b. 22 July 1915, Lawton, Oklahoma, USA, d. 29 November 1997, Santa Monica, California, USA. Leonard’s father was an actor and her mother a multi-instrumentalist and dancer and she herself first went onto the stage at the age of three. She learned to play the piano and the cello but neither instrument well enough to work professionally. When she grew up, she became a stripper in Chicago. In reality, like the famous Gypsy Rose Lee, Leonard never actually disrobed. Just a hat, a glove, a discreet scarf; yet, somehow, she left audiences thinking they had seen more than they had. Leonard’s ambitions, however, lay in other directions; she wanted to lead an all-male band. In 1939, while appearing in a show with the all-female band led by Rita Rio, Leonard decided that she could do everything that the leader did, but better, and on her return to Chicago in the autumn of 1940 she made her intentions known. Fortuitously, an all-female band was in rehearsal and needed a front woman. The musicians, serious artists, were appalled at the idea of being fronted by a burlesque queen but three of them, led by trumpeter Jane Sager, went to see Leonard’s act and realized that she had what they needed most in a leader ? class. Coached by Sager, Leonard proved to be a fast study and, overcoming the prejudices of the rest of the band, Ada Leonard’s All-American Girls opened to rave reviews and packed houses.
Perhaps audiences were attracted at first for all the wrong reasons, and maybe early reviewers were misled by fervid imaginations, but very soon the band was succeeding on merit. These women showed that they were not only serious about their music, they were also very good at it. In November 1941 the band began touring military bases for the USO and when, a few weeks later, the USA entered World War II, the band’s stock rose even more rapidly. Gradually switching their repertoire from the rather sedate approach they had originally adopted into that of a good swing band, they played a potent mix of popular songs of the day and swing era favourites. Among the arrangers they used was Gene Gifford. Apart from the exceptionally talented Sager, other musicians who played with the band included tenor saxophonist Ethel Kirkpatrick, drummer Fagle Liebman, alto saxophonist Roz Cron, and trumpeters Norma Carson and Fran Shirley. Leonard, who was an astute and determined businesswoman, proved to be very loyal to the musicians who helped her achieve her remarkable status in 40s and early 50s showbusiness, vigorously battling with less than scrupulous management and promoters when the need arose. She continued to lead the band into the middle of the 50s, although by then it was a smaller unit and its repertoire had reverted to the sedate.
From 1952-54, she hosted her own television show, which featured the band, and then retired. This retirement lasted only a few months before she was back, at last achieving her long-held ambition and leading an all-male band. Leonard’s success story is all the more remarkable given that she was not a musician herself and much credit is owed to the musicians in the band. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that had she never become their leader, the band would very probably have sunk without trace. The mutual respect they had was indicated by Leonard in an interview with jazz writer/historian Sherrie Tucker, in Swing Shift: ‘All-Girl’ Bands Of The 1940s. Recalling how the now-grey-haired girls from the band threw her a surprise party in 1992, Leonard said, ‘They’re the closest thing to children that I ever had.’ In a small but important, and still overlooked area of popular music, the all-female bands of the 40s, Ada Leonard’s All-American Girls hold a significant place.