Girl Bands in World War II Girl Bands are not a new phenomena. Long before Girls Aloud, The Spice Girls, or even The Supremes there were girl bands of quite a different sort. During World War II Girl Bands took over when the boys joined up. But it was a time when prejudice against women performing was still quite strong. Many people thought it wasn’t quite proper for women to blow into a trumpet or make a sax sing.
There was a wonderful movie called The Last of the Blond Bombshells, featuring Judy Dench. It’s the story of a widow who was obliged to confine her sax playing to the attic while her husband was alive, but on his death decides to follow her passion and start her own band. I loved this film, and the idea inspired me to write my own story about a girl band, set in Manchester during the war.
Dancing on Deansgate is about Jess Delaney, a young girl who loves music and discovers she has a talent, thanks to a Salvation Army sergeant who teaches her to play the trumpet. Despite an abusive uncle and a feckless mother, and with her beloved father away fighting in the war, she decides to make something of her life.
But Jess doesn’t find it easy to get the band underway. Band leaders and ballroom managers frequently accused them of not being able to withstand the physical hardships of long hours of playing.
‘Women don’t have the stamina that men have,’ said one.
‘Limited scope,’ said another.
‘Women are long on looks but short on talent.’
‘We aren’t in the business of employing young ladies who think it might be fun to show off on stage, however charming and genteel they might be.’
This attitude incensed Jess and she would tell them in no uncertain terms that her girls could play In the Mood every bit as well as they could play Greensleeves.
One manager had the gall to say that women had no real sense of rhythm in a jam session, as they were hopeless at improvising.
Another, trying to be conciliatory, remarked, ‘I see why you ladies are offering to step in, with all the men having been conscripted for service and bands desperate for decent musicians. But we’re looking for professionals, not amateurs. We need the best.’
Outraged, Jess’s response was sharp. ‘We are the best, and how can we ever get to be professional if we’re never given the chance.’
A shake of the head. ‘Women aren’t made to sit on a stage and blow their brains out.’
‘We could blow the men right off it.’
As well as proving they were skilled musicians, they were also expected to look feminine, but a glamorous look brought its own problems. Slinky gowns, together with sexy swing music, could bring about unwelcome invitations.
‘Once, at a function for naval officers on board a destroyer, Jess felt able to soothe the girls’ nerves by reminding them that these were a class above the ordinary enlisted men so there would surely be a bit more decorum. She was delighted when not only did they play terrific music that night, but looked pretty good too in new slinky gowns of gold sateen. Perhaps too good, for afterwards the Chief Petty Officer came round and invited them to ‘come and mingle, so they could have a drink with the boys.’
‘I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,’ Jess said, glancing quickly around at the others to make sure they agreed with her. She could see at once that they did, perhaps with the exception of Ena, who was already giving the Chief Petty Officer the glad eye. How that girl ever imagined she could survive in a nunnery, Jess couldn’t imagine.
‘Come on now girls, be fair. You’ve got to be nice to the lads. They enjoy spending time with a pretty woman. A bit of fraternising does no harm at all. They deserve it.’
‘What, exactly are you suggesting?’ Adele asked, dark eyes narrowing to a dangerous slit.
‘Why do you think we invited you, and not a men’s band? Some of these guys might not see a woman again for months, if at all. Do them a favour, girls. Be generous. You know that’s what is expected. Why else would you have accepted the invitation?’
Lulu poked him in the chest with her sharply pointed, fuchsia tipped finger and pushed him backwards out the door. ‘Sod off, you nasty little man. We’re musicians, not tarts!’
They were very careful which bookings they took after that. Enlisted men, they discovered, were in fact far more respectful than the officers, certainly in their experience.’
They called it the Christmas Blitz, but there are no festivities for Jess, locked in the cellar by her feckless, tarty mother. And when Lizzie is imprisoned for shoplifting, Jess is sent to live with her uncle, a bullying black marketeer, who treats her like a slave.
Jess's natural musical talent offers an escape route - and the chance for love. But Uncle Bernie has never forgiven his niece for refusing to join his illegal schemes, and threatens to deprive Jess of her hard-won independence.
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