I had the opportunity to enjoy a Conversation With local jazz legend, 92-year-old Louise Tobin at the Women’s Museum at Fair Park. It was a part of the museum’s Conversations series, and was a lovely afternoon filled with stories about Tobin’s career, personal life and a memorabilia exhibit that included the very dress that she wore when introduced to Princess Diana and Prince Charles.
Dr. Deborah Porter, Director of Grants and Contracts at Texas A&M University Commerce hosted the event and was instrumental in acquiring the Tobin-Hucko archive. The Tobin-Hucko Jazz Collection includes original music arrangements, press clippings, photographs, playbills and other memorabilia.
Born in Aubrey Texas in 1918, Louise Tobin was one of eleven children. Her family soon moved to Denton where they made their living in the drug store business. During the conversation on Saturday, Tobin spoke of her first memory of music, listening to her brothers and sisters singing and playing their ukelele’s on warm summer nights on their front porch. Once her family and others took notice of her unusually good singing voice, she was often taken out of class to sing at events, pep club and regular Saturday night shows at the local movie theater.
When Tobin was 14, her sister entered her in a singing contest in Dallas, put on by CBS Radio. She loaned Tobin a dress, fixed up her hair and the pair headed to Dallas for the competition. Tobin won which meant she needed to travel to New York to compete further. Unfortunately, due to her young age, she wasn’t allowed to go. However, it did land her a gig at the Palace Theatre in Dallas. Louise also talked about her excitement in working with conductor Hyman Charninsky at the Palace, as well as her awe of the orchestra pit “that came right up out of the floor!”
Louise met her first husband, trumpet player Harry James, after a gig in Arlington. The two married and later Harry was hired by Benny Goodman at which time they moved to New York. It was in a tiny hotel room at the Paramount Hotel in New York when, as Tobin got ready for work, she heard a young man singing on the radio. Harry was stretched out on the bed dozing, but before Tobin left for work, she nudged Harry awake and told him he needed to check out the young singer. That singer turned out to be Frank Sinatra. Unbeknownst to Tobin, Harry got up, got dressed and went to New Jersey where Sinatra was working as a waiter at the time. He listened to him sing and signed him to his band on the spot. Harry has been credited as the one who discovered Frank Sinatra, and as Tobin so charmingly recalled, “…Harry deserves the credit, I just woke him up.”
Louise spent a lot of her time performing at Nick’s in Greenwich Village with Bobby Hackett until 1939 when she was tapped to join Benny Goodman’s band, which also led to her being a part of the first band to fly commercially.
Tobin and James divorced in 1943, at which time Tobin took her two young boys and moved back to Denton where she spent the next 20 years out of the spotlight and concentrated on raising her children. However years later after an impromptu performance with Pete Fountain, George Simon (jazz writer and an early drummer for the Glenn Miller Orchestra) asked Tobin to return to New York to record, which led to a performance spot at the Newport Jazz Festival with the great Louie Armstrong. It was there that she met her second husband, clarinet player Peanuts Hucko, to whom she was married until his death in 2003 at the age of 85.
Louise Tobin is a wonderfully charming, charismatic and talented gem. I could have listened to her talk about her life all day. She was surprised at the event when presented with a compilation CD, Changes: A Rediscovered Voice in Jazz History, produced by Mike Kubiak, that features songs that she recorded with Benny Goodman, live performances recorded by Hucko or an audience member and songs recorded at Tobin and Hucko’s Denver night club. The CD will be available for purchase online in the coming weeks.
Please enjoy the short video montage above of my afternoon with Louise Tobin.