Thelma Carpenter

Photo of Thelma Carpenter

Vocalist Thelma Carpenter sang with several name bands during the swing era but is probably best remembered for her acting work of the 1970s. Carpenter began performing at an early age, appearing on New York radio as a child. During her teen years, she worked in local nightclubs and in 1938 won an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater, attracting the attention of jazz philanthropist John Hammond, who connected her with other more well-known artists.

Carpenter spent time with Jack Jenney’s first band before becoming part of Teddy Wilson’s new orchestra in 1939. By October, though, she had left Wilson under what she called “very unpleasant circumstances.” She then joined Coleman Hawkins’s nine-piece jam outfit, debuting with it on October 5 at Kelly’s Stables, one of New York’s top jazz clubs, where it settled in for a long run. The outfit recorded on Bluebird.

Carpenter remained with Hawkins until early 1942 when she left the band to begin her own long solo run at Kelly’s Stables. As part of her agreement with the operators of the night club, George Lynch and Ralph Watkins, she would owe them 35% of her future earnings in exchange for their support and buildup. In late 1942, however, she gave up on her solo career and joined Count Basie.[1] She left Basie briefly in September 1943 in another attempt to go solo but returned in November, remaining with the band until January 1945.

Post-Band Years

Striking out on her own once again after leaving Basie, Carpenter became a fixture on the New York club scene. She recorded with the Herman Chittison Trio on Musicraft in early 1945 and then opened on Broadway in the short-lived musical Memphis Bound in May. In September, she performed at the Cavalcade of Jazz concert in Los Angeles, which drew an attendance of 10,000. She also signed with the Majestic label that year, where she recorded until 1947.

In September 1945, Carpenter became the featured female vocalist on Eddie Cantor’s radio show. While Cantor was hailed as a champion of racial equality when he hired her, Carpenter found the reality to be much different. Cantor never gave her enough time to fully sing a number, often rushing her through a song in 45 seconds. The writers also had trouble working her into scripts, and when they did it was at Carpenter’s expense. She refused to do race comedy, however, and Cantor dropped her from the show after her 26-week contract expired. In her place, he hired a 14-year-old white girl, whom he gave ample time for singing and bragged he was going to build her into a star, further souring Carpenter’s experience with the show. After Carpenter publicly aired her gripes, Cantor apologize and blamed his writers, saying that he didn’t approve of her treatment and didn’t want her to leave the show but his writers and program staff had pushed him to release her. Cantor’s wife invited Carpenter to their house for dinner as a gesture of apology.

In 1946, Carpenter’s four-year-old contract with the operators of Kelly’s Stables came back to bite her. She had previously renegotiated the contract down to 9% of her earnings plus $1,200 cash. She had paid part of that amount but not all, and early in 1946 Lynch slapped her with an attachment for non-fulfillment, claiming she owed him $4,500. In mid-1946, after she scheduled a club date at the Apollo, Lynch tried to attach her salary but found that the Apollo’s manager had paid Carpenter cash in advance, saying Carpenter was an old friend and was in need of financial help as she hadn’t worked a club date in eight months. Lynch also notified Majestic Records of the attachment.

Carpenter appeared on Teddy Wilson’s CBS radio show Night Life in mid-1946. She was fully back on the club circuit by late that year, touring across the country in 1947 and finishing up the year with dates in London and Paris. Carpenter continued strong into 1948, signing to the Columbia label that year. In April 1948, she opened in the Broadway musical revue Inside U.S.A., which ran until February 1949. In late 1948, she made an appearance on Eddie Condon’s WPIX Floor Show program, the first jazz-oriented show on New York television. She made a screen test for 20th Century Fox in 1949.

Later Years

The 1950s saw Carpenter continue strong, performing at top spots and making more guest appearances on television and earning her own NBC radio program. In 1952, she appeared in the short-lived revival of Shuffle Along.[2] She toured Europe in 1954 and performed in the 1955 Broadway musical comedy Ankles Aweigh.

In late 1960, Carpenter signed with Strand Records. By 1966, though, she was no longer getting work as a singer. Finding herself broke, she went to an employment agency and took a job as file clerk at Mott’s, the applesauce company, where she stayed for three years. Determined to work her way back into show business, in November 1969 she landed the role of Pearl Bailey’s understudy in the all-black touring version of Hello, Dolly, launching an acting career that came to include an appearance in the 1978 hit musical film The Wiz. She also starred in the 1977 tour of the musical Pippin. Carpenter appeared on several television programs during the 1970s and 1980s, including the Love Boat. She played her last small screen role in 1996.

Thelma Carpenter passed away in 1997, age 77, the result of a heart attack. She never married.


  1. Lynch and Watkins’ buildup seemed to have done little for Carpenter’s career. In August 1942, Down Beat magazine asked her whereabouts in their regular “Where Is?” column. They must have gotten an answer, as they reviewed her show at Kelly’s Stables in October. ↩︎

  2. The show apparently ran for only four days. ↩︎


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. “Thelma Carpenter.” IMdB. Accessed 23 Dec. 2022.
  3. “Thelma Carpenter.” Internet Broadway Database. Accessed 23 Dec. 2022.
  4. “Hawkins Gets 9-Piece Jam Outfit Going.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1939: 5.
  5. “Record Reviews: Coleman Hawkins.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1939: 14.
  6. “Where Is?” Down Beat 15 Aug. 1942: 9.
  7. “Single Slants: Thelma Carpenter.” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1942: 20.
  8. “Chicago Band Briefs.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1942: 4.
  9. “Vaudeville Reviews: Paradise, Detroit.” Billboard 27 Mar. 1943: 16.
  10. “Vaudeville Reviews: Orpheum, Los Angeles.” Billboard 5 Jun. 1943: 16.
  11. “Thelma Carpenter to Single.” Billboard 25 Sep. 1943: 14.
  12. “On the Stand: Count Basie.” Billboard 20 Nov. 1943: 15.
  13. “On the Stand: Count Basie.” Billboard 15 Apr. 1944: 27.
  14. “Vaudeville Reviews: Orpheum, Los Angeles.” Billboard 12 Aug. 1944: 25.
  15. “In Short.” Billboard 13 Jan. 1945: 26.
  16. “Basie Angling For Fem Chirp.” Down Beat 15 Jan. 1945: 14.
  17. “On the Stand: Count Basie.” Billboard 20 Jan. 1945: 18.
  18. “Single Slants.” Down Beat 1 Apr. 1945: 14.
  19. “Record Reviews.” Billboard 26 May 1945: 74.
  20. “Broadway Opening: Memphis Bound.” Billboard 2 Jun. 1945: 34.
  21. “Summer Heat Still Testing Net Shows.” Billboard 15 Sep. 1945: 10.
  22. “Thelma Carpenter Added to Cantor's Radio Show.” The Afro-American [Baltimore, MD] 13 Oct. 1945: 22.
  23. “Coast Jazz Concert Pulls Huge Attendance.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1945: 7.
  24. “Leonard Sues Buildup.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1945: 11.
  25. “Record Reviews.” Billboard 10 Nov. 1945: 31.
  26. “Singer Slapped With Attachment In Contract Fight.” Down Beat 22 Apr. 1946: 3.
  27. “Jazz Airer Hits 4th-Week Mark.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1946: 20.
  28. “Thelma Beats Her Creditor To Cash.” Down Beat 29 Jul. 1946: 14.
  29. “New Bands Start in Philly.” Down Beat 23 Sep. 1946: 13.
  30. “Night Club Reviews: Zanzibar, New York.” Billboard 5 Oct. 1946: 36.
  31. “Thelma Carpenter & Star Band Wax For Majestic.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1946: 2.
  32. “Script Reference to Color Irks Thelma Carpenter Fan.” The Afro-American [Baltimore, MD] 26 Jan. 1946: 10.
  33. “Thelma Carpenter Tells Why Cantor Show Dropped Her.” The Afro-American [Baltimore, MD] 13 Apr. 1946: 8.
  34. Matthews, Ralph. “Behind the Scenes: Thelma vs. Eddie.” The Afro-American [Baltimore, MD] 10 Aug. 1946: 3.
  35. “Vaudeville Reviews: Loew's State.” Billboard 25 Jan. 1947: 35.
  36. “Night Club Reviews: Zanzibar, New York.” Billboard 12 Apr. 1947: 41.
  37. “New Zanzibar Talent.” Down Beat 23 Apr. 1947: 15.
  38. “Vaudeville Reviews: Loew's State.” Billboard 30 Aug. 1947: 40.
  39. “In Short.” Billboard 13 Sep. 1947: 45.
  40. “Capital Has Fair Run of Name Bands.” Down Beat 3 Dec. 1947: 7.
  41. “Broadway Opening: Inside U.S.A.” Billboard 8 May 1948: 4.
  42. “Condon Gang Premiers Good Jazz Show On TV.” Down Beat 6 Oct. 1948: 20.
  43. “Record Reviews.” Billboard 9 Oct. 1948: 104.
  44. “Follow-Up Reviews: Le Reuban Bleu, New York.” Billboard 6 Nov. 1948: 49.
  45. “Vaudeville Reviews: Capitol, New York.” Billboard 9 Jul. 1949: 42.
  46. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 23 Sep. 1949: 5.
  47. Harris, Pat. “Chicago Band Briefs.” Down Beat 7 Oct. 1949: 4.
  48. “Vaudeville Reviews: Capitol, New York.” Billboard 15 Jul. 1950: 18.
  49. “Record Reviews: Thelma Carpenter.” Down Beat 11 Aug. 1950: 15.
  50. “Night Club-Vaude Reviews: Strand, New York.” Billboard 12 May 1951: 37.
  51. “Caught in the Act: Thelma Carpenter.” Down Beat 6 Apr. 1951: 9.
  52. “From the Top.” Billboard 29 Sep. 1951: 15.
  53. “Caught Again: Beachcomber Club, Miami Beach.” Billboard 8 Mar. 1952: 13.
  54. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 7 Oct. 1953: 20.
  55. “Capsule Comments: Thelma Carpenter, Brass Rail, Chicago.” Down Beat 2 Jun. 1954: 2.
  56. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 14 Jul. 1954: 28.
  57. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 28 Dec. 1955: 5.
  58. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 10 Nov. 1960: 10.
  59. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 5 Jan. 1961: 46.
  60. “Thelma Carpenter, She Once Climbed to the Top and Might Do It Again.” The Virgin Islands Daily News 10 Feb. 1969: 10.
  61. “From the Jazz Circuit to 'Barefoot in the Park.'” The Milwaukee Journal 13 Oct. 1970: Green Sheet, 1.
  62. “United States Social Security Death Index,” database, FamilySearch ( : 7 January 2021), Thelma Carpenter, 14 May 1997; citing U.S. Social Security Administration, Death Master File, database (Alexandria, Virginia: National Technical Information Service, ongoing).