International Sweethearts of Rhythm – band/ensemble was the first racially integrated women’s band and it lasted for over a decade, playing to primarily black audiences in theaters and ballrooms across the country. At the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., the band set a new box office record of 35,000 patrons in one week of 1941.
The band was founded in 1937 at the Piney Woods Country Life School for poor and orphaned black children in Mississippi. The intent was for the group to be a profit-making enterprise to support the school. However, by 1941 the Sweethearts severed their ties with the school, moved to Virginia and recruited some seasoned professionals. One of these new members was Anna Mae Winburn. Anna Mae had been singing with and directing a professional male orchestra; however, many of the musicians were lost to the draft because of World War II.
The Sweethearts were a group of women trying to make a place in a world ruled by gender and racial prejudice. In those times, it was easier for women to play together in a racially integrated band than to perform as musicians in a band that included men. They had a relaxed way of approaching the music-their beat was different from more uptight white rhythm bands.
In order to obtain this unique rhythm, many of the all white male bands of the time used black arrangers for their music, but would not include black musicians in their performances. “Being a mixed group with different nationalities (which eventually included Mexican, White and Asian women), well, we didn’t have the exposure that [other groups] had,” recalls Anna Mae, “We were exposed a lot to the black people.”
The Sweethearts did not book many engagements in the Deep South because they were an integrated group. The group had three or four white women who traveled with them. These ladies would paint their faces dark so the police wouldn’t come and take them off the band stand or arrest them. . The Sweethearts were often labeled a novelty band (much to their dislike) because women were not expected to go into that sort of business. The ladies considered themselves equal to, if not better than most male musicians. Some well-known musicians did appreciate the Sweethearts’ talent. Eddie Durham of the Count Basie band coached them, and Louis Armstrong also took a personal interest. According to Anna Mae, “They would come and stand in the wings of the Apollo Theater and listen to the band. And I could see them back there smiling when the girls would take off on their instruments.” Eventually, Armstrong would even attempt to steal trumpet player Tiny Davis away from the Sweethearts by offering her about 10 times her current salary. However, Tiny did not go.
The original personnel consisted of: Anna Mae Winburn on vocals, Ernestine “Tiny” Davis, Ray Carter, Johnnie Mae Stansbury, and Edna Williams on Trumpets; Marge Pettiford, Amy Garrison, Helen Saine, Grace Bayron; Viola Burnside, and Willie Mae Wong on saxophones; Judy Bayron, Helen Jones and Ina Bell Byrd on Trombones; The rhythm was supplied by Lucille Dixon on bass; Roxanna Lucas on Guitar; Johnnie Mae Rice on Piano; and Pauline Braddy on the Drums. The vocalists included Evelyn McGee, and Carline Ray.
Their best year was 1945: they played for sell-out crowds at Chicago Rhumboogie club, played black army camps, made film shorts (incl. That Man Of Mine with vocalist Ruby Dee), sailed for Europe in July to play service depots on Continent. Lineup changes led to the band folding in 1948; Winburn re-formed Sweethearts of Rhythm in 1950 with her second husband, kept it going five years while raising her family the band this time around was down to octet, they finally disbanded in 1955.
The quality of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm’s music and the pluckiness of its members make it one of the greatest all girl bands ever formed.