The International Sweethearts of Rhythm
Anna Mae Pilgrim recalls the days when her all-girl orchestra made history
Anna Mae Pilgrim is a 69-year old west Louisville widow whose life today is not much different from other devout women her age. She is a Jehovah’s Witness.
But during the 1940s and early ‘50s, Pilgrim, whose stage name was Anna Mae Winburn, led one of the most popular all-female orchestras in the United States - the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.
Pilgrim, an elegant and articulate lady who was described in a ‘50s music program as being “a slender mite of a woman, equally popular for her Oriental-like beauty as for her talent as a bandleader,” talked recently about her early years in jazz.
“My maiden name was Darden, I was born in Port Royal, Tenn., in 1914, but I was raised in Kokomo, Ind. I came from a large family of 10, and my mother died when I was in my teens. I married a young basketball player named Charles Winburn when I was 15, but it didn’t last.
“I hadn’t finished high school, so I wasn’t equipped to do office work. But I thought I had a little talent, everyone in my family played guitar and sang.
This background prompted young Anna Mae to enter a talent contest at the Isis Theater in Kokomo singing the old Ethel Waters song “Lovey Joe” and as she put it, “amusing myself on guitar.”
The Hoosier Hotshots won the contest, but Anna Mae came in second, causing her to get a job with a white band over radio station WOW in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Soon afterward, she hired a manager who arranged an impromptu audition with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
“Ellington’s girl singer, Ivie Anderson had hurt herself, and he needed a replacement. My manager was as young as I was and didn’t know anything about the business, but he got the audition for me anyway. It was at a music store in Dayton, Ohio, and Ellington accompanied me on piano. But when it was time for me to sing. I froze and couldn’t get my mouth to open,” she said, adding “I failed the audition.”
Stage fright didn’t stop her, however and she continued to pursue her budding career, fronting several large bands in the Midwest. She was leading Lloyd Hunter’s Serenaders in Omaha when WWII began.
“When the war started, most of my musicians were drafted out of the orchestra, and I needed another band. So, my manager located one for me in Oklahoma City.”
This band that was later billed as “Anna Mae Winburn and her Cotton Boys,” was made up of what remained of the original Kansas City Blue Devils. It had in its ranks some of the finest jazz musicians in the Midwest, including the legendary guitarist Charlie Christian.
“We were a tremendous hit packing in crowds everywhere until one night in Minneapolis, Minn., when jazz producer and entrepreneur John Hammond came through town with Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra. They were playing a benefit, and some of my musicians asked me if they could sit in and show them what they could do. I told them they could as long as they didn’t disrupt the dance,” she said.
When Anna Mae’s band members, who included not only Christian but tenor saxophonist Henry Bridges, sat in with Dorsey’s band, Hammond was so impressed he hired them all on the spot and took them back to New York City. Later, Hammond would place Christian with Benny Goodman’s band, making jazz history.
But with many of her musicians gone and jobs getting harder to come by, Anna Mae was starting to get discouraged. It was then that the owner of the Dreamland Ballroom in Omaha asked her to listen to an all-girl orchestra he had working for him.
“They were 18 teen-age girls from the Piney Woods Country Life School in Piney Woods, Miss., and they called themselves the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.”
The Sweethearts were originally organized to raise money for the school, which had been funded by Lawrence Clifton Jones in 1910 for indigent black and racially mixed children. But because a few of their members had been refused graduation, they ran away and turned professional. They needed someone to lead the band, and Anna Mae agreed to take the job.
“When I first saw those girls, I was really amazed. They were very young and composed of many different races and nationalities. Some of them were mullatoes, others were part Italian or Chinese. When they came on stage in their colorful gowns, they looked like a beautiful bouquet of mixed flowers,” she recalled.
After Anna Mae took over the Sweethearts, they moved to Arlington, Va., purchased a 10-room house, set up a corporation to support themselves and began to rehearse for the first time.
“We hired some professional arrangers to write for the band. One of them was Eddie Durham, who also worked for Count Basie, Glenn Miller, and Jimmie Lunsford. He wrote ‘I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire’ and a couple of other hit songs.”
But despite the box office appeal of her beautiful mixed bouquet, very few white people were aware of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Anna Mae said.
“We mostly played black circuits like the Paradise Theater in Baltimore, Md., and the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C.”
The Sweethearts did appear often in Louisville during the ‘40s and ‘50s at the Lyric Theater on Walnut Street and the National Theater at Fifth and Walnut streets. They were one of the last acts to appear at the National before it was torn down in 1951.
But then as now, a band had to be booked in New York City in order to be a big hit. And in 1941 the Sweethearts got their chance at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
“We were a big hit at the Apollo and New York City is where I first met Leonard Feather, the now famous jazz critic who was just getting started in the business. We hired him as our agent,” she said.
Feather wrote a song for the Sweethearts called the “Blow Top Blues” which they recorded with Anna Mae doing the vocal.
“It was never pushed very hard by the record company, but Lionel Hampton later recorded it with Dinah Washington, and it became a big hit,” she said.
Even without a hit of their own, however, Anna Mae Winburn and her International Sweethearts of Rhythm crossed paths with some of the greatest names in jazz.
“The great tenor saxophonist Ben Webster would often come and sit in with our band. And Louis Armstrong loved our group and would play trumpet with us whenever he could, just to give the girls a lift.”
Once at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., Anna Mae helped a worry-torn Billie Holiday after a severe auto accident.
“Billie had come down from New York to appear at the Brown Derby. She wrecked her car on the way and it caught fire, destroying all her gowns. Her manager asked me if Billie could borrow some of my parachute silk for her costume. I always carried the silk to make turbans. I gave her what I had and she made the first night at the Brown Derby, but she couldn’t finish the week. She was very sick at the time,” Anna Mae said.
In 1945 the Sweethearts traveled to Europe for what turned out to be a highly successful USO tour.
“There were 2,500 soldiers in the lower decks of the ship on the way over. All the entertainers were housed on the upper decks. Our troupe was made up of Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, the cast from the Fred Allen (radio) show, actors from the play “Arsenic and Old Lace,” the Shep Fields Orchestra and the Sweethearts.”
When the captain found out he had two bands aboard, he asked the musicians if they would play for a dance in the ship’s ballroom. Shep Field’s and his orchestra played first and the Sweethearts followed.
“I’ll never forget it,” Anna Mae said, “We started playing our theme song, ’Fascination’ and Pauline Williams our drummer, gave us a big fanfare on the drums. After the overture I turned to the crowd and said, ’Ladies and Gentleman, let me introduce you to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.”
“The audience went wild and we really upset the ship before it was over. All the musicians from Shep Fields’ Orchestra came over and told us, “We had no idea girls could play jazz like that.”
It was an opinion she had to contend with many times over the years. And when it wasn’t sexual discrimination in the Sweethearts way, it was racial discrimination.
“Once in Alabama our band was eating in a colored restaurant and a policeman came in and walked over to our bus driver, who was white and asked him, “Why are you eating in a colored restaurant? Don’t you know it’s against the law? Our driver said, ’I’m working for these ladies,’ but they put him in jail anyway, and it cost $90 to get him out. We had to endure a lot of incidents like that on the road,” she said.
The world was not eager to admit that women could play jazz, either, she said.
We never got the recognition we deserved. Men would say, “Oh they’re a bunch of cute girls, but they can’t really play.” They were wrong I’d put some of those girls up against any man. People are now just realizing how good those girls were.”
In the ’50s, Anna Mae gave up jazz, she married her manager, the late Duke Pilgrim and disbanded the last of her Sweethearts units so she could devote more time to her family. Today she has four children and seven grandchildren.
But her place in music didn’t go totally unnoticed, because in 1980 she and her surviving Sweethearts were honored during a special program at the Women’s Jazz Festival in Kansas City, Mo. She even received a telegram from President Jimmy Carter thanking her for her contributions to jazz.
And last year, a new book entitled “American Women in Jazz” (by Sally Placksin) examined the Sweethearts role and importance in jazz.
Today, Anna Mae doesn’t flinch remembering her past. She said she doesn’t regret a single minute she spent in music.
“The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were way ahead of their time, and they did a lot to break down racial and sexual prejudice in this country,” she said.
“We were a close knit family of 18 girls who helped bring people together through the International language of jazz.”
Louisville Times SCENE magazine
October 22, 1983
From the up-coming book “Derby City Jazz.”