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« Charisma on Four Legs | Main | Elsewhere »

June 11, 2007

1000 Words -- Ina Ray Hutton

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Another installment in my very-occasional series about moments and topics in cultural history that deserve to be better-known than they are. Previous installments: the American painter John La Farge; the ups and downs of the reputation of the Italian painter Piero della Francesca; J. Sheridan LeFanu's "Carmilla," sometimes said to the first vampire novel; the glories of coffee-house culture; the golden era that was Gold Medal Books.

Among the many Swing bands that crisscrossed the U.S. during the 1930s were a number of what were known as "all-girl" bands. (I don't know as much about the general subject as I'd like to. Here's what's apparently the definitive book on the topic, which I haven't read.) The best-known of them was led by a singer/dancer and former showgirl with the priceless name Ina Ray Hutton.

Ina Ray was born in Chicago; started out in show business as a child tap dancer; performed in the Ziegfeld Follies; and was then, in 1934, given a chance to lead an all-girl swing band. Singing, dancing, and snapping a conducting-baton around in the style of such singin'-dancin' bandleaders as Cab Calloway, Ina Ray became a national sensation. She and da girlz appeared in movies, made musical featurettes, and toured the country's nightclubs and dance halls successfully. Ina Ray continued leading bands (not all of them all-girl) right into the 1950s. She died in 1984.

Thanks to some knowledgeable and enterprising YouTube uploaders, we can now get a look at and an earful of Ina Ray Hutton's work. She was quite a performer -- known not just as a musical phenomenon but as a charismatic sexpot too.

I don't know about you but I find Ina Ray enchanting. She's uninhibited and athletic, but she's also seductive, charming, and likable -- part saucy golddigger and part entrepreneurial dynamo. She's as all-American and hearty as James Cagney or Gene Kelly, yet she's never unfeminine.

I'm struck by her performing confidence, as well as by her easy sexual self-awareness. Wait a minute -- American women weren't supposed to have acquired any of these qualities until after the 1970s. Wasn't "the patriarchy" supposed to have made enjoyment, flamboyance, and expressiveness (not to mention money-making) impossible for pre-feminist women? Oh well, another political myth bites the dust.

She's a sweetheart -- daring yet matter-of-fact, playful in a childlike way yet all woman too: a frisky, bold thing carried away by sexy fun. She has a lot more in the way of twinkle and zing than many of the earnest, clunky showgirls of the era do -- she's downhome yet sophisticated too, at least in terms of her wit and her emotional quickness.

For me, Ina Ray has a vividness, an ease, and a spirit that cut right through the usual "period" distancing that makes so many people in old film clips seem to belong to a different species than we do. Despite the period costumes and the period styles, Ina Ray seems as alive to me as the woman in the office next to mine. She has an edge -- what we today call "attitude" -- but it's accompanied by a sweetness that our era could use a little more of. Plus: what a great job Ina Ray does of conveying the fun of percussiveness, movement, and rhythm!

Here's Solid!'s brief biography of Ina Ray Hutton. Jeff Hopkins surveys Ina Ray's career here. Here's some extended Ina Ray: Part One, Part Two. Ina Ray sure enjoys singing that lyric about how a nickle in the cup can "make that organ-grinder swing," doesn't she?



posted by Michael at June 11, 2007


Deeelightful. I think I prefer the USA of feeble universities but wonderful popular music.

Posted by: dearieme on June 12, 2007 1:36 PM

I fell in love with her.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on June 13, 2007 12:52 PM

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