WW AY BACK when the kings of swing walked the Earth W and radio reigned, a 17-year-old girl named Helen Ward got her singing start. Ward was the warm, stylish voice behind Benny Goodman's classic big-band songs like "You're the Top," "All My Life," "What a Little Moonlight Can Do." Her signature song was "Goody Goody."

But swingtime faded. Television took over and dance halls gave way to giant arenas. Helen Ward's records became collectors' items.

Now big band is big again. And Benny Goodman is in town for a tribute at the Shoreham tonight, and kicks off the Kool Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center tomorrow night.

"Of course I'm going to see Benny at the Shoreham this weekend," Ward says from her home in Falls Church, were she lives with her fifth husband, physicist William Savory. "I'll be backstage most of the time, I imagine. I have no idea whether I'll perform or not. One never knows, these things are so extemporaneous. But it's so nice to see old friends again."

Born in Harlem in 1917, Ward moved with her family to Westchester. "I was brought up in music, my dad was a wonderful piano player, and because of him I was a piano player, too--long before I ever dreamed of being a singer. I was always at the piano at every party surrounded by people, and I played at NYU also.

"There were not many female singers in those days. So it was pretty wide open for me. Of course, there was marvelous Mildred Bailey the first white female accepted in jazz and Lee Wiley; I just adored them both. But I had to develop my own style. I never believed in copying anybody. When you're on the road as much as we were, with such fantastic musicians, you just have to gain by the experience, you try new things," Ward says.

In addition to singing with orchestras fronted by the likes of Eddy Duchin and Enric Madriguera, Ward also did "an awful lot of radio work" before teaming up with Goodman. "I had my own commercial shows, for United Cigar and Ybry lipstick. That stuff is long extinct," Ward says with a laugh.

Pianist and family friend George Bassman, who wrote Tommy Dorsey's theme "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You," arranged for Ward's audition with Goodman in 1934. "George said to me, 'I know this fantastic clarinetist and he's looking for a girl singer' and took me to the NBC studios to meet him. And it turned out to be Benny. Oh, I adored him! I still do. He was about 26 then, and he looked 36. He always looked older and very dedicated. I think it was the glasses. I'm very proud of the fact that I sang for him."

In the spring of 1935, Goodman's orchestra made an exhausting cross-country tour, with plenty of one-night stands. "It was not easy, believe me," Ward remembers. "Benny went hungry a lot of times. There were 13 men and I made 14. We traveled by bus and train and sometimes in our own cars. They paid us two cents a mile on the road, but in 1935 gasoline was only 17 cents a gallon. I told the guys right from the word go that I was one of them, and if they were tired or dusty or hungry, just forget it.

"My mom in particular was beside herself--one girl and 13 fellows going on the road. Oh, it was the worst thing she could imagine. But my dad, being the musician he was, was on my side. But when we finally made it in New York at the Manhattan Room, our big New York debut, Mom and Dad had all their friends sitting there.

"One time stands out in my mind. We laid a terrible egg in Denver on the way West. It was dreadful. Benny was ready to break up the band. Sammy Kaye was playing across the way, and we would get three or four people a night. But Benny decided to go on. We got to the Palomar in Oakland, Calif., and there were mounted police on the sidewalks to keep the people back. It was just pandemonium. And Benny spotted this big poster that said 'Guy Lombardo,' and he said, 'That does it, we're here on the wrong night.' But imagine how it felt when we found out that crowd was for us."

"We used to go to nightspots on our nights off, and it was such a kick for me to put a nickel in the jukebox and there was 'Goody Goody' as big as life." So you lie awake just singin' the blues all night, goody goody So you think that love's a barrel of dynamite, goody goody Hooray and hallelujah You had it coming to ya Goody goody for her, goody goody for me And I hope you're satisfied You rascal you. Johnny Mercer (1935)

Ward left Goodman's orchestra in 1935 to get married, but returned to the swing scene sporadically, making radio appearances and popping up to sing with Harry James and others now and then. Her voice is still strong. In 1979, Ward recorded "The Helen Ward Songbook, Vol. 1," on the small Lyricon label, a well-received album of 15 standards, including "The Glory of Love," "Jeepers Creepers" and of course, "Goody Goody," with backing by some of New York's premiere jazz musicians, led by guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. "I didn't make it totally vocal, so the group could, as they say, wail," says Ward, who also sings occasionally at Manhattan's Rainbow Room and Marty's.

The resurgence of interest in the big-band sound is "only natural," Ward thinks. "Especially if you're young and don't remember that music. When you hear it, you fall in love with it," Ward says. She says she has been approached about writing a book on the big-band era, "the way it really was and not the way it's been painted and doctored up. I imagine people like Peggy Lee and Helen O'Connell and the others must get requests all the time, too.

"The University of Wyoming has been after me to donate all of my memorabilia--clippings, photos, records, labels and all the rest. Harry James just gave them all of his stuff. But I told them to just be patient, I'm not ready yet to part with all those memories."