8.
  31. “Herman Hit Hard by Loss of Soloists.” Billboard 5 Jun. 1943: 20.
  32. “Anita O'Day Joins Woody Herman Ork.” Billboard 12 Jun. 1943: 21.
  33. “Anita O'Day to Sing for Woody.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1943: 1.
  34. “Singing Wives Discuss Wedlock.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1943: 9.
  35. “Anita O'Day to Quit the Herd.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1943: 1.
  36. “Anita O'Day Plans Second Try as a Single.” Billboard 10 Jul. 1943: 10.
  37. “Woody Herman At the Sherman, Many Changes.” Down Beat 15 Aug. 1943: 5.
  38. “Billie to Leave Herd.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1943: 1.
  39. “Webster Sends Herman Band.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1943: 1.
  40. “Woody or Uncle To Nab Webster.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1943: 20.
  41. “Frances Wayne Chirps for Herd.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1943: 1.
  42. “Vaudeville Reviews.” Billboard 20 Nov. 1943: 20.
  43. “Herd Honey.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1943: 3.
  44. Barnet, Nita. “Soldier Sneers Spoil Visits to Service Camps.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1944: 17.
  45. “Popular Record Reviews.” Billboard 10 Jun. 1944: 19.
  46. “Frances Wayne On The Cover.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1945: 1.
  47. “Frances Wayne Lend-Leased to Duke for Disk.” Billboard 28 Jul. 1945: 19.
  48. No Title. Billboard 8 Sep. 1945: 18.
  49. “Frances Wayne Inks at Musicraft.” Down Beat 15 Sep. 1945: 2.
  50. “Two for One.” Billboard 6 Oct. 1945: 23.
  51. “Wayne Waxes With Burns Ork.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1945: 12.
  52. “Red Faces.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1945: 5.
  53. “Marriages.” Billboard 17 Nov. 1945: 43.
  54. “Woody & TD Win.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1946: 1.
  55. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1946: 1.
  56. “Wayne Walk-Out Only Herd Change.” Billboard 9 Feb. 1946: 34.
  57. “Fran Wayne Out of Herd.” Down Beat 11 Feb. 1946: 1.
  58. Levin, Michael. “Herman Herd Thrills Packed Carnegie Hall.” Down Beat 8 Apr. 1946: 1.
  59. “Night Club Reviews: College Inn, Sherman Hotel, Chicago.” Billboard 4 May 1946: 50.
  60. “Woody To Lose Lynne Stevens.” Down Beat 26 Aug. 1946: 13.
  61. “Woody Breaks Up His Band.” Down Beat 16 Dec. 1946: 1.
  62. Levin, Michael. “Here's News Capsule Of Music World For 1946.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1947: 3.
  63. “Load Too Heavy, Nothing Else Split Up Ork—Woody.” Down Beat 29 Jan. 1947: 1.
  64. Ronin, Eddie. “Woody Herman Rebulding Band.” Down Beat 24 Sep. 1947: 1.
  65. Hallock, Ted. “New Herd Frenetic, Frantic, Flashy, Faffy, Factual, Fine, Period.” Down Beat 31 Dec. 1947: 2.
  66. “Devine Chortles; Woodrow Points; Mary Ann Beams.” Down Beat 31 Dec. 1947: 2.
  67. “Woody Herman Tosses in Towel.” Down Beat 16 Dec. 1949: 1.