Born Frances Wolfe, Fran Warren grew up in love with swing music. As a child of the late '20s, however, she was almost -- but not quite -- too late to become a part of the big-band era as a vocalist. Her interest in singing went back to her days entertaining at school assemblies in the Bronx, New York. She had the voice, however, and the inspiration to grab a piece of the tail end of the big-band era, racking up one major hit and a legion of fans, even as she branched into theater to keep working at the level her ability commanded. As a pre-teen, Frances Wolfe spent a lot of time listening to the radio. She grew to know the music and styles of Billie Holiday, Jo Stafford, and Helen Forrest, among many other singers of the '30s and '40s. When World War II came along, she would pass the time in the blackout alerts, stuck in darkness with whoever happened to be around, imitating the work of peoples' favorite singers.
She was singing in local jazz outfits in her mid-teens, auditioned for Duke Ellington at age 16, and got her first professional break at 18, when she joined a new orchestra being formed by bandleader Art Mooney -- she was making $65 a week, a more-than-decent amount of money for a single woman in 1945, and was broadcasting on the radio three nights each week. She was very much in her element, if not the perfect band -- Mooney's orchestra was patterned after Glenn Miller's classic band, and she preferred swing (i.e., jazz) to sweet (i.e., pop) music. She also idolized Billie Holiday, and longed to work with a band like Duke Ellington's.
It was Billy Eckstine, after inviting her to sing with his band, who gave her the stage name Fran Warren, under which she subsequently became a star. Warren got her wish when saxman Charlie Barnet heard one of her broadcasts with Mooney's band and offered her a spot in his group, replacing Kay Starr. Warren loved her 18 months with Barnet's orchestra, but found their pace killing -- she was fired by choice, and moved on to a spot singing with Claude Thornhill's orchestra. The pivotal moment in her career came when their first record together, "A Sunday Kind of Love," became a huge hit and her signature tune. She made an impression on Thornhill as well, who later gave her a $5,000 bonus for the single.
Warren moved into a solo career, recording first with RCA Victor and then MGM. She also made her theatrical debut in the mid-'50s, in the cast of the musical The Pajama Game. She later played the title role in Mame, and toured with the Harry James Orchestra in the mid-'60s. She remained a successful vocalist for 50 years, and continued to perform into the late '90s. Fran Warren died at home in Brookfield, Connecticut on her 87th birthday, March 4, 2013. ~ Bruce Eder
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