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Helen Forrest

1918 – 1999

by Jan Shapiro

When Helen Forrest joined the Harry James band in 1941, she broke new ground for American vocalists. She asked that specific arrangements be written just for her and that the band accompany her lead vocal. Harry James agreed, and Forrest went on to record five gold records: “But Not for Me,” “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You,” “I Cried For You,” “I’ve Heard That Song Before,” and “I Had the Craziest Dream.”

She was born Helen Fogel on April 12, 1918, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Her parents, Louis and Rebecca Fogel, were Jewish and kept a kosher home. She was the youngest of four children and the only girl; her three brothers were Harry, Ed, and Sam. The Fogels owned a little grocery store. But when Helen was an infant, her father became ill with influenza and suddenly died. Apparently, Helen’s mother became so distraught that she blamed her husband’s death on her daughter’s birth, believing that God had taken away Louis because she had wished so much for a little girl.

The two oldest brothers, Harry and Ed, were old enough to live on their own when Rebecca Fogel moved to Brooklyn with her two youngest children. There, Helen’s mother met and married a housepainter by the name of Feigenbaum. Forrest recalled that her parents often asked her not to come home right away after school. As she got older, she began to realize that during the day her home was a brothel. As Helen matured physically, her stepfather tried to accost her sexually. She told her mother of his attempts, but Rebecca Fogel did not believe her daughter. When Helen was about fourteen, her stepfather trapped her in the kitchen, and she defended herself with a kitchen knife. Subsequently, she went to live with her piano teacher, Honey Silverman, and Silverman’s family. While Helen completed grammar school, she continued to take piano lessons, but when Silverman heard her sing, she suggested that Helen concentrate on singing instead. Although Helen did not complete high school, she sang in the school musicals during her years of attendance.

By the time she was fourteen, her older brother Ed had his own band. During one summer, she sang with her brother’s band in Atlantic City. Helen later decided that she wanted to be singer and left for New York City, where she visited song publishers and auditioned for a fifteen-minute air slot for a local radio show. During one of the radio spots, the story goes, a sax player thought that the name Fogel was “too Jewish” and therefore Helen Fogel changed her name to Helen Forrest. In 1934, at seventeen years of age, Forrest got her first job at WNEW, New York, singing commercials. During this time, she sang under anonymous names such as Helen, Hilee, Madlene, and Arlene. When she sang for WCBS, she became “Bonnie Blue” and “The Blue Lady of Song.” When her brother Ed, whose band was playing in Washington, D.C., called her to let her know that there was an opening for a vocalist in the Washington Madrillon Club, Forrest auditioned and soon after began singing in the popular supper club.

While performing at the Madrillon, she gained a reputation for her singing, and bandleader Artie Shaw came to see her. Shaw’s singer Billie Holiday was planning to leave the band, and in 1958 Shaw asked Forrest to go on tour. During the fifteen months she sang with Artie Shaw, his band recorded forty-one sides for RCA Victor’s Bluebird record label. In 1939, while still on the road with Artie Shaw’s band, Forrest married drummer Al Spieldock in Baltimore. Her husband remained in Baltimore, and Forrest resumed her tour. When Shaw dissolved his band, she went back to Baltimore but was soon asked to join Benny Goodman’s band. During her two-year tenure with Goodman, she recorded fifty-three sides. In 1941, she joined the Harry James band. The musical alliance of featuring Forrest’s vocals with the band as accompaniment proved very successful.

Traveling with the band, Forrest was the only woman among eighteen or more band members. She fell in love with Harry James, maintaining a sporadic love affair until James married actor Betty Grable. In 1943, a few months after James’s marriage, Forrest left the band and appeared in clubs around the country. Her husband divorced her about the same time. Forrest’s agent teamed her up with vocalist Dick Haymes, and together they appeared on their own very popular radio program, running from 1944 to 1947.

Around 1945, Forrest met Paul Hogan, an aspiring actor, at a party. The two began living together and married in 1947. They later separated and divorced in 1956. In the late 1950s, she met businessman Charlie Feinman and married him in 1959. The couple had a son, Michael, in 1960, but the marriage was dissolved in 1961. She continued to perform in major supper clubs around the country, sometimes singing for movie sound tracks as well as performing in “big band nostalgia” tours. She continued to record, achieving several hits as a soloist and several hits singing duets with Dick Haymes. Forrest recorded approximately seventy-four songs as a solo vocalist—twenty-two for Decca Records, forty for MGM, and twelve for Bell Records. In addition, she recorded for Capitol in 1955–1956, singing the hits she had sung with Harry James. From 1969 to 1974, she rerecorded some of her hits for Reader’s Digest and Time-Life as well. During various periods of “big band nostalgia,” radio broadcasts and shorts were rereleased of Helen Forrest with Artie Shaw’s band, Benny Goodman’s band, Harry James’s band, and Dick Haymes.

Helen Forrest was one of the first singers in the big band era whose vocals were featured throughout a full band arrangement. Before this time, big band vocalists usually sang in the middle of a song. The band would be featured for a full chorus, the vocalist would sing one chorus, and then the band would play another chorus. This arrangement usually confined the singer, not allowing much improvisation in the rhythmic phrasing or melodic line. As well, the song was usually set in the key that suited the instrumentalists’ playing, rather than the vocalist’s range. During the early big band era, few women vocalists had the confidence to ask for individualized arrangements. Despite an unhappy childhood, frequent illness, and personal disappointments, Forrest remained dedicated to her musical profession until the 1980s.

Helen Forrest died on July 11, 1999.

Bibliography

Forrest, Helen, and Bill Libby. I Had The Craziest Dream (1982); Friedwald, Will. Jazz Singing: American’s Great Voices from Bessie Smith to BeBop and Beyond (1990); Gourse, Leslie. Louis’ Children: American Jazz Singers (1984); Kinkle, Roger D. Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz, 1900–1950 (1974); Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music. Edited by Donald Clarke (1987); Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era (1989); Simon, George T., et al. The Best of the Music Makers (1979).

26 Comments

I had the good fortune of meeting Helen at " All That Jazz" , a night club in Houston, Texas back in 1977. After her set I went up to her at the bar and complimented her, and she responded by saying how nice it was for someone of my age to be interested in her music. I was nineteen at the time and still wish that I had thought to acquire her autograph and a picture standing beside her. I still listen to her recordings today. I have taught my youngest son who is seventeen all about that era of music. Thank you Helen for the memories. R J. in Kansas -

Hello,

Thank you for your bio of Helen here.

My professional name is Cheryl Morris and I too sang with The Harry James Orchestra and many other name bands for nearly 20 years. In 1979 I went on the road with Harry and Helen and got to know Helen very well. She was one of the dearest, most loving persons one could ever know and I miss her still today. We became very close. *After being born and raised in Los Angeles, and always being there for Helen, I hated moving to Oregon in 1992 and leaving the San Fernando valley where we both lived as I enjoyed being close to my family there and to be able to help with Helen whenever she needed assistance.

When I first met her I was amazed how tiny she was, how very independent she was, how hard she worked - with NO entourage, no help at all. The first time I saw her try to lift all her bags off an airlines luggage carosel, I stopped her and said, "Helen, we got it." That's how our friendship began.

Why I'm writing you is because I'm trying to start some kind of fund that might allow those of us who loved and appreciated Helen so very much to have our own memorial site for her. It seems, for some unknown reason, no one can place a real headstone on her grave? This is a private family matter and it breaks our hearts that 10 years after her death her grave is still only marked with an ugly green "temporary" marker!

We, several of her closest fans, thought, perhaps you might want to come on board with us and toss around some ideas as to how we can memorialize this wonderful woman in a way that might truly honor her and her great contributions to the world of music.

I knew Helen personally for many years, worked and traveled with her and I never saw a more professional, kind and loving human being ever grace a stage.

She went through so much ugliness in her life. It would be so completely fitting and proper to FINALLY do something postumously for her that would be lovely and respectful. I even heard once from someone that Barbra Streisand's idol was Helen!!!

The person Helen seemed to love most in her life was Harry James. She talked often to me about Harry and the great love she had for him. Perhaps Helen's memorial could be built in Las Vegas? That was Harry's town! Harry is burried there. Maybe someone else knows of another place that might be fitting? In any event, thank you for listening anyway to my most sincere dream here.

I would so appreciate hearing back from anyone within your organization who might know how we might be able to begin such a process.

Thank's so much for your site and for the bio on our beloved Helen.

Sincerely,

Cheryl Morris Monteiro

Hi Cheryl,
also a Big fan of Helen Forrest, esp. "I've heard that song", "You made me love you" & "Deep Purple" Like to add Ditto for what Ed said , Wondering how thisproject has progressed.

Cheryl,
If you're reading this, I'd like to know if anything came of this. I listen to her recordings all the time, and she was the best singer for this type of music ever. Deep Purple melts me.
Anyway, drop me a line and let me know. I can't give much, but anything would help I am sure.
Thanks.
Ed ek1952@yahoo.com

My father first made me aware of Helen with this recording. I was 11 years old. I never dreamed I'd be on the same bandstand with her just eight years later!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?...

I'm connected to Helen an interesting way. In the spring of 1971 when I was 19 years old, I played a gig with her at the Copa Habana Club in Oklahoma City (I'm a trombonist). She was 54 years old at the time

And she sang as beautifully as ever.

And because my father had made me aware of her when I was a boy, I knew Helen's recordings. When I told her that, the poignant smile she gave to me in return melted my heart!

Helen Forrest as a Singer in the Big Band era had no equal. The voice was that of an Angel.

I was with my Dad when he went to see Helen at an engagement in the Midwest. He got to speak to her, the fulfillment of a long-held dream. She was older, of course, but still had a fabulous voice. Dad had raised us on big band/swing, so I, too, was thrilled to meet this fabulous woman. May she rest in peace.

While growing up in the 40's i know i heard Helen sing on the various radio programs but i was to young to enjoy or know who she was. Recently i happened to be listening to some Youtube recordings and selected one with Helen singing. I'm hooked. Since then i found a Benny Goodman album with Helen singing Perfidia and several other records with her sound tracks as well. I've also bought 4 CD's with her recordings of which the one "Sweter as the years go by" is my favorite. Anytime i am on the computer now i have her recordings playing in the background, some of them over and over like "I'm in love with the Honourable Mr so and so". I really feel like her being gone was only yesterday and wish i could go back to those years when she was a star performer. I to would be more than happy to help erect a memorable marker for her resting place. She deserves more than she received. I think her best recordings were with Artie Shaw as i like his sound. I wonder what would have happened had she sang for Glenn Miller? What a beautiful lady and i sorely miss her. I wish i had known when she was in Arizona (Phoenix?) as thats where i live. Are there any more pictures around other than her album covers? Contact me if you wish at Telegrapher@Q.com. Thanks and may she sing in the chorus of the angels. Maybe someday we'll meet.

I largely missed the great music of my generation (I am 77), because I loved the Big Bands so much! Helen Forrest was the best, only recently began catching up on the great artists of my generation( 50's- 60's) The Killer Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, J.P. Richardson, Hank Williams, Hank Snow, and etc., but I've been loving Bob Dylan and The Beatles for many decades. Right now, I don't care if I don't make it into the 21st Century! I still love the Big Bands, Swing Era, and jazz of the 20's and 30's.

My radio name was Bob White. I was on the air at WOKY Milwaukee for 10 years. Fortionately that time span encompassed the great period of the big bands. As a DJ I got to meet a good many of the performers. Unfortionately the one I admired so much was an exception. Doing interviews with many Helen's name was mentioned quite often by others in the field who admired her. I was hoping some day she would appear in our town, bot during my time it never happened. Frustrating me even more' I never saw a closeup of her. Singing with the big bands she always was seen at a distance. I loved the voice but never saw the image. I will say this: "If a voice is a gateway to the soul, Ms Forrest was a beautiful person." She is part of my big band collection and to this day enjoy her quite often. All the best to her son.

Michael,

Sorry, here is the link to the band's website:

http://www.thechrishansonband....

Joshua

Helen Forrest was and is one of the greatest vocalists of all time. I used to be involved in the Dick Haymes Society, and I know a little bit about why there is no marker on her grave as well.

It is a shame though. A great woman!

Hello Mr. Feinman,

As with others, I too have been a huge fan of your mother's extraordinary musicianship from an early age; indeed, I came upon this site while putting together a biography to share with friends not yet acquainted with her. Almost every recording she made was definitive of that song.

Back in about the mid-1970's, Chuck Cecil, creator and host of the radio program "The Swingin' Years," did a marvelous telephone interview with your mother for a segment of one of his shows; if memory serves, she was then living in Arizona. If you do not know of this interview, I would be shocked if Mr. Cecil would not gladly furnish you with a copy. (You should be able to contact him through radio station KKJZ at Long Beach State University in California, http://www.jazzandblues.org/in... .)

In that interview, I recall your mother saying something to the effect that the big band era was the pinnacle of American popular music; one reason that is true, of course, is because of the contributions of Helen Forrest.

With warmest regards,

A.J. Averett

I believe that sentence should contain "and in 1938 Shaw asked Forrest to go on tour" Presently 1958 is used. (The big band era was over by then)...RHN 12/13/10

Hello all, My name is Michael Forrest Feinman, and I am the son of Helen Forrest. There is a very good reason why there is NO marker on my mothers grave. That reason is that Mt. Sinai where she is buried, played a horrible trick on me and gave me false and erroneous information. I was beside myself when my mother passed. She had been very sick for many years, and only 5 hours after her passing I had the misfortune of having a sales rep at Mt.Sinai tell me that I should start a fund for my mother who had passed. Well having no experience with this type of issue I made the horrible mistake of listening to John Freare who is a sales rep and he gave me legal advise, which unfortuately I listened to. Well to make a long story short, because of my deep grief at that time and not thinking clearly I was slaughtered in the community and with all of her friends and anyone who was close to her. It is a long story but it has been a very long fight to have Mt. Sinai do the right thing after over 11 years. This will finally be taken care of soon.

Thank you to all her friends and fans who loved her so much.

Dear Mr. Feinman,

I have become a fan of your mom's singing over the past few years. I have a couple questions to ask about Helen and was wondering if you would email me at your convenience?

Chris

Dear Mr. Feinman,

Did your mother do any painting? I came across a painting at an antique store with a Helen Forrest signature on it. Could this have been done by your mother?

Chris

As a singer who passed up her opportunity to pursue a singing career (with deep regrets, now that I am 60) I would like to see Helen Forrest remembered properly, as the great singer that she was. I have always said that I was born in the wrong era (1952) since Swing Music & all the wonderful standards always felt natural to me. I LOVE that music! I would be happy to donate to a fund, if one is set up, for a marker for your mother's grave. Please post the info. (Perhaps by now there is one...that would be wonderful.)

Sincerely, J. Lessard

Hi Michael, I am so pleased to have this opportunity to drop you a note from Scotland UK. Despite an avid interest in music, I came to your dear mum's talents only recently, largely through the internet. I curse the fact that I spent so many years without her songs but savour the fact, that belatedly, I did fidn the greatest female vocalist ever. Warmest wishes to you and the family. Ray Hepburn

Dear Michael,

Only recently did I know much about your mother. While visiting Milwaukee, Wisconsin last year I heard a band one evening and was taken back by the music and beautiful vocals. I asked the singer who had sung the songs she said her favorite singer was Helen Forrest and the songs were all performed in the style of Helen. I asked her how old she was and she said 20 years old. I'm thankful for discovering your mom and her wonderful vocal talents.

If you get a moment listen to the band and Rae Cassidy, their 20 year old singer. The audio is amateurish so keep that in mind. She has maybe the best tone I have heard since your mom's.

Joshua

What a perfectly awful thing to happen. I'm very sorry.

At this moment, I am listening to your mother sing "It's Been a Long, Long Time" with the Harry James band in the 1950's. She's just incomparable.

Paul

I have always loved the music of the Big Bands. I consider Helen Forrest the greatest of the female band singers. Many others started in Big Bands such as Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald,and Dinah shore, but Helen established the Gold Standard. Please assure me that Helen now has a permanent marker. She was the greatest! Walt

Dear Michael..I was very moved to read your comments...I am from ARGENTINA, I am 76 years old...I listened to your mumÌâå«s voice either with all the great big bands since I was an adolescent...(excuse my english) Each time I find a place in internet to get information I enjoy it very much... I am jewish myself...I used to play the bass with an informal quartet in Buenos Aires..all the joys and beautiful songs of the swing era..and also de BIG BANDS.. I have been travelling 4 or 5 times to the USA visiting friends... Well, dear Michael, thatÌâå«s all I guess....Just let you know I realise how much of a difficult life Helen Forrest had to lead...just to offer us those beautiful songs that I keep in my ears and in my heart... Affectionately, CLAUDIO *

Hello Cheryl & Kelli:

My name is Jeffrey Tucker. I have been a huge fan of Helen Forrest since I was 14. My mother, Villa Tucker, knew good swing and jazz music and taught me a lifelong appreciation of it. One afternoon in the autumn of 1960, she was driving me home from high school and they played a record on KSFO radio, "ItÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s Been a Long, Long Time," by Harry James and sung by an incomparable voice. I was spellbound and asked Mother who it was. She promptly told me it was Helen ForrestÌ¢‰â‰۝only the best singer of her generation and her personal favorite. I asked her why we didnÌ¢‰â‰ã¢t have any of her records only to find out that Mother had sold all of them with her other 78s when we left St. Paul. So I began a search to collect as many Helen Forrest records I could find. At that time, very few of them were available as reissues on 33 and extended play 45 r.p.m. discs.

Years later in 1976, we went to see Helen in person at JacksonÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s Penthouse near FishermanÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s Wharf. I brought several records for her to autograph. Mother told me that would be presumptuous and rude. The moment we entered the room, Mother recognized her. I went up to Helen Forrest and introduced myself. She was a very nice and gracious person. She not only autographed my records, she invited Mother and me to sit at her table. They hit it off immediately and talked like old friends. Mother told her: Ì¢‰âÒMy husband and I saw you with Harry James at the Prom Ballroom in 1942; you were sensational!Ì¢‰âÂå We even went out to dinner with Helen, Michael, and some friends after the show. We saw her again several times at various clubs in San Francisco and at an outdoor concert with Harry James at the Concord Pavilion in 1978. I sent her orchids on several of those occasions. What a sweetheart! She even autographed her autobiography, "I Had the Craziest Dream," for me! I have since collected all of her recordings with Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Harry James, and Dick Haymes on CD.

When I found out there was no permanent marker on Helen's grave at Mt. Sinai Cemetery in Los Angeles, I too was shocked and very unhappy. Like Kelli, I have my suspicions why that is the situation. Presumably, Helen got no financial help when she died at the Motion Picture Home. I would be proud and happy to donate money to a suitable memorial for Helen. Please let's just not do it in Las Vegas because it is so fake, glitzy, and pretentious -- the exact opposite qualities of a Helen Forrest.

Why is it not possible to write to the cemetery and ask them if we can donate a suitable marble marker and have it placed there? (I think it would cost about $8,000, so it won't be inexpensive.) But I do think that would be the most fitting tribute with a simple inscription: The Voice of the Big Bands Helen Forrest 1917-1999. Surely there must be a way to do that and other people out there who would want to be aware of this unfortunate situation and would help us raise the money. Please let me know your thoughts. I am in this for the count. If we can find someone who can create a Helen Forrest website, that might be a good start where we could publicize our appeal. Sincerely, Jeff.

Jeffry,

I am on-board with the desire to honor Helen. I would love to visit her resting place and place flowers there. Please let me know if there are further plans to honor this fantastic lady of song.

Larry:

How to cite this page

Shapiro, Jan. "Helen Forrest." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 23, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/forrest-helen>.

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