Louise Tobin, Jazz Vocalist Who Put Her Career on Hold, Dies at 104

With the big band era in full swing in 1939, Louise Tobin, a jazz vocalist with Benny Goodman’s orchestra, was on the cusp of nationwide fame. But she soon put her career on hold at the request of her husband, the trumpeter and bandleader Harry James.

Mr. James had begun touring with his own band, leaving Ms. Tobin to care for their two sons, Harry Jr. and Tim. And after the couple divorced in 1943, Ms. Tobin devoted herself to raising them for the next 20 years or so.

Over time her melodic voice was largely forgotten — until she was invited onstage for an impromptu performance at a New Orleans nightclub in the late 1950s.

A recording of that appearance helped jump-start her career, and she soon joined the band of Michael (Peanuts) Hucko, a clarinetist and bandleader. The two became an item, and married in 1967.

Ms. Tobin, who spent the next decades traveling the world and making music with Mr. Hucko, died on Saturday at the home of a granddaughter in Carrollton, Texas, her son Harry said. She was 104.

The newspapers of her day often compared Ms. Tobin’s warm voice to that of a young Ella Fitzgerald. She became a professional singer as a teenager, after winning a radio talent contest in Dallas in 1932. She was the fourth youngest of 11 siblings, and she eagerly left behind household chores to tour the state with different jazz ensembles.

“I was thrilled,” she told The Dallas Morning News in 2010. “My fulfillment was not to have to wash dishes.”

In 1934, she joined a local big band, where she met Mr. James, who played first trumpet. They eloped in 1935, shortly after the orchestra split up, and traveled around the country looking for work.

By 1937, Mr. James had joined Benny Goodman and His Orchestra, and in 1939 he left to start his own band, which endured for four decades and was the first orchestra to employ Frank Sinatra.

By Ms. Tobin’s account, she heard the young Sinatra sing on a local radio show and suggested that Mr. James visit him at the New Jersey restaurant where Sinatra worked as a singing waiter.

Ms. Tobin was performing in New York at the time, and she joined Mr. Goodman’s band after a talent scout saw her perform in a Greenwich Village nightclub.

She released hit records with Mr. Goodman’s orchestra, like a rendition of “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” which became one of the most popular songs in the country. But as her career gained momentum, so did that of Mr. James, who became one of the most popular bandleaders of the swing era: In 1942, Columbia Records attributed a shortage of shellac to demand for his records.

“We were more trying to establish Harry than we were trying to establish me,” Ms. Tobin said in 2010. “I didn’t juggle it very well.”

Mr. James’s success kept him on the road, where he was surrounded by temptation. Shortly after he and Ms. Tobin divorced in 1943, he married the actress Betty Grable.

Ms. Tobin was still popular when she quit Mr. Goodman’s band in the early 1940s and returned to Texas with her sons, but music became an afterthought as she raised them. She stayed out of the spotlight until after they had graduated from high school, when she went to see the Dixieland trumpeter Al Hirt play in New Orleans.

Mr. Hirt recognized Ms. Tobin and asked her to sing with the band. A recording of the show made its way to the jazz critic and producer George Simon, who asked her to record more songs and sing at jazz festivals.

Ms. Tobin was reluctant, but Mr. Simon persuaded her to sing at smaller venues in New York until she felt up to performing before a large audience. In time her confidence returned, and she gave a stirring performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1962.

The jazz clarinetist Peanuts Hucko and Ms. Tobin at their wedding in 1967 in Littleton, Colo. He became her most enduring collaborator.Credit…Steve Larson/The Denver Post, via Getty Images

While she rebuilt her career, Ms. Tobin began singing with Mr. Hucko’s ensemble. Mr. Hucko, who was best known for his stints alongside Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller and his appearances on Lawrence Welk’s television show, became her most enduring collaborator.

After their marriage, they owned and ran a jazz club in Colorado, recorded tribute albums to Mr. Goodman and Mr. Armstrong and toured in Europe, Japan and Australia, where they performed for Prince Charles and Princess Diana. They often sang duets onstage, including a version of “When You’re Smiling,” which was on the 1992 album “Swing That Music,” their final studio recording together.

Mr. Hucko died in 2003, after which Ms. Tobin retired.

Mary Louise Tobin was born on Nov. 11, 1918, in Aubrey, Texas, north of Dallas, and grew up nearby in Denton. Her father, Hugh, died in a fuel truck crash when she was young, and her oldest brother, Ray, opened a drugstore to help support the family. The children often sang together, but Ms. Tobin was the only one who became a professional singer.

She went on the road before completing high school, first traveling with an older sister as a chaperone. Her family was initially shocked by her marriage to Mr. James, but in time they accepted him.

After their divorce, Ms. Tobin lived on alimony and what she earned from the occasional show or recording. But she spent most of her time caring for her two sons, including during a worrisome time. Mr. James had received threats that his children could be kidnapped, prompting Ms. Tobin to stay on the move. She lived with her boys in California for a time and enrolled them in military school. She spent two years traveling with them to places like Hawaii, India and Egypt.

In addition to her sons she is survived by many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.

In interviews, Ms. Tobin expressed little regret about her interrupted career and often said that she felt grateful that she had a part in big band jazz at the height of its popularity.

“I feel like that was a real era of contribution to the culture of the world,” she said.

Jack Kadden contributed reporting.

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