Big band songstress is Naturally N'Awlins


Posted on September 16, 2011 at 5:26 PM

Updated Friday, Sep 16 at 7:02 PM

Frank Davis

If you caught my Naturally N’Awlins story on Helen Englert, the great big band songstress from New Orleans, you only know half of the story!

Here’s some more information that her son, Bruce Blaum, put together, in an effort to highlight his amazing mom’s role in local history. Helen Englert was born in 1922 and raised in the Carrollton area during the Great Depression. Amazingly, as a toddler she swallowed a button hook and it ripped up her vocal chords. The doctor told her mother she would probably never speak, but this was far from the case.

By her mid-teens, she blossomed into a beautiful girl and realized she could sing. So, at 16, out pure economic necessity, with no training, and unable to even (or ever) read music she embarked on a singing career around New Orleans. She sang one nighters, fairs, at venues like Pontchartrain Beach, and other local events (but, never in the French Quarter as she was forbidden by her mother to ever sing there and never did).

She then pursued a number of local beauty contests, winning most, and won the right to complete in the Miss Glamour Girl beauty pageant with over 250 contests from all over the country. She won that title and was Miss Glamour Girl of the World 1938. She then came home until she joined the Al Strieman band and sang locally with them until 1939, when her boyfriend introduced her to nationally known band leader Larry Clinton when he was playing at the Blue Room of the Roosevelt Hotel. He hired her on the spot.

Clinton did not like her real last name so he changed it to Helen Southern. She toured with him nationally and it was with him that she recorded her biggest national hit, “The Nearness of You.” This recording is considered one of the top 300 hits of the Big Band era and was later a hit for Barbara Streisand. The week in 1940 that she recorded that song and three others, she passed out in the elevator from all the stress.

Again, at her tender age and with her inability to read music, it was twice as hard for her to learn a song than a more trained singer. This handicap plagued her entire career.

She was with Clinton’s band until mid to late 1940 when, and this is a very crucial event in her career, at a theatre bordering Times Square in New York and in front of thousands, she froze on stage and remained frozen - unable to sing, until finally she walked off. She was fired within minutes for embarrassing Clinton. She was 19 years old. To this day, she does not understand why she froze, since she had sung in front of thousands of people before.

She came home to New Orleans and competed and won the Miss New Orleans title of 1941 (until the early 1960s, Miss New Orleans represented the entire state of Louisiana). She competed against many she had beaten years earlier in the Miss Glamour Girl contest in the Miss America contest in Atlantic City. She opened the pageant singing “Stardust” (the song she always called her favorite and her theme song).

By 1942, she again came home and sang as Helen Englert with the Woody Wilson orchestra as they performed around the southeastern U.S. in early 1942. By now, the war was in full swing and she began years of performing for the men in uniform during WWII. Again, a chance introduction in late 1942 to Jan Garber led to her being hired by another nationally known orchestra. She spent much of the next 3 years travelling all over the country entertaining the troops, with a lot of time singing in California.

Another contributing reason she was not more widely known in music history is that, now at her peak, she was in the middle of the Great Musicians Recording strike of 1942 – 44. During that strike, and even for some time after, there were absolutely no records being recorded or pressed in the whole country. So, she never got to record when she was at her peak.

It was while singing with Garber that she went to Hollywood to sing in the movie Jam Session starring Ann Miller and Louis Armstrong.

After filming, she had several screen tests that the studios liked, with a future of more tests. So, she left Garber and remained in Hollywood hoping to capitalize on these, but she very quickly she ran out of money.

So, with $23 left in her pocket and no gig, she had no choice but to abandon studio interest and come home. The ticket back to New Orleans was $20. She got married and she and her new husband, a sax player, both joined Jan Savitt orchestra in mid 1944. Again she found herself singing all over the country and quite a bit throughout California and it was with Savitt that she played at the famous Hollywood Canteen.

Once again she sang under a different name bestowed on her by Savitt - Helen Warren. She sang with Savitt until after the war in late 1945 when she had had enough of years on the road and came back home for good. Her husband remained with Savitt on the road touring with Frank Sinatra.

It was in 1946 that she began the last leg of her career, singing 7 nights week in the Fountain Lounge from 6-10pm and 10pm-2am in the Blue Room. She did this until she retired from singing in 1949 to marry, be a mom, and open a children’s clothing store at the corner of Carrollton and Oak.

Some interesting facts & people she met along the way:

-A prize of being Miss New Orleans was to have a street named after her - Helen Avenue (one block from Causeway in Jefferson).

-The three nationally known orchestras she sang for: Larry Clinton, Jan Garber, and Jan Savitt were in a list as being the top 40 Big Bands of the Big Band era.

-One of her screen tests was done against a little-known male lead, at the time, Lloyd Bridges. During the test she was supposed to say her lines and then kiss him. When it came to that point during the test, she instead said the script direction out loud “…and she kisses him”. This literally sent Lloyd to the ground laughing uncontrollably. Her response to all this? “I didn’t know that man…I wasn’t just going to kiss him!” Helen was a VERY decent Catholic girl, and still is.

-While singing with Savitt, she met many stars such as Gary Cooper and Basil Rathbone. She was on USO tours with the Andrews Sisters and actually had one date cancel a date with Patsy to go out with her. She also dated one of the Doolittle Raiders.

-Amazingly, the place she met the most stars was singing in the Blue Room in New Orleans’ Roosevelt Hotel after the war. She had dinner with the likes of Harpo Marx (whom she said spoke quite well!), The Three Stooges (Moe combed his bangs straight back when not on stage) and many others. One story had her backstage one day, as she she passed a group talking. A man let out a “Wooo Wooo!” as Helen walked by. She said she never stopped, kept walking, and didn’t even turn her head. That man was Frank Sinatra. She said, “I knew who it was that did it, but a lady doesn’t respond to a comment like that, no matter who does it!”

So why doesn’t New Orleans musical history know or remember her?

Helen’s son believes the biggest reason is the three different names she sang under. Her real name was not stage worthy and she was always in fear that bandleaders would not hire her if they knew she was the Helen Southern who froze on stage in New York (plain fear that was probably unfounded after some time had passed). So, she could never build a consistent reputation worthy of her talent. Second, the recording strike that kept her from being able to create lasting record of her music. Third, she blames the pure ignorance and insecurities of youth by having no manager to guide, represent, or fight for more money. Fourth, by sending home 40-50% of her income to keep her mother out of poverty, she didn’t have the means to stay in Hollywood and capitalize on the interest the studios were showing in her when she was at her peak.

Bruce Blaum says his mother didn’t get up on stage for fame and fortune. She didn’t enter pageants for vain reasons. She didn’t sing because she wanted a career in show business. “Understanding her the way I do, I can say that my mother did what she did for one reason,” Bruce says. “It was for the economic survival of her and her mother forged during the Depression. She took the only two things God gave her, beauty and a talent for song and she used them to keep those she loved from starving. That is Helen -- a beautiful and decent human being, my greatest hero, an unrecognized talent of New Orleans musical history, and very, very naturally New Orleans.”