Helen Ward, 81, who at age 17 made her professional singing debut as vocalist with the swing band of an aspiring young musician named Benny Goodman, died of heart ailments April 21 at Vencor Hospital in Arlington.
Ms. Ward was a New York high school student who had done some singing with bands led by the likes of Eddie Duchin and Enric Madriguera when a friend suggested in the fall of 1934 that she audition for Goodman. "I know this fantastic clarinetist, and he's looking for a girl singer," Ms. Ward recalled her friend as saying.
"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. I think it was the glasses," Ms. Ward recalled in a 1982 interview.
For six months in the fall of 1934 and spring of 1935, Ms. Ward was Goodman's vocalist on a three-hour NBC radio program, "Let's Dance," which was broadcast coast to coast.
Her signature song was "Goody, Goody," but hers was also the voice in such classic Goodman big-band songs as "You're the Top," "All My Life" and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do."
In the spring of 1935, she made a cross-country tour with Goodman's band, stopping for one- and two-night performances along the way. "It was not easy," Ms. Ward recalled. "There were 13 men, and I made 14. We traveled by bus and train and sometimes in our own cars. They paid us 2 cents a mile on the road. . . . Benny went hungry a lot of the time. We laid a terrible egg in Denver on the way West. It was dreadful. Benny was ready to break up the band."
But eventually the Goodman band made it to California, and in the process they ascended the entertainment summit. In Oakland, they played in the Palomar Ballroom to crowds so huge that it took mounted police to maintain order. In 1935, Ms. Ward left the Goodman orchestra to get married, but she returned for periodic engagements on radio and in motion pictures during the next several years.
She sang with Harry James and others from time to time, and she appeared at the Rainbow Room in New York and at the Waldorf Astoria's Starlight Room. For a period in 1939, she rejoined the Goodman orchestra for radio's "Camel Caravan." Over the years, she made dozens of recordings, including "Embraceable You" and "Come Rain or Come Shine." Ms. Ward's dark brown eyes were said to have been the inspiration for Johnny Mercer's "Jeepers Creepers," which she also recorded.
Ms. Ward, a native of New York, grew up in a musical family and learned to play piano as a child. Not until she was in high school did she think of singing professionally. "There were not many female singers in those days, so it was pretty wide open for me. . . . But I had to develop my own style," she said.
In 1970, Ms. Ward relocated to the Washington area and since then had lived in Falls Church. She sang at Blues Alley in Georgetown and at the Shoreham Hotel. In 1979, she recorded the Helen Ward Songbook, and more recently a new album, "Let's Dance."
Her marriage to Albert Marx ended in divorce in 1940, and their daughter, Peggy Ann Marx, died in September 1997.
Two other husbands, Daniel Murphy and Walter Newton, predeceased her. Survivors include her husband, Bill Savory of Falls Church.