Longtime BR resident Bonnie Clarke spent several years touring the country as a lead vocalist with big bands
By CAROL ANNE BLITZER
Advocate staff writer
October 09, 2012
Bonnie Clarke is a peppy octogenarian, a devout Christian, a devoted mother and grandmother, and a woman with a past. In the 1930s and ’40s, she was Jean Cromwell, a professional singer who traveled with some of the country’s most famous bands and was a lead female soloist for the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra.
At the end of World War II, she gave it all up to get married. For more than 60 years, she and her family have lived in Baton Rouge. “I would rather be in Baton Rouge,” she said.
Clarke was born Ellis Lavona Cromwell, the third of four daughters in a strict Christian family in Memphis, Tenn. They went to church three times a week.
“Daddy was in a barbershop quartet and did all this barbershop stuff,” she said. “I learned harmony early. We were always put on to sing.”
When she was 8, she and her two older sisters, Clara and Violet, had their own show on Memphis radio singing three-part harmony early every morning. They were known as the Cromwell Sisters.
“Every day we sang, I would always be late for school,” Clarke said. “We had to go 15 miles back to school in the storms and snow. After school, we didn’t go home. We went to rehearsal.”
When she was 12, someone sent a recording of the trio to Bob Crosby, Bing Crosby’s brother who had a well-known orchestra that toured the country.
“We were 12, 14 and 16, but from the recording, he thought we were grown,” she said. “He sent for us to join the band. I had never been out of town, and I didn’t want to go, but my sisters talked me into it.”
The three girls rode the train to Pittsburgh. When Crosby saw the youngsters, he was shocked.
“He said, ‘You’re going to sing with us until the Child Labor Law comes and gets you off the stage,” Clarke said. Their stint with Crosby lasted two weeks until they were sent home, much to Clarke’s delight.
“I was so homesick,” she said. “Then we went home and had our radio show until I was 14.
Herbie Holmes, who was from Mississippi, had a famous band that played at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. “He heard us on the radio and wanted us to travel with his band,” said Clarke, who was reluctant to leave home again.
Holmes told the girls that he would let their parents travel with them and provide a tutor and dressmaker. “We sang in hotel dining rooms,” she said. “We sang in the Roosevelt dining room (in New Orleans). We sang in Denver at the big hotel.”
A column in the Milwaukee Journal for Jan. 8, 1940, describes the sisters, who were touring with Holmes, as “surprisingly good considering their ages” and calls Clarke’s “too few solos . . . sensational.”
Lawrence Welk heard the trio sing, and it went with his band for a while until Clarke’s oldest sister, Clara, fell in love with a violinist and wanted to get married. That was the end of the trio.
“I went back home and, at 17, thought my career was over,” Clarke said.
Even though she loved singing, Clarke decided to look for another type job. By this time, the United States had entered World War II.
Clarke was singing with a small band whose members worked at a factory 45 miles from Memphis making incendiary bombs for the military.
“They said you can ride with us, but you have to sing for your lunch,” she said. “Every day, the band played and I sang.”
One day, government inspectors arrived at the plant. “I asked them how they got that job,” Clarke said. The inspectors told her that they had to pass a math test to get into a special training program that lasted six months.
Clarke studied all summer for the math test. When she was halfway through the test, she turned in her test booklet. “I just stared at the pages. I had no earthly idea,” she said. “I couldn’t even finish the test.”
About a week later, she got a call. “They said you passed your test, and they are going to teach you to be an inspector,” she said with a laugh.
There were five women in her group. They learned how to take a motor apart and put it back together. “We learned that if there was one crack in those planes, they would crash,” she said.
When the type plane Clarke was trained to inspect changed, she found herself looking for another job. “My sister Clara, who was living in New York, said ‘Why don’t you come up here. You can do commercials,” Clarke said. “So I took the train and went to New York.”
She had plenty of work making commercials. Then she heard that the lead singer for Jimmy Dorsey was pregnant and that Dorsey was looking for another female singer. Clarke asked around to find out how she could audition for the job.
“Somebody said you just get a piano player and make a tape and sing three songs — a fast song, a slow song and a blues song,” she said.
She did just that, recorded her songs and took her recording to Dorsey. There was a big stack of recordings when she dropped hers off, but in no time, she had been called back and was hired. She was 19.
Clarke was using the stage name Bonnie Cromwell because her sisters had always called her “Bony.” Dorsey told Clarke she would have to have another name because his brother, Tommy Dorsey, had a lead singer Bonnie Lou Williams. “I picked the name of the boy that I met in Memphis that I was writing to. He was in the paratroopers,” Clarke said. “His name was Gene, so my name became Jean Cromwell.”
One thing still worried Clarke. She learned that the men in the band traveled without their wives. “I told him, I can’t go on the road with 35 or 40 men,” she said.
So Dorsey agreed to hire a traveling companion for her.
Jimmy Dorsey’s band traveled on its own plane. Dorsey provided costumes and accommodations for the musicians, who played in some of the country’s biggest ballrooms.
Clarke traveled with the band for a year and a half. On a trip to Mission Beach, Calif., she suddenly heard all sorts of bells and horns. People were pouring outside into the streets. The war was over.
By that time, she was tired of traveling. “I didn’t want all that notoriety,” she said.
So she picked up and went home. The Gene, Gene Clarke, she had been writing to during the war came home, too. In 1946, they got married.
She was Jean, and he was Gene. “It got confusing,” she said. “People would call on the phone, and we didn’t know who they were calling for. So Gene said for me to go back to Bonnie.”
In Memphis, Clarke had her own television show and was singing with a quartet. When Jimmy Dorsey came through Memphis, he came on her show.
Then, in the late 1950s, the Clarkes moved to Baton Rouge for Gene Clarke’s job with Western-Winchester. Bonnie Clarke soon had a television show on Channel 2 called “The Midnight Movies.” “I had guests, and then the movies started, and there was a break, and then I sang,” she said.
Bonnie and Gene Clarke had four children . Her daughters, Christine Simmons, an interior decorator, and Cheryl Clarke, who just retired from teaching art, live nearby. Her son, Mark Clarke, is retired from the Navy and lives in Hawaii. Son Jimmy Clarke is involved in church music and lives in Walker. She has three grandchildren.
For all the years that her children were growing up, Bonnie Clarke remained involved in their activities and at First United Methodist Church, where she served as church secretary for eight years. For 20 years, she taught language development, first at Scotlandville Elementary School and then Dufrocq and University Terrace.
For 30 years, she sang with the Sweet Adelines and for a while served as choreographer and assistant director. She still meets some of the members of the group for a monthly lunch.
Gene and Bonnie Clarke had a long and happy marriage until his death 14 years ago. They spent every weekend in Grand Isle fishing at their camp. She still goes often with her daughters.
She swims three times a week, eats a healthy diet and enjoys her life. “I want to keep busy,” she said. “My friends say I never grew up.”
She loves First Methodist and seldom misses a Sunday. “It’s like going to the service station for gas,” she said “You need it to go through the week.”
Clarke sings with a group at St. James Place every Thursday. “They all sing in unison, but I sneak in a little harmony some time,” she said. “They are so much fun. They have had musical lives themselves.”
She also sings with a trio of friends. “In between operations, we get to sing,” she said.