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Louise Tobin, big band singer who introduced Frank Sinatra, dies at 104

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Louise Tobin, a 1930s and 1940s big band singer who urged her then-husband, trumpeter and bandleader Harry James, to hire a promising young man she heard on the radio, a singing waiter of New Jersey named Frank Sinatra, died Nov. 26 at the home of a granddaughter in Carrollton, Texas. She was 104 years old.

His biographer Kevin Mooney confirmed the death but did not know the immediate cause.

Ms. Tobin was a hoarse-throated Texan who began singing professionally as a teenager and had a modestly successful career as a “vocalist”, performing with bands led by Benny Goodman, Will Bradley and Bobby Hackett.

She recorded hits with Goodman, including the standards “There Will Be Changes Made” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”, but left the band to raise her two sons, whom she had with James. “We were trying to establish Harry more than we were trying to establish me,” she recalled to the Dallas Morning News.

James had recently left the Goodman Band to design his own outfit and needed a male vocalist. One day in June 1939, Tobin was in a Manhattan hotel room, listening to a radio link from a truck stop in Englewood Cliffs, NJ called Rustic Cabin. She woke her husband up from his nap.

“I heard this boy sing, and I thought, ‘There’s a beautiful singer!’ she told jazz historian Will Friedwald. “So I woke Harry up and said, ‘Honey, maybe you should hear this kid on the radio. The singer boy on this show looks pretty good. It was the end, as far as I was concerned.

James picked up the broadcast the following evening and went to the club in search of the creamy-voiced singer. “We don’t have a singer,” the manager told him questioningly. “But we have a master of ceremonies who sings a little.”

James offered Sinatra, who was also serving tables, a one-year contract at $75 a week. Within months they were recording “All or Nothing At All” and other ballads that established Sinatra not only as a commercial force – he would soon be drawn to Tommy Dorsey’s much more popular band – but also as the preeminent vocalist of his generation.

“Harry deserves the credit,” Ms Tobin later said. “I just woke him up.”

Ms Tobin’s marriage quickly disintegrated, falling victim to what she described as James’ wandering eye and inflated ego. James, lured to Hollywood to appear in films, began courting famous pin-up girl and musical star Betty Grable, who became his second wife. As Ms. Tobin’s career declined, she returned to North Texas and raised her children.

Producers gradually reintroduced her to the festival circuit, including a 1962 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, where New York jazz critic Whitney Balliett praised her for singing “with warmth and a complete lack of calculation “. She married jazz clarinetist Michael “Peanuts” Hucko in 1967 and played with him for three decades.

Mary Louise Tobin was born in Aubrey, Texas on November 11, 1918, and grew up in nearby Denton, where she was one of 11 siblings raised by her widowed mother. His father died from injuries sustained in a car accident.

Louise sang for local community groups and, at age 14, won a talent contest on a CBS radio station in Dallas, having to stand on a piece of cardboard to reach the microphone. She was soon singing at dance parties across the state, chaperoned by an older sister. “I was thrilled,” she told the Morning News. “My accomplishment was not having to wash the dishes.”

Within a few years, she joined a regional band led by Art Hicks that also featured James as lead trumpeter and toured movie theaters and hotel ballrooms. She and James married in 1935; she was 16 and he was 19.

After their divorce, Ms. Tobin spent several years working in Los Angeles with bands led by pianist Emil Coleman and trumpeter Ziggy Elman before returning to Texas.

Survivors include two sons, Harry James Jr. and Jerin Timothyray “Tim” James; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

With Hucko, who died in 2003, she co-owned the Navarre supper club in Denver and toured Europe, Australia and Japan as an apostle of big band sound. As she told the Morning News, “Jazz is freedom.”

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