Louise Tobin, big band singer who helped discover Frank Sinatra, dies at age 104

Louise Tobin, a big band singer of the 1930s and 1940s, urged her then-husband, trumpeter and orchestra leader Harry James, to hire a promising young man she heard on the radio, a singing waiter from New York. Jersey named Frank Sinatra. died November 26 at a granddaughter’s home in Carrollton, Tex. She was 104.

Her biographer Kevin Mooney confirmed the death, but did not know the immediate cause.

Ms. Tobin was a husky-throated Texan who began singing professionally in her teens and had a modestly successful career as a “singer,” performing with bands led by Benny Goodman, Will Bradley, and Bobby Hackett.

She recorded hits with Goodman, including the standards “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”, but left the group to raise two sons she had with James. “We tried to establish Harry more than we tried to establish me,” she recalled to the Dallas Morning News.

James had recently left the Goodman band to start his own outfit and needed a male vocalist. One day in June 1939, Tobin was in a hotel room in Manhattan listening to a radio hookup from a roadhouse in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, called the Rustic Cabin. She woke her husband from his nap.

“I heard this boy sing and I thought, ‘There’s a good singer!’ she told jazz historian Will Friedwald. “So I woke Harry up and said, ‘Honey, maybe you want to hear this kid on the radio. The boy singer in this show sounds pretty good.” That was the end of it, as far as I’m concerned.”

James caught the broadcast the next night and went to the club looking for the singer with the creamy voice. “We don’t have a singer,” the manager asked him. “But we have an emcee who sings a little bit.”

James offered Sinatra, who was also at the table, a one-year contract at $75 a week. Within months they were recording “All or Nothing At All” and other ballads that not only established Sinatra as a commercial force – he would soon be lured to Tommy Dorsey’s much more popular band – but also as the most leading singer of his generation.

“Harry deserves the credit,” Mrs. Tobin later said. “I just woke him up.”

Mrs. Tobin’s marriage quickly fell apart, a victim of what she described as James’ wandering eye and bloating ego. Lured to Hollywood to appear in movies, James began squirting well-known pin-up and star of movie musicals Betty Grable, who became his second wife. When Mrs. Tobin’s career fizzled out, she returned to North Texas and raised her children.

Producers gradually lured her back to the festival circuit, including a 1962 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, where New York jazz critic Whitney Balliett praised her for singing “with warmth and a total lack of calculation.” She married jazz clarinetist Michael “Peanuts” Hucko in 1967 and performed with him for three decades.

Born in Aubrey, Tex., on November 11, 1918, Mary Louise Tobin was raised in nearby Denton, where she was one of 11 siblings raised by her widowed mother. Her father died as a result of injuries sustained in a car accident.

Louise sang for local community groups and at age 14 won a talent contest on a CBS radio station in Dallas that required her to stand on a box to get to the microphone. She was soon singing at dances all over the state, accompanied by an older sister. “I was really happy,” she told the Morning News. “My fulfillment was not having to do the dishes.”

Within a few years, she joined a regional band led by Art Hicks, which also featured James as the lead and toured movie theaters and hotel ballrooms. She and James married in 1935; she was 16 and he was 19.

After their divorce, Mrs. Tobin worked in Los Angeles for several years with bands led by pianist Emil Coleman and trumpeter Ziggy Elman before returning to Texas.

Survivors include two sons, Harry James Jr. and Jerin Timothyray “Tim” James; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

With Hucko, who died in 2003, she co-owned the Navarre supper club in Denver and toured Europe, Australia and Japan as an apostle to the big band sound. As she told the Morning News, “Jazz, it’s freedom.”

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