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My history hero: Dame Vera Lynn chooses Helen Forrest (1917–99)

Dame Vera Lynn, whose songs helped raise morale in World War Two, chooses American musician Helen Forrest as her history hero

American jazz singer Helen Forrest performing with trumpeter Harry James (1916-1983), c1945. (Photo by Metronome/Getty Images)
Published: June 18, 2020 at 10:11 am
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Helen Forrest: in profile

Helen Forrest was a leading female singer during America's 'Swing Era', best known for the wartime hits she had with some of the leading US big bands of the day – including her signature tune, 'I Had the Craziest Dream'. Born Helen Fogel to Jewish parents in New Jersey, she was known in her heyday as the 'The Voice of the Name Bands'. Married and divorced three times, she had one son.

When did you first hear about Helen Forrest?

I first became aware of her in the late 1930s after the American clarinetist Artie Shaw had invited her to join his band. They went on to have a string of hits on both sides of the Atlantic with songs like ‘Any Old Time’ and ‘I’m in Love with the Honorable So and So’. I instantly liked her voice and the way she sang. There was just something so natural about her.


What kind of person was Forrest?

I never met her or saw her concert – and I’m not sure she ever sang in Britain. But I know she was Jewish, adopted a stage name to make it in show business, and started out singing as a child in New York. Music was always central to her life, and that’s why she carried on singing until forced to retire from the business due to ill health. Sad to say, she seems to have been unlucky in love though.

DID YOU KNOW… Music rallied civilians on the Home Front during the Second World War. Singers – like Vera Lynn, with her hit songs We’ll Meet Again and The White Cliffs of Dover – became household names. As few homes possessed a television set, radio was the most popular medium and Lynn’s weekly Sincerely Yours show was a smash hit.

What made Forrest a hero?

First and foremost, the fact that she was a wonderful singer with a rich, warm voice. She sang nice songs with heartfelt lyrics that struck a chord with people in the USA, as my songs did with people this side of the pond. What’s more, I could understand every word she sang, despite her being American. Being able to understand the lyrics of a song has always been important to me.

Another thing I liked about her was the fact that she was a straightforward singer. She didn’t employ any tricks, and didn’t fiddle about with the tune like some singers who used to write their own melodies into a song.

As it happens, there came a time when I had to stop listening to her because although I liked her enormously, I didn’t want to pick up her way of singing. I was beginning to get a name for myself, receiving letters from people saying “You sing so differently.” But I knew that if I listened to her too much, I might just start to sound a bit American.

What was her finest hour?

Singing with trumpeter Harry James’s band, when her jazzy pop ballads caught the spirit of wartime America. Together they notched up a string of hits with songs like ‘I Don’t Want to Walk Without You’, ‘He’s 1-A in the Army and He’s 1-A in My Heart’, and of course ‘I Had the Craziest Dream’, perhaps her finest moment.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about Forrest?

Not really. Yes, she was unlucky in love. And she didn’t hit if off with Benny Goodman [an American band leader]. But I’ve never heard anything bad said about her. Indeed, I’ve always regarded her as something of a kindred spirit.

Can you see any parallels between her life and your own?

There are some, I suppose. She sang the same kind of songs I sang. What’s more, our songs struck a chord with our fellow countrymen and women when our countries were up against the wall. Lastly, I suppose, the fact that our respective countrymen took us to their hearts at their greatest hour of need!

If you could meet Forrest what would you ask her?

I suppose I would ask her why she chose to sing the songs she sang. Nowadays a lot of artists write their own songs, but it was different back then – and I think the songs a singer chose to sing said a lot about the person.

Dame Vera Lynn shot to fame during the Second World War with classic songs ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’, winning fame as ‘The Forces’ Sweetheart’. She was talking to York Membury


This article was first published in the September 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine


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