Connie Haines, a petite and dynamic big band singer who performed alongside Frank Sinatra in the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey orchestras, died Monday in Clearwater, Fla. The cause of death was myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune neuromuscular disease. She was 87.
Haines was best known as a singer with a knack for rhythm, and many of her most successful recordings -- 25 of which each sold more than 50,000 copies -- featured her crisp, swinging vocal style.
When Dorsey first heard her in action with James at Frank Dailey’s Meadowbrook, New Jersey’s temple of big band music, he reportedly asked, “Hey, little girl, where’d you learn to swing like that? And when can you join my band?”
It didn’t take long. Haines recorded “Comes Love” and “I Can’t Afford to Dream” with James, revealing a capacity to handle lyrical ballads as well as jitterbug specials, before moving to the Dorsey organization with Sinatra.
James, however, was not fond of Haines’ birth name -- Yvonne Marie Antoinette JaMais -- suggesting that it would take up too much space on a theater marquee. “You don’t look like an Yvonne,” he said, “you look like a Connie.” And “Haines” was chosen, apparently because it was a close rhyme to “James.”
Haines quickly made the name her own, however, establishing herself as one of the prime female singers of the big band era. Many of her hit songs were the product of a warm musical partnership with Sinatra via tunes such as “Oh, Look At Me Now,” “Let’s Get Away From It All,” “Friendship,” “I’ll Never Smile Again” and the jaunty rhythm tune “Snooty Little Cutie.”
Like many big band vocalists of the ‘40s, Haines moved on to a solo career as the public’s preferences turned away from large ensemble swing to singers. Over the course of the next few decades, she released more than 200 recordings, ranging from her big band stylings to more contemporary rhythms.
The first white singer to record for Motown Records, she released 14 songs written by Smokey Robinson, including “What’s Easy For Two Is Hard For One.”
Haines also was drawn to gospel music as a reflection of her Christian beliefs, recording and touring in an ensemble that included close friends Beryl Davis, Rhonda Fleming and Jane Russell.
Although her career as an actress tended to be framed in films that allowed her to perform as a singer, Haines’ appearances in motion pictures such as “The Duchess of Idaho” suggested a talent that never had the opportunity to fully blossom within her lifelong dedication to music.
She was a regular on the Abbott & Costello Radio Show and a frequent guest artist during the golden years of television variety shows, appearing with Milton Berle, Eddie Cantor, Perry Como, Frankie Laine and Ed Sullivan, among others.
Haines sang on Sinatra’s 89th birthday television tribute in 1995, and continued to work in cabaret rooms, nightclubs and big band revival events until two years ago.
Born Jan. 20, 1921, in Savannah, Ga., she was reared in Florida and began performing at an early age, trained by her mother, a music and dance teacher.
Haines was winning dance contests by the age of 5. At 9, she had her own radio show -- “Baby Yvonne Marie, the Little Princess of the Air,” singing with a 30-piece orchestra.
She appeared with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra when she was 10, won a Major Bowes amateur contest and was heard on the Fred Allen radio show while she was still in her early teens. By 1939, Haines -- at age 18 and slightly less than 5 feet tall -- was singing alongside Sinatra in the Harry James Band.
She survived several health crises and near-fatal accidents. While performing with the Dorsey Orchestra, an errant match set her evening gown on fire. Sinatra, standing nearby, pulled her to the floor and smothered the flames with his coat. In her characteristic fashion, Haines brushed herself off, got up and finished her song, wearing only the charred dregs of her gown.
Haines was treated for cancer and had a double mastectomy in 1984. But once again, the experience did not deter her from continuing her musical activities and moving on with her life.
In 2002, after a celebratory holiday performance in Florida, Haines broke two vertebrae in her neck in an auto accident. She was back singing again in six months, although the after-effects of the injury never fully disappeared.
“Connie often talked about her fascination with near-death experiences -- even told me she had one when she was 9 years old,” said close friend Roseanne DeMarco, “but she found joy in every day. The funny thing was that, even when she was feeling ill, her vital signs always seemed fine, as though she loved life so much that she wanted to experience every minute of it that she could.”
Haines’ marriage to Robert DeHaven, an ace pilot during World War II, ended in divorce.
She is survived by her mother, Mildred JaMais, who is 109; a son, Robert DeHaven Jr. of San Francisco; a daughter, Kimberly Harlan of Prineville, Ore.; and three grandchildren.