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About Thelma Carpenter

This vocalist and performer enjoyed a long and rich career, and might be the only American singer who can boast to have been backed up by both the Count Basie Orchestra and the Munchkins. She mastered what is sometimes the hardest challenge for a performer, how to grow old gracefully. She spoke in interviews of having performed at the age of seven, although not a great deal of information is available on her background. Talent scout and record producer John Hammond picked up on her in 1939, when she would have been in her last year as a teenager. Youthful as she still was, she was already performing and recording with classic jazz tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, with whom she would be closely associated. Work with several of Hammond's prize clients, Count Basie and Teddy Wilson, was soon to follow, and she began working regularly in both concert settings and on a series of popular 78 records, among them her recordings of "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" and "American Lullaby." Another of her popular recording collaborations was the mid-'40s "Hurry Home," featuring her with the Deep River Boys. She was also active in the film industry during the '40s, providing vocals for the music video precursors called "soundies" as well as dubbing songs for various actresses and even actors who were unable to sing in tune on their own when required to. In this capacity, one of her strangest credits was dubbing the vocal in for actor Ramsay Ames in the 1943 Crazy House. She also appeared regularly on radio broadcasts with vocalist Eddie Cantor, whose racist comments about the black Carpenter "crying tears of ink" got him in hot water. Live performance work, such as New York's many cabarets, kept her busy through the '50s, although it was certainly the decline of the big band era, and many of her former employers were no longer keeping female vocalists on steadily. Several Broadway revues were good for her in this period, such as Blackbirds of 1928 and Shuffle Along, both hitting the stage in 1953. These productions allowed her to collaborate with several legends of the black vaudeville era, Cab Calloway and pianist Eubie Blake. The death of her mother in 1962 seems to have been a major shock for her, and she claims to have "just lay down in (her) bed for a whole year." When she needed money, she found work for the company that produces Mott's Applesauce as a filing clerk. The next phase of her career began in the mid-'60s when she replaced Pearl Bailey on-stage in the role of Dolly Levi. She performed and recorded with stride pianist Herman Chittison in the '60s, releasing the albums 1933-41 and P.S. With Love. The major event of her golden years of performing was her involvement in the '70s production of The Wiz, the slightly ill-fated black version of The Wizard of Oz, which has retroactively earned critical respect and cult fanaticism what it failed to make at the box office when the film version tanked. The concept pulled together a Who's Who of black performers of many generations, including Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. Carpenter had a plum of a role in the character of Miss One, a combination of the Witch of the North and a numbers runner. It was in this part that she sang a number with the Munchkins, the clever lyrics full of references to the numbers-running racket, as was much of dialogue. One of her final on-stage performances was a 1993 televised tribute to classic performers from the Apollo Theatre. A variety of her material has been reissued on compact disc, including the collection A Souvenir on Audiophile. Her singing is also included on the three-CD box set Sultry Ladies of Jazz, released on Hindsight. She died in 1997 of natural causes and her body was found in her Manhattan apartment. ~ Eugene Chadbourne

Brooklyn, NY
Jan 15, 1922

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