Because I am no longer an active performer, I rely on these gifted and discerning writers to keep me informed and curious about new, innovative musicians and singers. Most of the time, I am disappointed by the latter, and somewhat befuddled by the former, many of whom are prime examples of a famous Jimmy Rowles put-down: "He plays as if he's getting paid by the note." I am a devoted fan of be-bop in the style of Phil Woods or Bill Charlap or Sonny Rollins, and jazz singers who deliver uncomplicated, preferably scat-free renditions.
My introduction to the great popular and jazz vocalists of the day came to me via the air-waves, and a blessed gift it was. (Please read this previous post) Some of the singers were members of an elite group of men and women who sat at the corner of the band stand, dressed in formal attire, smiling at the dancing couples fox-trotting past, while awaiting their turn to sing one or more songs.
The girl vocalists were adorable, fresh and perky (as Variety often described them) as well as accomplished vocalists: Martha Tilton, Peggy Lee, Helen O'Connell, June Christy, Connie Boswell, to name a precious few. The men were good-looking too with strong, clear voices that appealed to the ladies: Dick Haymes, Billy Eckstine, Johnny Desmond, Ray Eberly and of course, Frank Sinatra. It was a standard format for any of the big bands of the day. But they had voices, and had been hired because the band leader knew they could sing any melody, no matter how demanding. And because they usually sang the songs with strict adherence to melody and tempo as specified on the lead sheet, composers loved them.
In the late 1940's, with the decline of big-band popularity, small, improvisational jazz groups became the rage, and singers with jazz chops flourished as well. The rarified era of jazz vocals began with the emergence of Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, the original Fab Four. Golden voices, and golden sounds of cash registers ringing up huge revenues from the sale of recordings made by these exceptional talents. They set the standards so many hoped to emulate. The effort was made, but only a rare few even came close. And no, I won't name names. The singers who most impressed me impressed ME, and when I listen to their recorded legacies, I am still in awe. No one singer was The Best or The Greatest because in art, there can be no such distinction.
While thumbing through an issue of SAVEUR dated December, 1997, I found a small item titled "Ella Cooked". It tells of the donation of her cook book collection to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, MA. It is not an outstanding or remarkable collection and some seem never to have been opened. However, there are a quite a few which are well-thumbed and annotated.
Recipes were given check marks, one check = "not a big hit", some with four checks, and a concoction found in a slim 1950's hard-cover on "the world's choicest vintages and spirits": a drink called Goddess of Love Cocktail (3/4 jigger Pernod, 1/4 jigger Anisette) on which was bestowed an unprecedented five checks.
I once asked her if she liked to cook, to which she mumbled a half-hearted "Um ... yeah ... sometimes". I should clarify that at that moment I was a passenger in the jump seat of the limo driving her from the hotel to the concert venue. She and her maid/travelling companion had been at swords' point all day, and Pete Cavallo, Ella's road manager, asked me to come along as a sort of deterrent to further heated debate. The ladies sat in tight-lipped silence during the journey. I don't think my presence meant much, but at least the steam seemed to subside. Not a good idea for The First Lady Of Song to try to sing with her blood pressure on the boil.
Pet Peeve: Singers caught up in themselves
Example: I once heard a particularly windy version of "What Kind of Fool Am I" sung by a male singer famous not only for his voice but for his dancing, sense of humor, and boundless energy. The ending was a blow-out of shouted emotion delivered at gale force ferocity, ultimately crashing into the wall with this memorable mangle:
(Orchestra, loudly, strings swelling ....)
"And maybe then I'll know ....
What kind of fool .... (drums building tension)
EYE - YAAAAAAAAAMMM"
May you all have a great Thanksgiving surrounded by family and friends.