The Troy Street Observer

October 4, 1941: Basie Meets the Debutante

Count Basie was no stranger to Boston. The Doctor of Swingology played here many times between 1936 and 1983, and he served as the primary inspiration for three of Boston’s best piano-playing bandleaders: Sabby Lewis, Dean Earl, and Nat Pierce. In his early years of prominence, he also knew an avid fan named Sally Sears, a Beacon Hill sub-deb—a teenager from a society family.

Label of Vocalion 5010
Vocalion 5010, “Sub-Deb Blues,” by Skippy Martin, Sally Sears, and George McKinnon

Sarah Pickering Pratt Lyman Sears—Sally—was bit by the jazz bug in the late 1930s, when proper Bostonians didn’t have much to do with swing bands or the flourishing dance halls on Huntington Avenue. But Sally jumped into jazz. She studied piano and voice with Sandy Sandiford, and in 1939 wrote lyrics for a tune called “Sub-Deb Blues” and sent them to Basie. Skippy Martin put them to music, and Basie recorded it in June (Vocalion 5010). Helen Humes did her best with the lyrics, but “Sub-Deb Blues” is a song about teenage angst up on lonesome Beacon Hill:

When you’re a sub-deb, boys can’t take you out.
When you’re a sub-deb, boys can’t take you out.
You’ve got to read Silas Marner, and ‘splain what it’s all about.

Can’t go hear Count Basie, such a thing was never known.
Can’t go hear Count Basie, such a thing was never known.
So I play his Vocalion records, and sit here all alone.

One of Basie’s annual stops was Boston’s Ritz Roof, a prized one-month engagement that provided respite from the band bus and the road. Basie wrote about Sears in his autobiography: “She was very young, but she was pretty hip, and she really dug the band. She used to have her parents bring her to the roof garden on a regular basis all during the time we were up there that summer. So we got to be pretty good friends, and she talked me into promising to have the band come back up to Boston to play for her debut ball that was being planned for the fall. That is why we came up with the number called “Coming Out Party.” Jimmy Mundy did the arrangement, and we set it in a medium tempo in keeping with the occasion, but we also gave them a good solid beat to hop to.”

And so it was that on October 4, Basie’s band flew to Boston, repaired to the Sears estate in Hamilton, and wailed for some 2,000 guests. It was a $3,000 one-nighter, which would equal about $47,000 today. In November, the band recorded “Coming Out Party” (Okeh 6564).

In 1942, Sears, who idolized Helen Humes, launched her own singing career with Mickey Alpert’s house band at the Cocoanut Grove, then spent the summer with Bert Lowe’s band at the Hawthorne Inn in Gloucester, and worked at Alpini’s that fall. In 1943 she sought but did not find club work in New York. Back in Boston, she sang with Sammy Eisen’s society band in October, and in April 1944 sang a few numbers with Lionel Hampton’s band at Symphony Hall. There were a few other local jobs, but her singing career stalled and apparently ended quietly.

When Sears married in 1946, Basie didn’t get the gig, the more proper society band of Ruby Newman did. But Sears never wrote lyrics for Ruby Newman.

I found “Sub-Deb Blues” on Spotify although not YouTube. I did find “Coming Out Party” there—it’s got a good solid beat to hop to.

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