“Contained herein are entries on…250 tip-of-the-iceberg (mostly good-to-excellent) pop/jazz singers who fronted one album…and then fell below the radar and beneath the floorboards of cultural history.”
“The Last Musical Hurrah: Jazz and Pop Singing and the Onslaught of Rock” by Bill Reed (2016)
I got off on the wrong foot with this book but that was partly my fault. I’ve often said expectations have ruined many a good film; meaning when a movie turns out to be something other than what you expected, your enjoyment of that film can be stunted through no fault of the film itself. I read the title of this book and assumed it was about something other than what it is. However, the basis of this error of mine does remain my one beef with this book.
What I expected with The Last Musical Hurrah was a dissertation on the gradual but definite decline of jazz and pop singing in the mid-1960’s, when the British Invasion and the rise of hippie culture totally transformed the musical landscape. A quick judgement based on the title of this book lead to this assumption and for this I feel I cannot be blamed. However, from the outset, the preface made it clear that the thesis of the book is something else altogether.
Author and journalist Bill Reed has written many articles and books on music and is a researcher who’s work has resulted in many reissues of albums from the past. He has produced and written liner notes for over 60 reissues for the Japanese market. In his introduction, Reed makes note of the fact that the focus of music changed through the Sixties and the market for straight singing shrank. But then he goes on to pinpoint what this book is actually about. Bill has coined the term “One-shot Wonder” and uses it here to refer to artists who recorded only one full album under their own name. The Last Musical Hurrah then is a reference book that details alphabetically these singers and their one LP. Now, this is a great idea for a book, one that Reed in his capacity of reissue producer is well qualified to write. It’s the theme of the book implied by the title that can throw a reader off.
While discussing some artists, Reed does make mention of that artist claiming that Elvis Presley and/or rock music in general ruined their careers. But really the book is more about the vast group of singers that were not Frank Sinatra or Peggy Lee. Or Matt Monro or Ann Richards, for that matter. And this subject makes for great reading. Reed presents brief histories on these singers and the whys and the wherefores of the fact that they only got into the studio once to lay their thoughts down on 12 inches of wax. The thesis of the “onslaught of rock” is not nearly as developed as the novelty of these singers having issued only one album before shuffling off into obscurity. After all, some of the records listed were released in the late 1960’s, early ’70’s and beyond, by which time the tide had already turned.
What The Last Musical Hurrah does though, in spades, is address two elements I love to deal with here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure. Bill Reed has made himself into a sleuth of sorts and has scoured the internet for information on some of the vocalists listed. Often times he has nothing to share except for a comment he has discovered on a YouTube video or in a chat group. In this respect this is a book after my own writer’s heart as I often conduct the same type of searches with the subjects I profile here at SoulRide, particularly with the UnEarthed series. The other aspect is the illumination of unknown personalities, the highlighting of their 15 minutes of fame and of the journeys they take; the ascension to the point where they find themselves in front of a microphone for a recording date under their own name and then the forces of chance or of their own wills that take them away from the spotlight. Many of the vocalists and the albums they recorded make for fascinating tales.
Listeners to Koop Kooper’s Cocktail Nation radio show will have heard Koop play selections from Laurie Allyn’s record Paradise (V.S.O.P., 1957/2006). Kooper has also interviewed Miss Allyn who’s intended label, Mode, went under before her record could be released. Soon after dealing with this disappointment, Allyn had to tend to her ailing mother and never recorded again. Her album was discovered and finally saw the light of day in 2006. Reed’s research and sleuthing is on display early when he discusses Johnny April’s album If You Are Not Plucked You Die! (Apollo Stereo, 1959). Reed says April dropped off the face after recording this album that features songs written by crime reporter/lyricist (?!) Bix Reichner. Reed says “it’s just barely possible that Reichner is April, but his daughter doesn’t seem to think so”. That last line indicates some deep digging has gone on.
Legendary jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell released one album featuring his own vocals, Weaver of Dreams (Columbia, 1962) and then went back to being legendary jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell. The other Ray Charles – he of the Ray Charles Singers – released the high concept album Memories of a Middle-Aged Movie Fan (Atco, 1968). The high concept? The album consists solely of songs from musical films released in 1936.
Actress Cora Lee Day was at a party in New York in 1960 when she sang a song imitating Billie Holiday. Thinking that was her actual voice, a record exec heard her and took her into the studio. Day had no choice but to carry on singing like Holiday for the recording date. Not being able to maintain the ruse, My Crying Hour (Roulette, 1960) was her only record.
George and Ira’s little sister, Frances Gershwin, released For George and Ira in 1973 (Monmouth Evergreen). Reed highlights Althea Gibson’s lone record, Althea Gibson Sings (Dot Records, 1958). Gibson had been a groundbreaking black female tennis player and golfer. Another prolific guitarist, Al Hendrickson, also recorded a single album featuring his vocals. A veteran of 5,000 film soundtracks and an astonishing 15,000 recording sessions stretching from 1939 to 1980, Al used the name “Tommy Hendrix” on his 1957 album for Liberty, Out of the Mist. Reed says that Liberty was trying Al-as-Tommy to see if he would catch on as a sort of male Julie London. He didn’t.
I have to confess my unfamiliarity with most of the artists and records Bill Reed presents in The Last Musical Hurrah but listeners of the Cocktail Nation also will know the name Gene Howard. Love is a Drag – For Adult Listeners Only (Lace Records, 1962) is perhaps the novel-est of all novelty records. At time of release, the vocalist was not identified and the premise of the record was that a male vocalist was singing a selection of songs the lyrics of which were kept intact and had the male Howard singing the praises of “Bill”, “The Boy Next Door” and “Lover Man”, obviously taboo stuff in the early 1960’s. Howard had sang with Stan Kenton and never actually released an album under his own name. Reed says Sinatra bought a dozen copies of the record and guessed incorrectly that the singer was Dick Haymes.
I ran across the album by Beverly Jenkins when I was writing about Manhattan Tower, the wonderful album by her husband, Gordon Jenkins. Gordon Jenkins Presents My Wife the Blues Singer (Impulse, 1964) is Beverly’s only recording under her own name though she did sing on the Tower record. Incidentally, a song from Manhattan Tower – “Married I Can Always Get” – served as the title track to dishy Micki Marlo’s only vocal LP (ABC Paramount, 1958), also featured in The Last Musical Hurrah. Perri Lee was a staple of L.A. nightlife due to her lengthy residency at the famous Parisian Room, a tenure represented by her album At the Parisian Room (Dot Records, 1966). Movie fans have seen Perri Lee – under the name Perry Blackwell – playing piano and singing in a notable scene in Pillow Talk (1959). Introducing Janice Mars (1960/2011) featured the voice of Mars, proprietor and sole act at the Baq Room in Manhattan. Marlon Brando loved her so much he financed and produced her record. Trouble is, it was never released. The tapes were found 40 years later – in Brando’s study. Ozzie Nelson’s brother, Don, wrote over 200 episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and also released The Wind (Mode, 1957).
Carol Reed was known as the “Weather Girl” for her forecasts on WCBS-TV in NYC. Reed could also carry a tune and released an album. What was the “Weather Girl”‘s album called? Come Rain or Come Shine (Golden Crest, 1956). What songs were on it? Why, “Heat Wave”, “Ill Wind”, “Singin’ in the Rain” and such, of course. Bill Reed is stumped for info on Bruce Walton III’s 1965 record I’ve Gotta Be Me but he’s not to be blamed. The liner notes for this record are somewhat lacking; Reed says it’s the only record he’s ever seen that has regular cover art – and absolutely nothing on the back cover; “pure as the driven snow, that is…blank.”
Many of the “singers” spotlighted in this book were actually actors and actresses that were given a chance to make a record, some great, some not so. These include Candice Bergen’s mother, Frances Bergen, Carol Bruce (Lillian “Mother” Carlson on WKRP in Cincinnati), Dorothy Dandridge (and her sister, too, actually), Canadian Yvonne De Carlo, who’s record is the only one in this book that I actually own, Diana Dors, Rhonda Fleming, Larry Hovis (Sgt. Andrew Carter on Hogan’s Heroes), Jerry Orbach, Ann Sothern, Gwen Verdon, Marie McDonald, Lizabeth Scott (I own it on digital), Tina Louise, Constance Towers and Marie Wilson.
Looking closely at each entry reveals The Last Musical Hurrah to be a celebration of the host of charming budget labels, as well, the goofy names of which we all recognize from our excursions through record bins in thrift stores. Names like; Fredlo, Brad’s Records, Choreo Records (co-founded by the daughter of Fred Astaire), Audio Fidelity, Jubilee, Nixa, Regina, Tops, Unique, Luxor, Ellector, Diadon, Breeze, Mondo 5, Mahalo, Firebird, Argo, Charlie Parker Records and Edison International on which a total of two LPs were released.
I’ve read a few books that were either self-published or printed by small presses and I’m learning to appreciate these publications. The welcomed subject matter can trump the sometimes rampant editorial errors that occur. We will dismiss the glaring syntax flaws in Bill Reed’s book and just be thankful it exists. I mentioned scrounging the record racks at Goodwills and really this book feels just like that. And that’s a good feeling for us record collectors. The Last Musical Hurrah is a fine reference book and tells a charming tale, a fascinating tale. Think of it; someone once upon a time may have had their own record sitting on a rack next to Nat Cole and three years later they’re working in a lumber yard – or owning it, whatever. This book is the story of these singers, these One-shot wonders.