Bea Wain, One of the Last Big Band Singers, Dies at 100

Courtesy of Photofest
Bea Wain

Billboard named her the most popular female band vocalist of 1939, and she was the first to record the classic "Over the Rainbow."

Bea Wain, a hit-making pop vocalist in the late 1930s and one of the last surviving singers from the big band era, died Saturday in Beverly Hills, publicist Ken Werther announced. She was 100.

Known for her expressive, engaging but understated swing style, the Bronx native performed in nightclubs and on the radio before former Tommy Dorsey arranger Larry Clinton hired her for a band he was starting in 1937.

She was out front for such jukebox favorites as "Deep Purple," "Heart and Soul," "My Reverie," from the Claude Debussy piano piece "Reverie," and "Martha," from the Friedrich von Flotow opera of the same name.

In a 2007 radio interview, Wain recalled that the Debussy estate in France initially balked when Clinton put words to the composer's melody. The band recorded the number anyway and shipped a copy to the estate. A message came back, "If this girl sings it, OK."

At the height of her fame, Wain left Clinton — she was making just $30 per recording session — and became a headliner on the college and theater circuit. She also appeared regularly on the radio program Your Hit Parade, becoming friends with another guest, Frank Sinatra.

Wain's recordings from this period included 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 the touching ballads "God Bless the Child" and "My Sister and I," a heartbreaker about war refugee children.

Wain was the first to record the Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg classic "Over the Rainbow," but MGM prohibited its release until The Wizard of Oz (1939) had opened and audiences heard Judy Garland perform it.

In an era that also featured such stars as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Mildred Bailey and Helen Forrest, a Billboard poll named Wain the most popular female band vocalist of 1939. She also was in demand as a singer on radio shows hosted by Kate Smith, Fred Waring and Kay Thompson.

With her husband, radio announcer and commentator Andre Baruch, Wain co-hosted a series called Mr. and Mrs. Music on New York's WMCA in the late 1940s and early '50s. They were the first husband-and-wife deejay team on the radio.

Their show migrated to the ABC and NBC radio networks and included live performances by Wain. Later, they anchored a radio talk show in Palm Beach, Fla., before settling down in Beverly Hills.

Wain, who started singing at age 6 on the NBC radio series Children's Hour, turned 100 on April 30.

Baruch, her husband of 53 years, died in 1991. Survivors include her children Bonnie and Wayne, son-in-law Mark, daughter-in-law Shelley and grandchildren Brandon and Remy.

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