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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published November 23 2013

Did You Know That: ND native Mary Osborne made musical history

For two decades, the 1940s and 1950s, the best female jazz guitarist in the nation was a North Dakota native.

Mary Osborne, who grew up in Minot and Bismarck, was the first woman in the country to play the electric guitar professionally. She began touring with the Winifred McDonnell Trio in 1938, and throughout the 1940s was in great demand, singing and playing with many big bands.

She performed and often recorded with Mel Torme, Louis Armstrong, the Andrews Sisters, Ethel Waters, the Ames Brothers, Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins and a host of many of the most popular musical artists of the time. She also formed her own group, the Mary Osborne Trio.

Osborne also had a superb singing voice. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, her music was heard daily on radio, and she was a frequent guest on Arthur Godfrey’s popular television show.

In early 1939, the Winifred McDonnell Trio, featuring Osborne as a singer, guitarist and double bass player, had its own radio show on KDKA in Pittsburgh. That spring, the trio went on tour. While playing in St. Louis, their performance was attended by actor-turned-bandleader Buddy Rogers. According to Osborne, “he liked us so much he hired us.” They joined Rogers on June 1 and debuted at the Victor Hugo Restaurant in Hollywood.

In July 1939, the band was performing in New York City when Rogers received word that he was needed back in Hollywood because RKO studios wanted him to take over the romantic lead in a trio of “Mexican Spitfire” movies. With Rogers gone, Osborne and the other two members of the trio decided to leave the band.

While in New York, the three girls stayed at Hotel Piccadilly, known as the “Toast of the Theater District.” When management learned that the Winifred McDonnell Trio had left the Rogers band, they were booked at the hotel. Also staying at the Piccadilly were members of the Dick Stabile band, which included trumpet player Ralph Scaffidi.

Scaffidi was introduced to Osborne and immediately “was taken with her looks and demeanor.” He asked her for a date, and she accepted. Scaffidi introduced her to Stabile, and the band leader “eagerly hired Osborne.”

When Stabile didn’t make her a feature act, Osborne joined an all-girl band headed by Jean Wald that was leaving for Florida. Osborne missed her friends and new boyfriend, and returned to New York, where Scaffidi helped her find gigs with a number of bandleaders. She played with the Bob Chester band for prom night at Columbia University, sharing the billing with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, which featured her friend and mentor, Charlie Christian.

In 1941, Osborne was hired to play every Saturday at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem. This allowed her to gain exposure with the jazz greats who frequented the Playhouse, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Ben Webster. Several of them asked Osborne to join them on gigs and/or recordings.

Scaffidi worked with jazz violinist Joe Venuti in 1942. Venuti and his jazz guitar-playing partner Eddie Lang were popular in the early 1930s. This ended in 1933 when Lang died. Venuti tried many different guitarists. Scaffidi recommended Osborne, and after she auditioned, Venuti realized he had found the guitarist he was looking for. Famed columnist Walter Winchell wrote, “Venuti had finally found a worthy replacement for his deceased partner.” The partnership was short-lived because Venuti took his show on the road and Osborne refused to leave New York.

Osborne and Scaffidi were married in late 1942, and the new groom enlisted in the Navy. He was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Base in Chicago, where he served in the entertainment corps. His wife followed him to the “Windy City” and was soon performing with bands fronted by Russ Morgan and Stuff Smith. In 1944, she made her first known recordings with Smith’s band and also was with Morgan when he debuted the song he co-composed, “You’re Nobody ’Til Somebody Loves You.”

Osborne received her greatest exposure on Jan. 17, 1945, when she was invited to participate in the second Esquire magazine All-Star Concert in New Orleans. The concert had a national radio network hookup and featured Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Louis Prima, Red Norvo, and Jack Benny. At the concert, “(Osborne) sang ‘Embraceable You,’ played a killer version of ‘Rose Room,’ ” and featured her own adaptation of “Tin Roof Blues.” Osborne was now considered one of the elite jazz artists.

Following Scaffidi’s discharge, the married couple returned to New York. In 1947, she formed her own group, the Mary Osborne Trio, and by early 1948 had her own network radio show on NBC.

On May 18, 1949, Osborne made her national television debut, appearing as a guest on Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts.” From 1952 to 1960, Osborne performed daily on “The Jack Sterling Show” on CBS, singing and playing the guitar.

With her husband and three children, Osborne moved to Bakersfield, Calif., in July 1968. Scaffidi, with two partners, founded Rosac Electronics, a company that made amplifiers and public address components. Because of stiff competition, the company folded. He then established the Osborne Guitar Co. to build solid-body electric guitars and basses, but he couldn’t compete with Fender. He then focused on electronics and renamed the company Osborne Sound Laboratories. A fire on Sept. 27, 1975, destroyed much of the inventory. The company closed in 1980.

Osborne died March 4, 1992.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by

Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments

or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.