Bea Wain was the mother of one of my wife’s and my dearest friends, Wayne Baruch and his wife Shelley. Bea is an American musical cultural icon, and she died earlier this week at age 100.
One reviewer described her this way:
“Bea is considered by many to be one of the best female vocalists of her era, possessing a natural feel for swing-music rhythms not often found among white singers of the day. She excelled in pitch and subtle utilization of dynamics. She also communicated a feminine sensuality and sang with conviction in an unforced manner.”
Bea’s obituary in the Washington Post had a few inaccuracies, so Wayne, her son, edited it, as follows:
“Bea Wain, who started singing on the radio at age six, became a hit-making pop vocalist in the late 1930s, and performed into her ninth decade as one of the last surviving singers from the big-band era, died August 19 in Beverly Hills, CA.
Completely self-taught, Wain had an expressive but understated swing style that propelled her career. She performed in nightclubs and on radio programs before her breakthrough in 1937 [at the age of 20] when arranger Larry Clinton selected her as the thrush for a band he was starting. Clinton’s orchestra never achieved the enduring recognition of groups led by Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, or Benny Goodman. But with superb arrangements, a tightknit group of players, and Wain out front, the ensemble had a solid commercial run with jukebox favorites such as “Deep Purple” and “Heart and Soul.” The band made its biggest impression adapting classical compositions into popular swing numbers featuring Wain’s interpretations, notably “My Reverie” from the Claude Debussy piano piece “Rêverie,” and “Martha,” from the Friedrich von Flotow opera of the same name.
In a 2007 radio interview, Wain said the Debussy estate in France initially balked when Clinton put words to the composer’s melody and no amount of money could change its mind. The band recorded the number anyway and shipped a copy to the estate. A message came back, “If this girl sings it, okay.”
Wain’s negligible pay of $30 per recording session began to grate on her. At the peak of her fame, she left Clinton and became a headliner on the college and theatre circuit. She also appeared regularly on the popular radio program “Your Hit Parade” where she became a friend of another guest, Frank Sinatra. Wain’s many and varied recordings from that period include the romantic “You Go To My Head,” the flirty “Kiss the Boys Goodbye,” the bawdy Andy Razaf/Eubie Blake number “My Man is a Handy Man,” and touching ballads “God Bless the Child,” and “My Sister And I,” a heartbreaker about war refugee children. She was also the first to record the classic “Over The Rainbow,”  but MGM prohibited its release until “The Wizard of Oz” came out.
In 1939, a Billboard Magazine poll named her the year’s most popular female band vocalist. She ranked alongside the country’s most popular singers, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Mildred Bailey, and Helen Forrest. She was in demand as a singer on radio shows hosted by Kate Smith, Fred Waring, and Kay Thompson.
Along with her husband of 53 years, radio announcer and commentator André Baruch, she co-hosted a series called Mr. and Mrs. Music on New York radio station WMCA in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They were the first husband and wife dee-jay team on the air. The show eventually migrated to ABC and NBC radio networks and included live musical performances by Wain. Later, they anchored a radio talk show in Palm Beach, FL, before settling in Beverly Hills, CA.”
Because Wayne was one of the producers of the Three Tenors concerts at Dodger Stadium and many other concerts and telecasts featuring opera luminaries Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, Wayne invited his mother to attend a master class with Pavarotti in Los Angeles. Afterward she found herself alone with the maestro.
“My son told him I was a wonderful singer,” Bea told Christopher Popa, a Chicago music librarian who runs the website bigbandlibrary.com . “So he said, ‘Oh, I’d love to hear you.’ I said, ‘Well, as a matter of fact, I recorded one of the songs that you sing, that was ‘Martha’ … I said I did a swing version of it. And he said, ‘Show me, show me.’
“And I started to sing it. And he joined in — it was adorable — and he pretended he was a trombone player, and I’d sing la-la-la-la” to his trombone sounds. “And we had a lovely time.”
Bea never stopped singing. I remember recently Wayne telling me that someone met his mother at her assisted living home and told her that he heard that that she was once a singer. Indignant, she retorted “I AM a singer!”
Indeed she was.
Listen to her beautiful voice in these You Tube recordings. You can see her sing “Heart and Soul” which she made popular in the United States.
Google “Bea Wain” and you can listen to your singing on YouTube.