Friday, April 12, 2013

Swinging Betty Sheppard

By Chet Williamson

At the height of her career she walked away from music and dedicated the rest of her life to her children.

Her stage name was Betty Sheppard, an attractive singer from Worcester and one of the first female jazz bassists to come out of the area.

Her first husband was Harry Sheppard, a locally-born drummer and vibes player, who would go on to share stages with the likes of Benny Goodman, Lester Young, and Billie Holiday. “Her maiden name was Betty Ann Miller,” Harry said in a recent interview with Free Press Houston. “She went to Commerce High. She was a singer. She later took bass lessons in New York and became a very good jazz bass player.”

The couple met in the late forties. He was 19 and serving in the Navy. She was 16 and still in high school. “The piano player brought her on the gig," Harry recalled. "He said, ‘Can she sing with us tonight?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ That’s how it started.”



Local percussionist Joe Brindisi also went to Commerce. When asked about Betty, he said, “Beautiful Betty Ann Miller. We were in high school together. Then she was out in world. She had a trio with Harry Sheppard and a guitar player. They were doing jingles in New York City way back when.”


The old Commerce High School

Harry played with all the Worcester musicians of the day. He worked with the Dol Brissette Orchestra and made the rounds at jazz sessions where he could trade licks with Emil Haddad, among others.


Being a talented young musician Betty naturally fell into the swinging Sheppard lifestyle. After graduating from high school in 1951, she and Harry married and soon moved to New York City. In 1953, the couple toured the world as Two Chimes and a Bell. Working USO shows, they traveled to Japan, Korea, Philippines, France, Germany and Italy.







Harry and Betty Sheppard
In 1954 the Sheppards settled in New York. Harry’s first gig came with the Sol Yaged Quintet the house band at the Metropole. “Everybody came through there,” he said. “We used to alternate sets with Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie, Henry ‘Red’ Allen….”

Harry also found work playing jazz in nightclubs with the Betty Sheppard Trio. The group played opposite a raft of Latin bands, including one led by José Curbelo. One fateful night Curbelo asked the Sheppards to accompany him on a record he was making.

Curbelo was a Cuban-born pianist and bandleader who in the late 1940s helped to make the cha-cha a popular dance craze. According to All Music, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriquez, and Candido appeared with the band. In New York, Curbelo worked all the major clubs including the Roseland, the Palladium, and the Savoy. His band was at the vanguard of the Latin-jazz movement. See: http://www.allmusic.com/artist/jose-curbelo-mn0000270477



The record Curbelo asked the Sheppards to play on turned out to be “Cha Cha Cha in Blue,” said to be the first cha-cha on record to be sung in English. Betty supplied the vocals.

Her singing is shining, rhythmic, and articulate with just the right amount of sex appeal. Harry filled the bill on vibes with rhythmic propulsion that can only be described as a precursor to salsa. The total package spells out an infectious groove, easily explaining why it became such a jukebox hit for the Fiesta label.

Within the first six weeks of its release in 1955, “Cha Cha Cha in Blue,” sold a quarter million copies. Billboard magazine reviewed the album in the typical condescending tone of that time: “Authentic sounding, languorous rhythms of the Latinos are tastefully represented by the Curbelo ork [sic]. In addition to the cha-cha-chas, the set features mambos and merengues, also done nicely in the native style. Numbers feature solo and group vocals by the bandsmen. A well-done recording technically, this has the sound to satisfy the dancers.”

Here’s a clip of the tune:


The Sheppards were paid accordingly for the recording date, but did not write the tune; therefore, did not collect any royalties. On the success of “Cha Cha Cha in Blue,” the Trio also appeared with Chiquito and his Orchestra in a release of the single “Whatever Lola Wants,” written by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross for the musical Damn Yankees. It was backed by Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things,” on the Reina Record label.

















By the 1960s, the Sheppards marriage broke up. Harry admits that it was he who messed up. “We went together for five years and then got married for 12 and had two daughters,” he said.

Harry joined the Benny Goodman band and toured South America. Now in his eighties, he continues to play in the Houston area. Betty was offered many opportunities to record and play, but turned them all down. She gave up her music career to be a mother to her daughters.
In her life, Betty lived in a variety of places in the United States, including Long Island, Georgia, and TexasOn September 21, 2012, Betty passed from this life. She was 80. She is buried at Emanu El Memorial Park in Houston, TX

Betty Sheppard, AKA Betty Anne (Miller) Leonard 

DOB: June 19, 1932
DOD: September 21, 2012

*Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: walnutharmonicas@gmail.com. Also, check out my blog on Worcester Songwriters at  www.worcestersongs.blogspot.com Thank you.
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