Obituaries

Connie Haines; Popular Big-Band Era Singer

Connie Haines and Frank Sinatra sang together on a string of hits, and she credited him with saving her life after her dress caught fire at Madison Square Garden.
Connie Haines and Frank Sinatra sang together on a string of hits, and she credited him with saving her life after her dress caught fire at Madison Square Garden. (Courtesy Of Roseanne De Marco)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2008

Connie Haines, a vivacious singer who achieved her greatest fame with Tommy Dorsey's big band in the early 1940s and who was forever grateful to Frank Sinatra for saving her life after her dress caught fire at Madison Square Garden, died Sept. 22 at her home in Clearwater Beach, Fla.

She was 87 and had myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disorder that makes swallowing difficult.

Ms. Haines had an alluring down-home quality to her vocals, and a slight drawl reminiscent of her native Georgia. New York Times jazz critic John Wilson once complimented her on her "bright-eyed, bubbling vitality," and Rob Bamberger, who hosts "Hot Jazz Saturday Night" on WAMU-FM, noted that while "she was not exactly the girl next door, she was the girl you hoped would move in next door."

She was a child star at supper clubs and on radio before joining trumpeter Harry James's big band in 1938. She and James's male vocalist, Sinatra, spent about a year in the financially troubled outfit before being recruited to the popular Dorsey band, then at its peak.

She and Sinatra dueted on a string of Dorsey hits, including "Oh! Look at Me Now" in 1941, followed by "I'll Never Smile Again" and "Snootie Little Cutie."

Sinatra enjoyed ribbing his co-star with gently sarcastic asides in mid-song, notably in the standard "Let's Get Away From It All." As Ms. Haines rendered the lyric, "We'll spend a weekend in Dixie. I'll get a real Southern drawl," Sinatra was heard to add, "Another one?"

Ms. Haines recalled Sinatra fondly, despite what she called his "healthy ego." She described how he saved her life during a performance one night at Madison Square Garden, when a smoker in a balcony seat tossed a match that struck her ruffled tulle dress.

The dress ignited, and Sinatra threw his coat over her to extinguish the flames.

"I marched right on stage with no back on my dress, and the boys in the band are going, "Oh!' But I wasn't bare," she told the Tampa Tribune. "I had on a tight little black slip."

In her three years with Dorsey, Ms. Haines made several solo recordings, and she bristled a little when Jo Stafford, who died in July, was recalled as Dorsey's "girl vocalist" during the time Ms. Haines was with the band. Ms. Haines would remind people that Stafford arrived in the band as a member of the Pied Pipers when Ms. Haines was the featured vocalist. Stafford emerged as a soloist later.

As a freelance singer, Ms. Haines was a fixture on radio programs and early television and appeared in several Hollywood musicals, including the Esther Williams musical "Duchess of Idaho" (1950).

Ms. Haines formed a gospel quartet in 1954 with actresses Jane Russell and Rhonda Fleming and British-born singer Beryl Davis. They achieved a hit in their first year with "Do Lord" and continued to tour and record for decades.


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