Bea Wain, one of the last surviving singers of prominence from the big band era who began performing on the radio when she was only 6 and remained a stage presence for decades, has died.
Wain died as a result of congestive heart failure Saturday in Beverly Hills, her family said. She was 100.
Young, underpaid and unaware she was helping shape music history, Wain was among the revered singers of the 1930s and ’40s, when band leaders such as Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman captivated America with their easy-to-hum, jazz-infused performances and recordings.
Wain’s breakthrough came when trumpeter and arranger Larry Clinton brought her aboard as the voice of a band he formed in 1937. While Clinton’s band never achieved the lasting stardom of Miller, Dorsey or Goodman, it did have a string of hits that included “Deep Purple” and “Heart and Soul” and was a popular touring ensemble.
The band also achieved recognition by adapting classical music to the day’s popular big band sound.
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When the band set out to remix Claude Debussy’s piano composition “Reverie” into a swing tempo song it called “My Reverie,” the Debussy estate initially objected. The thought of putting words, let alone an upbeat tempo, to the great composer’s work was horrifying to those who administered his estate, Wain said in a 2007 interview with KUOW radio in Seattle.
But Wain said the Debussy estate relented when the band shipped them a copy of the recording. The reply was to this point: “If this girl sings it, OK.”
Weary of the low pay and the relentless pace of recording-touring-recording, Wain left Clinton and became a solo headliner in the late 1930s, touring the college and theater circuits.
While with Clinton, she said she was paid $30 for a three-hour session in the studio, and the group was expected to produce four songs in that time.
“We were just kids, working, singing, making a small amount of money, but having fun,” she said in a 1994 interview with the National Assn. of Music Merchants.
Out on her own, Wain recorded songs such as “You Go to My Head,” “God Bless the Child” and the war-era ballad “My Sister and I.” She also made an early recording of “Over the Rainbow,” though MGM blocked its release until “The Wizard of Oz” premiered.
In a 1939 Billboard Magazine college poll, Wain was named the year’s most popular female band vocalist, a triumph considering the competition from superstar Ella Fitzgerald.
Born April 30, 1917, in New York, Wain made her debut on “NBC Children’s Hour” when she was 6, earning $2 per broadcast. When she married announcer/actor Andre Baruch, the pair hosted a radio series called “Mr. and Mrs. Music” in New York in the late ’40s and early ’50s. They later hosted a talk radio show in Palm Beach, Fla., before moving to Beverly Hills. Baruch died in 1991.
Wain continued to sing into her 90s.
She is survived by a daughter, Bonnie Barnes; a son, Wayne Baruch; and two grandchildren, Brandon and Remy Baruch.