Born: January 5, 1922 | Died: May 14, 1997 Primary Instrument: Vocal
Thelma Carpenter - vocalist
Thelma Carpenter was singing on the “Kiddies Hour” radio show at age five and by 11 had her own show on WNYC. She was 16 when she got hired as vocalist for the new Teddy Wilson Orchestra. The band lasted less than a year, but Thelma managed to cut her first sides with them, two of which are heard here, the bouncy “Love Grows On The White Oak Tree” and the more tender “This Is The Moment,” recorded in 1939. As luck would have it, Coleman Hawkins was returning from a five-year stay in Europe, and Thelma joined his new band later that same year, resulting in the now-classic recording of “She’s Funny That Way”.
When Helen Humes left the Count Basie orchestra in 1943, Thelma took her place. She toured extensively, gaining national exposure and broadcasting nearly every night with Basie. Unfortunately, there was also a record ban in effect and only one commercial 78 was issued, the 1944 “I Didn’t Know About You.”
In 1945, she was “discovered” by Eddie Cantor, who hired her as the singing star of his hugely-popular weekly radio show, breaking colour barriers and resulting in a new pinnacle of stardom. She released popular singles like “Seems Like Old Times,” “These Foolish Things” and the wartime hits “Hurry Home” and “My Guy’s Come Back.” On the swinging “Joshua Fit De Battle of Jericho” and the sardonic “American Lullaby,” she was backed by a trio making their recording debuts billed as the Amory Brothers, later to achieve their own stardom as the Ames Brothers.
Thelma returned to Broadway in the hit revue “Inside U.S.A.” starring Beatrice Lillie, joining the show during its Philadelphia tryout. She continued to be a popular nightclub attraction, including headline engagements at the Capitol and the Palace among others and performed with Duke Ellington at Carnegie Hall. She recorded four sides for Columbia - one of which, “Pie In The Basket” with Luther Henderson’s orchestra, was banned from radio because of its suggestive lyric.
She then starred in a 1952 revival of the revue “Shuffle Along” on Broadway that resulted in a delightful recording conducted by its composer Eubie Blake. Sidney Lumet brought her to the big screen as Miss One, the first good witch in “The Wiz” with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. She then played the mother of Gregory and Maurice Hines in Francis Ford Coppola's 1982 film The Cotton Club and worked for Coppola again in his 1989 New York Stories.
Thelma continued to work until her passing in 1997, most notably on the “Cosby” show but surprisingly for a singer of her longevity and success, the Sepia Records collection comprises nearly the entire output of recordings from her most productive period, and almost all are on CD for the first time. They fill an important gap, rescuing a great vocalist from obscurity and ensuring that her music will continue to be heard and enjoyed for generations to come.