Thursday, August 27, 2015

Vaughn De Leath, The Original Radio Girl of the 1920s

The other day I was looking through my record collection and found a compilation of Vaughn De Leath's best recordings from the second half of the 1920s, and that immediately seemed like the perfect excuse to take a look at the career of a remarkable singer who billed herself as "The Original Radio Girl" and who was one of the true radio (and television) pioneers. Anyone who enjoys the upbeat music of the so-called Roaring Twenties should give her very interesting recorded output a try.

While she may not have actually been the first singer to perform live over the airwaves, Vaughn De Leath most certainly was one of the first female vocalists to build up a following and a career through the new medium of radio starting in the early 1920s. In fact, though some sources differ as to the date of her first broadcast, in January 1920 she sang during an experimental program originating from the studio of inventor Lee DeForest in New York City, and she was so successful that just three years later, the magazine The Wireless Age ran an article about her that began as follows:

Thus far no one has come forward to dispute Vaughn De Leath's claim of being "the original radio girl." Probably no one will, for the letters she has from her invisible audience are dated months before radio entertainment became everybody's job. Her first radio appearance was in the early days of 1920, in the World Tower Station, New York City. Even then she sensed radio's impending popularity, and she stoutly defended the latest of arts and sciences against those who contended it would not last. (February 1923, page 27).

Though it may be a little bit of an exaggeration to call her a visionary, she definitely was a true pioneer, and in more ways than one, since several years after her first radio appearance, she was also featured in one of the earliest experimental television broadcasts. A native of Illinois, she had been born Leonore Vonderlieth on September 26, 1896, and her stage name was a modification of her German last name. One of the reasons why De Leath (the name is variously spelled "de Leath," "DeLeath," and "deLeath" depending on the sources) was so popular in the early days of radio is that her voice was perfectly suited to the delicate equipment in use at the time. She developed an attractive crooning style that pleased audiences everywhere and that also translated very well to phonograph records, both in the acoustic and electric eras. Her flair for uptempo numbers must have been a primary influence on contemporary female vocalists such as Annette Hanshaw and Ruth Etting. She occasionally recorded duets with other popular singers of the day, like Frank Harris, Franklyn Baur, and Ed Smalle, and was an accomplished songwriter who often played piano and ukulele on her own records and radio broadcasts.

DeLeath made a couple of fine records with popular bandleader Paul Whiteman

Her career as a recording artist began in 1920, several years before the advent of electrical recordings, with a cylinder she cut for the Edison company, and then she spent the 1920s and part of the 1930s making dozens of records for both major and small labels, in addition to her appearances on highly popular radio shows such as the Firestone Radio Hour and the Columbia Phonograph Hour. De Leath's jazz-inflected singing style was often accompanied by studio bands that included fine jazz musicians like Red Nichols, Eddie Lang, and Dick McDonough, among others, and she was the featured vocalist with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra on at least two sides: "The Man I Love" and "Button Up Your Overcoat." In between her radio and recording activities, De Leath occasionally found time to appear on the Broadway stage, starring in the 1923 production of David Belasco and Tom Cushing's Laugh, Clown, Laugh. One of her biggest hits of the 1920s was the Hawaiian-styled song "Ukulele Lady," written by Richard Whiting and Gus Kahn, and following the success of this disc, she sang on a record of "Ukelele Lessons" released by Victor in 1925.

De Leath's recording activities slowed down dramatically toward the beginning of the 1930s, perhaps because her singing style was becoming somewhat dated, and so she concentrated on any appearances she could secure on local radio, as well as on other business interests, such as running a radio station and even a night club. By the time of her death on May 28, 1943, she was living in Buffalo, New York, had made almost no new records in over a decade, and had become merely a memento of an earlier era. As a matter of fact, Vaughn De Leath is hardly remembered at all today, and there are not many CDs available that feature her old recordings. One of the best is the European import Vaughn De Leath: The First Lady of Radio (Delta Leisure Group, 2012), which includes 24 tracks cut between 1925 and 1929. The sound is good considering the age of the recordings, and besides "Ukelele Lady," we find De Leath's versions of standards such as the Nick Lucas-associated "Looking at the World (Through Rose-Colored Glasses)," "Sometimes I'm Happy," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "I Must Have That Man," and "I Wanna Be Loved by You" (she even scats briefly on this last one). The two sides with Whiteman are also thankfully here, as is her fine rendition of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's Show Boat classic "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." Unfortunately, the compilers did not see fit to include De Leath's very popular reading of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" (yes, the same song that Elvis Presley made into a big hit in 1960) but even so, the CD makes for a very interesting trip back in time and is an excellent introduction to De Leath's exciting, peppy singing style that, as much as anything else, embodies the spirit of the Jazz Age.

Clipping from The Wireless Age, February 1923

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Jones Brothers in 1958: Thad, Hank, and Elvin

In 1958, Leonard Feather produced a session for MGM that was subsequently released under the title of Keepin' Up with the Joneses, by a band that called itself The Jones Brothers. And who were these Jones Brothers? Although the cover of the LP does not offer much information, the three brothers were trumpeter Thad Jones, pianist Hank Jones, and drummer Elvin Jones, augmented by Eddie Jones on bass, who was not actually part of the Jones family. Though the three Jones siblings went on to have long-lasting careers in jazz, this album remains one of their most obscure, and at the time of this writing, its availability on CD is rather limited. It is, however, a unique and very interesting record that needs to be rediscovered, particularly since the three Jones brothers did not record together very often thereafter.

Elvin Jones
The fact that the cover does not list the names of the participants, simply making reference to their family ties, is a gimmick that must surely be attributed to Feather. The choice of material also seems to be mandated by yet another gimmick: as the cover reads, the band is "playing the music of Thad Jones and Isham Jones." While it does make sense that the album would include compositions by Thad Jones, who plays flugelhorn on the date, the three tunes by Isham Jones, a prolific songwriting bandleader of the 1920s and '30s, were most likely chosen due to Isham's last name. However, like Eddie Jones, Isham was not actually related to the three Jones brothers. In any case, one cannot argue with the selections by Isham Jones, all of them dependable standards written in partnership with either Gus Kahn or Marty Symes and included on the second side of the LP. "It Had to Be You" is actually one of the highlights, introduced by Thad on flugelhorn and featuring an outstanding lengthy piano solo by Hank, who lends support to Thad's horn playing throughout the whole performance. "On the Alamo" is taken at an agreeable, easy-swinging tempo and is clearly dominated by Hank's lyrical piano, whose magnificent solo lasts for about half the track before Thad even gets a chance to play his muted flugelhorn part. Another one of the most memorable moments on the album is the closer, "There Is No Greater Love," which becomes the perfect vehicle for an intimate dialogue between Thad and Hank.

Thad Jones
The rest of the selections are all Thad Jones originals, and accordingly, it is Thad's flugelhorn that is most often spotlighted, as in the case of the opener, "Nice and Nasty," built on a blues-tinged theme that lends itself easily to improvisation and even leaves some room for Eddie Jones to take a brief bass solo. The title track, "Keepin' Up with the Joneses," is based on a very catchy riff that is introduced by the trumpet and repeated by the piano; both Thad and Hank have ample room to shine here, and Hank shows his versatility by switching to organ halfway through the track. "Three and One" is another lovely mid-tempo melody by Thad whose title most likely makes reference to the fact that the session is a collaboration by three brothers and a fourth musician who is not actually a blood relative. Thad's flugelhorn sounds particularly low and understated on "Sput 'n' Jeff," which contrasts with Hank's quick, rippling piano runs. The brief dialogues between Elvin's unusually soft drumming and Eddie's rather quiet bass add freshness and interest to the track. All in all, this is a very appealing session that makes us wish that the three Jones brothers had made many more records together. It was reissued on CD back in 1999 and is still available here, but it is most definitely in need of a serious, updated reissue so that it may reach a wider audience than it has so far.

Hank Jones plays both piano and organ on this date

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Unsung Vocalists of the Past 6: Johnnie Johnston

For a brief spell in the 1940s, it seemed as though Missouri-born crooner Johnnie Johnston was destined for stardom, both as a singer and as an actor. As one of the first artists to be signed to Capitol, Johnston was selling records in respectable quantities and appearing in movies with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. A few questionable personal decisions and unfortunate career moves would eventually end it all, but the surviving recordings that Johnston made in the '40s and '50s amply showcase his talent and provide a good excuse to take a look at his short career.

Born in St. Louis in 1915 (he was just a few days older than Frank Sinatra, and so 2015 marks the centenary of his birth as well), Johnnie Johnston had a beautiful light baritone voice, which, together with his attractive looks, made him a natural to pursue a career as an entertainer. In the 1930s he began a short tenure as the vocalist with the sweet band of Art Kassel, but it was actually his radio and nightclub appearances that would make Hollywood and the record industry beckon. Therefore, Johnston—whose first name was occasionally spelled "Johnny"—soon found himself appearing in low-budget musicals such as Sweater Girl, Incendiary Blonde, and You Can't Ration Love. He was also cast in more important productions, notably Star-Spangled Rhythm, with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, and This Time for Keeps, alongside Esther Williams and Xavier Cugat. In time he would even appear in one of the first and most popular rock'n'roll movies, Rock Around the Clock (1956), but by then his star had pretty much waned.

In 1942, Johnston became one of the first artists to be signed to the fledgling Capitol Records label and scored hits with "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year," "(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings," and "One More Dream." In 1945, his version of the haunting David Raksin and Johnny Mercer song, "Laura" peaked at number 5 on the Billboard charts for five weeks, and suddenly it seemed that Johnston had come to stay. Being slated to sing a couple of songs in the star-studded 1946 Jerome Kern biopic, Till the Clouds Roll By, with Sinatra, Lena Horne, and Judy Garland, among many others, certainly could not hurt, but here is where the Johnston story starts going awry. After filming two medleys with his future wife, Kathryn Grayson, Johnston seems to have gotten into a serious row with studio mogul Louis B. Mayer, which ultimately led to the deletion of his scenes from the final cut of the movie. Just why this argument came about is unclear seventy years later; Edward Chase, who wrote the liner notes for the only CD release of Johnston's recordings currently available, describes it in rather vague terms:

Then, so the story has it, Louis B. Mayer came onto the set, where Johnston, perhaps carried away with his incipient success, proceeded in a jocular way, and with coarse language, to humiliate him. The upshot was that Mayer, unforgiving, summarily dismissed him from the film, and ordered the actor's two completed scenes to be deleted from the final cut.

It is unclear why a newcomer like Johnston would feel that it was a good idea to "humiliate" a powerful man like Mayer, but whatever actually happened that day on the set, this run-in with the studio boss definitely hurt Johnston's career. Not only was he cut from the movie, but his subsequent recordings for MGM after leaving Capitol did not sell well, and Johnston never recaptured the momentum he had gained with "Laura" and his previous hit records. In 1947, following their meeting on the set of Till the Clouds Roll By, Johnston and Kathryn Grayson married, but their marriage only lasted until 1951. That same year Johnston starred in the Broadway production A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a very promising show based on a novel by Betty Smith and with a score by none other than Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields. The show, however, was a flop from which Johnston's career would never recover, and other than his appearance in Rock Around the Clock, his work would be limited to occasional television spots and a few nightclub dates. According to his New York Times obituary, Johnston had come out of retirement very seldom (for instance, to perform at Capitol Records' fortieth-anniversary party), and by the time of his death in 1996 in Cape Coral, Florida, he had been married six times.

The only CD compilation of Johnston's recordings that is still readily available was released in 2007 by the British label Flare Records, and it features 24 of the best cuts he made for Capitol and MGM between 1944 and 1956. Though he is evidently influenced by Bing Crosby, he often sounds a little bit like a more mature Russ Columbo, which may actually indicate that he has been listening carefully to Frank Sinatra's early Columbia work of the period. This is particularly noticeable in his hit version of "Laura," which he sings in a softer, more understated tone than, say, Dick Haymes, who also recorded it around the same time. Unlike Crosby and Sinatra at that stage of their careers, Johnston used several different arrangers and conductors on these sessions, notably Paul Weston, Lennie Hayton, Sonny Burke, Carl Kress, and Lloyd Shaffer. Johnston did not always get to record first-rate songs, but besides the hits, there are quite a few gems here, including "Irresistible You," "There Must Be a Way," "Autumn Serenade" (memorably revived by Johnny Hartman on his album with John Coltrane), "Why Should I Cry Over You," "When You and I Were Seventeen," "As We Are Today," and "Melancholy Rhapsody."

One of the tunes from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, "I'll Buy You a Star," a little overdone in this Max Goberman arrangement, is also included, as is "I've Told Ev'ry Little Star / The Song Is You," the one surviving medley with Grayson from Till the Clouds Roll By (the other one they cut seems to have been damaged and lost forever). The CD closes with two songs from Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate ("So in Love" and "Wunderbar") that Johnston recorded with Grayson (by then already his ex-wife and the star of the film version of that Porter musical) In Los Angeles in 1956. In my opinion, the pairing of Johnston's baritone and Grayson's operatic voice does not blend very well, and in any case, a light operatic approach was never Johnston's forte. But, overall, there is a wealth of attractive material here that more often than not suits Johnston extremely well and shows that his legacy definitely deserves to be better appreciated that it is today.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Arranged by... Nelson Riddle: Rosemary Clooney's Rosie Solves the Swingin' Riddle!

After a two-week-long silence due to my having led a group of students from the University of Tennessee at Martin on a study-abroad trip to Europe, The Vintage Bandstand returns with the first installment in the new Arranged by... series of articles. These posts will concentrate on albums on which legendary arrangers have left an indelible mark. And for the first one we are taking a closer look at one of Rosemary Clooney's masterpieces, recorded in 1960 for RCA-Victor and arranged by the great Nelson Riddle.

By the time he wrote these twelve charts for Rosemary Clooney in 1960, Nelson Riddle had made musical history throughout the 1950s with the epoch-making albums he arranged for Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, and most of all, Frank Sinatra. He had also been working with Clooney for several years as the musical director of her television show, and the closeness and warmth of that association comes across on the album they cut together, which someone at RCA shamelessly decided to name Rosie Solves the Swingin' Riddle!, not even sparing the exclamation point at the end.

Riddle and Clooney several years after this project
While the title may be a ridiculous attempt at wordplay, the album itself remains one of the best in the prolific careers of both Rosie and Nelson, a perfect blend of self-assured singing and sympathetic arranging. The emotional connection between the two is very evident: indeed, in the original liner notes, Riddle mentions that Clooney "happens to be one of my favorite people," and then goes on to say that "Rosemary Clooney is a wonderful vocalist. More than a singer, she's a musician. She does everything well. Her phrasing, taste, and ability to swing make arranging and conducting a real pleasure. As a consequence, this album has been one of my most enjoyable experiences." As Riddle biographer Peter J. Levinson states in his notes to the 2004 CD reissue, Clooney shared a similar view about her work with the arranger: he quotes Rosie as saying that her association with Nelson was "the best blending of my job and my personal life that I've ever had." And so it was, because Clooney's relationship with Riddle was not all work and no play—the two were involved in an affair that would ultimately lead to the collapse of both of their marriages, and one that Rosie would remember fondly several years later when she called Nelson the love of her life.

Leaving their personal lives aside, there is no doubt, upon listening to Rosie Solves the Swingin' Riddle!, that the romantic connection that vocalist and arranger shared translated naturally to the finished recorded product. The album was cut in May and June 1960, and Riddle's studio orchestra featured at the time some of the best West Coast musicians around, including trumpeters Cappy Lewis, Pete Candoli, Shorty Sherock, and Don Fagerquist, saxophonists Buddy Collette and Plas Johnson, guitarist Al Hendrickson, pianist Bill Miller (famous for his work with Sinatra), bassist Joe Comfort, and drummer Alvin Stoller, among others. Many of them were familiar with Clooney's singing from working in the orchestra used on her television show, which makes the interaction between singer and band even closer and more effective. As they worked together in the 1950s, Riddle and Sinatra had come naturally to the realization that the clear-cut division between swingers and ballads in the old swing band days needn't be that strict, because swingers could be slowed down and, similarly, ballads could be made to swing lightly. That idea became one of Riddle's trademarks and added to the appeal of his arrangements; such a principle is clearly at work on this album, and as usual, to great effect.

This is apparent in the album opener, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's "Get Me to the Church on Time," which is brassy but more understated than one would think. The next tune, "Angry," pretty much fits the same mold, while Hoagy Carmichael's reflective ballad, "I Get Along Without You Very Well," is taken at a much sprightlier tempo than other versions by, say, Sinatra or Chet Baker. In the hands of Clooney and Riddle, it is a ballad that swings easily but that does not lose any of its introspective quality. The two reach back in time quite a bit on some of the tracks: that is the case with the Gene Austin-associated "How Am I to Know" (with lyrics by Dorothy Parker), beautifully punctuated by saxophone solos from Plas Johnson. Other songs included in the album that often hark back to the old vaudeville days are "I Ain't Got Nobody," Shelton Brooks's "Some of These Days," "Shine on Harvest Moon," and the Ethel Waters classic "Cabin in the Sky," all of which demonstrate Clooney's appreciation of first-class pop and jazz-inflected songwriting.

On Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's "You Took Advantage of Me," Riddle's writing is clearly reminiscent of his work with Sinatra on Songs for Swinging Lovers and A Swingin' Affair, and Rosie's singing, underscored by George Roberts's clever work on trombone,  shows how important lyrics always were to her when it came to interpreting a song. The Latin-tinged arrangement of "April in Paris" is initially driven by Jack Costanzo on bongos, but toward the end of the chart, the orchestra takes over and supports Clooney's vocals in style. Annotator Levinson calls "By Myself," written by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz and revived by Fred Astaire in the movie The Band Wagon, "the gem of this CD," and in the light of the seamless interaction between Clooney and the orchestra, it is hard to argue with him. But then the album is really a gem as a whole, and by the time we reach the last track, "Limehouse Blues," we are more than ready to overlook the occasional gimmicks that Riddle employs on this Asian-influenced melody, which actually works very well as a closer. It is to this record what, say, "It Happened in Monterey" was to Sinatra's Songs for Swinging Lovers. The CD reissue includes two bonus tracks, recorded almost a year later, in April 1961, and although "Without Love" and "The Wonderful Season of Love" (the theme from the then-current movie Return to Peyton Place) are more conventional ballads, they are worthy additions to the package and show what a good string writer Riddle was. Overall, Rosie Solves the Swingin' Riddle! can be considered the crown jewel of the personal and professional association between Rosemary Clooney and Nelson Riddle, a passionate romantic affair that, fortunately for us, also resulted in a most swinging musical affair.

Rosie and Nelson at work in the studio

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Jazz in Catalan: Núria Feliu, Lou Bennett, and Their Friends, 1966

A largely forgotten figure in jazz history now, and too often compared with Jimmy Smith when mentioned at all, Lou Bennett was one of the best organists of the 1960s and '70s, even though he spent most of his professional life in Europe and only returned briefly to the United States in 1964 to appear at the Newport Jazz Festival. Born in Philadelphia in 1926, Bennett first took up the piano before switching to organ in the mid 1950s. After touring the country for a few years, in 1960 he moved to France, where he found a vibrant jazz scene and a much more eager audience for his boppish music. In Europe Bennett recorded steadily, although many of his albums are not easy to find on CD these days. One of his little-known masterpieces, as Marc Myers rightly argues in this article, is Enfin!, which he cut for the French branch of RCA in 1963. Even more obscure than that is an album he made three years later in Barcelona, Spain, with the Spanish vocalist Núria Feliu, entitled Núria Feliu, Lou Bennett I Els Seus Amics (Núria Feliu, Lou Bennett, and Their Friends).

According to José María García Martínez in his book Del Fox-Trot al Jazz Flamenco (From Fox-Trot to Flamenco Jazz), a history of jazz in Spain between 1919 and 1996, by the mid 1960s Bennett was living in Cambrils, a town not too far from Barcelona, and appearing with guitarist René Thomas in clubs in and around Barcelona, where "he was known throughout the country as a messenger of jazz" (190). Though he had settled in Paris, where he would eventually pass away in 1997, it is very possible that Bennett spent part of his time in Spain, at this time still under the dictatorial regime of Francisco Franco and not as receptive to jazz—and foreign music in general—as other European countries. Whatever the case, sometime in 1966, Bennett, along with Philip Catherine on guitar and other unknown musicians, backed Feliu on this excellent album released by the Spanish Edigsa label. Apparently, the masterminds behind the project were producer Albert Mallofré and Spanish piano ace Tete Montoliu, who wrote some of the arrangements and, though uncredited, even plays piano on some of the tracks. The album is essentially a collection of well-known standards sung in Catalan, not Spanish, by Feliu, with lyrics translated and adapted by Jaume Picas, and the overall result, with Bennett's groovy contributions on organ, is extremely enjoyable.

Though celebrated as both a pop singer, well known as a master interpreter of the Catalan cuplé song form, Feliu was a jazz vocalist at heart, as evidenced in this 1974 television appearance, where her set list is rife with jazzy interpretations of standards. In fact, Feliu had already recorded an album with Montoliu prior to this session with Bennett and had even sung in New York accompanied by the Spanish pianist. This album with Bennett can be considered, in many ways, a follow-up to her collaboration with Montoliu, who participates actively in the project. Like Sweden's Monica Zetterlund, Feliu has a very agreeable voice and an unerring sense of time that allows her to swing in an effortless manner. Her voice, albeit not always as melodious as Zetterlund, blends perfectly with the organ accompaniment, and her readings of the Catalan lyrics of all these very familiar tunes are never less than convincing. The LP starts off with "Geòrgia, Geòrgia," a slow-paced, rather bluesy version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia on My Mind" that sets the pace for what we will find in the rest of the album. "Encara No" is a mid-tempo reading of "Speak Low" with Montoliu on piano delivering a lovely solo, and with some fine guitar work from Catherine. "D'Aqui a L'Eternitat" is not really a standard, but the theme song of the movie From Here to Eternity set to a semi-Latin beat that works perfectly for Catherine to offer us a beautiful, subdued guitar solo. Bennett sets a groovy mood on "T'He Mirat," a particularly swinging version of "I Only Have Eyes for You," and the first side of the LP concludes with one of the highlights—a very laid-back arrangement of Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll," entitled "Nina de Seda," which features some great interplay between Bennett and Catherine.

Pianist Tete Montoliu
The second side of the disc begins with Feliu at her most seductive, reciting the opening lines of "No Saps la Feresa d'Amor," which is actually "You Don't Know What Love Is," the slowest number on the set, in equal parts dramatic and restrained, featuring some extremely sympathetic playing by Montoliu, who could be romantic and smooth without ever overdoing it. "Ningú No Ho Podrà Saber Com Jo" (George and Ira Gershwin's classic "They Can't Take That Away from Me") picks up the pace and gives Bennett a chance to show off his dazzling skills on the organ and prove why European audiences were attracted to his very personal style. "Aquell Infant" is "Nature Boy" given the full Montoliu treatment; his marvelous piano solo seems to inspire Feliu to play with the rhythm and the melody throughout the whole performance. Bennett is back for "Cèntims del Ciel," an uptempo arrangement of "Pennies from Heaven" that finds the organist sounding quite a bit like Jimmy Smith, and Feliu proving that she really knew how to swing and sing slightly behind the beat whenever she felt it was necessary. Again accompanied by Montoliu's piano, Feliu reaches quite far back for "Te'n Vas Anar," an interesting reading of "After You've Gone" that begins in a bluesy mood for about a chorus and then picks up the tempo and closes the album with a bang. Though the rest of Feliu's recorded output has its interesting moments (particularly the aforementioned session with Montoliu that also includes Booker Ervin and which is highly recommended) this obscure album is definitely one of its highlights and proves that jazz and the Great American Songbook, when done properly, can sound engaging in any language. For anyone who is interested, Núria Feliu, Lou Bennett I Els Seus Amics, reissued on CD by the Picap label a few years ago, can be found as a CD-R in the United States at the time of this writing. It is an unusual, yet thoroughly satisfying record that is sure to appeal to any jazz aficionado in search of something off the beaten path and with a swinging beat.