Which Famous Singer Started his Career as Chico Marx’s Drummer?

Mel Torme,  was a consummate musician/ singer and songwriter. His fluent style  earned him the nickname the Velvet Fog for his smooth, soft vocal timbre.

Melvin Howard Torme was born on the South Side of Chicago on Sept. 13, 1925, to a working-class Jewish family. His parents were immigrants whose name had been changed from Torma to Torme by an immigration agent. He was a musical prodigy who sang professionally at age 4 with the Coon-Sanders Orchestra, singing ”You’re Driving Me Crazy,” at the Blackhawk restaurant in Chicago for $15 a session, and he was a busy child actor on radio serials, appearing from 1933 to 1941 on such network programs as ”The Romance of Helen Trent” and ”Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.”

He started writing songs at 13 and was only 16 when Harry James scored a hit with his song ”Lament to Love.” While still a teen-ager, he toured as a singer, arranger and drummer in a band led by Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers.

mel-torme-drums    mel-and-chico

A supreme vocal technician whose style encompassed everything from intimate pop crooning to jet-propelled scat improvisations, Mr. Torme was rivaled in virtuosity only by Ella Fitzgerald, who moved between the worlds of pop and jazz with a similar ease. An innate classicist who approached popular songs with an analytic sense of balance and proportion, Mr. Torme infused everything he sang with a geniality that seemed ingrained in a voice that was incapable of making an unpleasant sound.

Mr. Torme was also a prolific songwriter, drummer, pianist, musical arranger, actor and author. His most famous composition, ”The Christmas Song” (also known as ”Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”), written with the lyricist Robert Wells, became one of the most beloved of seasonal standards after it was recorded by Nat (King) Cole in 1946.

Mr. Torme liked to recall that the song was written in just 40 minutes on a sweltering July afternoon in Los Angeles and that it had subsequently been recorded in 1,734 versions.

The singer’s several books included ”The Other Side of the Rainbow” (1970), an account of his experiences as the musical adviser to Judy Garland on her television shows in the 1960’s, a novel, ”Wynner” (1978), and an autobiography, ”It Wasn’t All Velvet” (1988). The Garland book, with its portrait of the troubled singer, won critical praise but earned the wrath of her family, who unsuccessfully sued Mr. Torme.

mel-and-buddy

1991 brought the publication of his long-promised biography of his friend Buddy Rich, Traps, The Drum Wonder.

But it was as a singer that Mr. Torme made his deepest mark. The critic Will Friedwald, in his book ”Jazz Singing,” cited Mr. Torme as a pioneer of ”cool jazz,” spun off from the pop crooning of the day.

”Torme works with the most beautiful voice a man is allowed to have, and he combines it with a flawless sense of pitch,” Mr. Friedwald wrote. ”As an improviser he shames all but two or three other scat singers and quite a few horn players as well.”

His standards included ”Blue Moon,” ”It Might as Well Be Spring,” ”Oh, You Beautiful Doll” and ”Mountain Greenery.”

In 1943, he made his movie debut in the musical ”Higher and Higher,” playing a supporting role to Frank Sinatra, who was also making his film debut.

mel-and-meltones  The Mel-Tones

The same year he formed Mel Torme and His Mel-Tones, whosang in the style of Frank Sinatra and the Pied Pipers. After his appearance in the 1947 musical ”Good News” made Mr. Torme a bobby-soxer idol, the Mel-Tones slipped increasingly into the background.

He was only 21 when he appeared as a soloist at the Copacabana in New York, and Fred Robbins, a local disk jockey, gave him the nickname Velvet Fog, a sobriquet he detested. Mr. Torme recorded for Decca in 1945, for Musicraft (1946-48), singing with the Artie Shaw Orchestra, and in 1949 moved to Capitol, where his first recording for the label, ”Careless Hands,” was his only No. 1 hit. It was followed by a two-sided hit, ”Again” and ”Blue Moon,” one of his best-loved signature songs. The same year, his composition ”California Suite,” a jazzier answer to Gordon Jenkins’s pop oratorio ”Manhattan Tower,” became the label’s first 12-inch LP.

mel-and-dektettte

Mr. Torme was 30 when he met Red Clyde, the jazz producer who founded Bethlehem Records, and decided to switch gears and move toward jazz. From 1955 to 1957, he recorded seven albums for the label, including ”Mel Torme With the Marty Paich Dektette,” a pop jazz classic featuring a 10-member ensemble (arranged by Mr. Paich) that combined the power of a big band with the freedom of a small ensemble.

”I wanted to embed in the minds of the public at large, particularly jazz fans, that this syrupy, creamy bobby-sox sensation was taking the musical bull by the horns and singing the kind of music he wanted to sing,” Mr. Torme later recalled.

 As an adult, he was nominated for a best supporting actor Emmy in 1956 for a role in ”The Comedian,” a Playhouse 90 production.The appearance reawakened his film career, and he made a series of appearances as a straight actor in usually low-budget films: The Fearmakers (1958), The Big Operator (1959), Girls Town (1959), Walk Like a Dragon (1960) (for which he wrote the title song), and The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1961). His recording career picked up in 1958, when he was signed to impresario Norman Granz’s jazz-oriented Verve Records, the same label on which such peers as Ella Fitzgerald recorded. The result was eight albums over the next four years: Tormé; Olé Tormé: Mel Tormé Goes South of the Border with Billy May; Back in Town (with the Mel-Tones); Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley; Swingin’ on the Moon; Broadway, Right Now! (with Margaret Whiting); I Dig the Duke! I Dig the Count!; and My Kind of Music. The albums were well received, especially by the jazz community, without being big sellers. But by the early ’60s, Verve was the subsidiary of a large record company, no longer an independent jazz label, and Tormé accepted an offer from what he thought would be the more sympathetic Ertegun brothers, Ahmet and Nesuhi, and their Atlantic Records label.

mel-and-comin-home

Unfortunately, Atlantic wanted Tormé to make more pop-oriented music. His initial effort for them, the live album Mel Tormé at the Red Hill, cut in March 1962, was what he had in mind, but Atlantic got what it wanted with the bluesy single “Comin’ Home Baby,” cut in September 1962, which gave Tormé a Top 40 hit on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and earned him his first two Grammy nominations (Best Solo Performance, Male, and Best Rhythm & Blues Recording), but which he did not care for. Atlantic rushed out a Comin’ Home Baby! LP, but it did not chart.

But artistic integrity did not breed commercial success.

”I can’t deny that I would have been pleased to have a best-seller,” Mr. Torme said, ”but if you’re constantly working to good rooms and to good crowds, records are only frosting on the cake. Yet my managers kept bugging me for the big hit, and to satisfy them, when rock erupted in the mid-1960’s, I recorded some of the worst dreck you can imagine — to no avail.”

Soon Mr. Torme found himself eking out a living playing out-of-the-way clubs. As rock-and-roll solidified its domination of the airwaves, he briefly considered retiring from music and becoming an airline pilot.

mel-and-judy

In the spring of 1963, Tormé accepted an offer to serve as musical advisor for the upcoming television series The Judy Garland Show. He wrote arrangements and special material for the musical variety program, which broadcast 26 hour-long episodes beginning on Sunday night, September 29, 1963, and ending on March 29, 1964, when it was canceled.

His reputation as a jazz singer continued to grow, based on his live performances. In 1976 he won an Edison Award (the Dutch equivalent of the Grammy) for best male singer, and a Downbeat award for best male jazz singer.
mel-and-gerry    mel-and-george

The ground swell of recognition accelerated after a triumphant 1977 Carnegie Hall concert with George Shearing and Gerry Mulligan, which Mr. Torme viewed as a turning point in his career. He later recorded five albums with Mr. Shearing, whose cool, romantic pianism perfectly complimented Mr. Torme’s serene vocal style.

”It is impossible to imagine a more compatible musical partner,” Mr. Shearing said after hearing of Mr. Torme’s death. ”I humbly put forth that Mel and I had the best musical marriage in many a year. We literally breathed together during our countless performances. As Mel put it, we were two bodies of one musical mind.”

In May 1971, Tormé served as the host for an ABC documentary TV series, It Was a Very Good Year, each episode chronicling a year between 1919 and 1964. The series ran through the end of August. He returned to television in an acting role with his starring performance in the TV movie Snowman in 1974. He would continue to make occasional appearances in acting and singing roles on TV for the rest of his career. In September 1974, while appearing at the Maisonette Room in the St. Regis Hotel in New York with Al Porcino & His Orchestra, Tormé recorded a live album that was picked up by Atlantic Records and released as Live at the Maisonette in 1975. He claimed never to have seen any money from the LP, but it brought him his third Grammy nomination, not as a singer, but for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) for his “Gershwin Medley.” In 1976, he finally signed a new record contract with Gryphon Records, recording the LP Tormé! A New Album in London in June 1977. It was followed by the January 1978 sessions for Together Again: For the First Time, on which he was co-billed with his longtime friend, drummer and bandleader Buddy Rich, actually released prior to Tormé! A New Album. The Rich LP earned Tormé his fourth Grammy nomination, in the Best Jazz Vocal Performance category in 1978 (the category had been created only two years earlier), while Tormé! A New Album brought him his fifth in the same category in 1979. There was a sixth Grammy nomination, again for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, for his next LP, Mel Tormé and Friends Recorded Live at Marty’s New York City, which was released on Finesse Records in 1981 and reached number 44 in the Billboard jazz chart. Encore at Marty’s followed in 1982 on Flair Records

In 1982, Mr. Torme finally found a stable recording base in Concord Jazz Records, for whom he made a succession of albums that established him as an articulate custodian of a broad pop-jazz-swing tradition that encompassed Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and the Gershwins.

In 1992, Tormé interrupted his run with Concord to cut a holiday collection, Christmas Songs, for Telarc Records. Amazingly, it brought him his first-ever chart placing in the listings for pop albums that December. Also for Telarc, he cut the live album The Great American Songbook in October 1992. But he returned to Concord only a month later for Sing Sing Sing, recorded with an all-star quintet back at the Fujitsu-Concord Jazz Festival in Tokyo. That made for enough recordings for a while, and he stuck to live performances until May 1994, when he cut the studio album A Tribute to Bing Crosby. A year later, he reunited with Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass for Velvet & Brass.

With Tormé’s assistance, Rhino Records mounted the first comprehensive box set of his recordings, The Mel Tormé Collection 1944-1985, in 1996, and in July he recorded the live album An Evening with Mel Tormé for the A&E network. The following month, on August 8, he suffered a stroke. While he had recovered sufficiently by November to be released from the hospital, he faced continuing medical challenges for the next three years and never returned to performing. In February 1999, Tormé was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

mel-and-night-court

Mr. Torme’s career also got a lift in the 1980’s through the television series ”Night Court,” in which Harry Anderson’s character, Judge Harry Stone, was an unabashed fan.

Mr. Torme was married four times. His first three marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Ali; five children, Steve, Melissa, Tracy, Daisy and James Torme, all of Los Angeles, and two stepchildren, Carrie Torme and Kurt Goldsmith.

Regular appearances at the JVC Jazz Festival and annual nightclub engagements at Michael’s Pub in Manhattan solidified Mr. Torme’s position as a musician who melded the achievements of the past into a sweeping but personalized vision of American popular music in its golden age as a vernacular kind of classical music.

For well over a decade, Mr. Torme’s September appearances at Michael’s Pub unofficially opened New York’s fall cabaret season. A typical Torme performance there might have been a salute to a pop music giant like Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire or Benny Goodman, in which the singer distilled his rich personal vision of a career in less than an hour.

These shows featured intricate medleys that showcased Mr. Torme’s phenomenal flexibility as both a singer and an arranger with an enthusiasm for his subject that matched his encyclopedic knowledge. Such a medley might string fragments from as many as two dozen songs into a virtuosic vocal (and sometimes also drum) display that would change in mood every few seconds as the singer glided from the most ethereal pop crooning into the sort of machine-gun driven scat improvisations that only Ella Fitzgerald, in her prime, could match in precision and rhythmic intensity.

These engagements compressed volumes worth of pop-jazz history and lore into an explosion of musical energy that was as lucid as it was comprehensive.

”I do not believe there’s such a thing as a jazz singer,” Mr. Torme declared late in his career.

”Every pop singer is influenced a little by jazz, because it’s our native folk art,” he said. ”But labeling someone a jazz, rather than a pop singer, is only a matter of degree of influence.”

With Tormé’s assistance, Rhino Records mounted the first comprehensive box set of his recordings, The Mel Tormé Collection 1944-1985, in 1996, and in July he recorded the live album An Evening with Mel Tormé for the A&E network. The following month, on August 8, he suffered a stroke. While he had recovered sufficiently by November to be released from the hospital, he faced continuing medical challenges for the next three years and never returned to performing. In February 1999, Tormé was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He died at 73 on June 5, 1999.

While Tormé disavowed some of his recordings in his autobiography, particularly the ones made with pop intentions in the 1960s, his more jazz-styled sides seem to have met his high standards, as well as those of critics and fans. In truth, Tormé brought his considerable skills to any material he tackled, and his large body of recordings fully justifies the assessment of him as a major jazz singer of the post-World War II era.

The Mother of the Blues

American blues singer Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Georgia, to minstrel troupers Thomas Pridgett, Sr. and Ella Allen-Pridgett. The first popular stage entertainer to incorporate authentic blues in her song repertoire, Ma Rainey performed during the first three decades of the 20th century. Known as the “Mother of the Blues,” she enjoyed mass popularity during the blues craze of the 1920s. Described by African-American poet Sterling Brown in Black Culture and Black Consciousness as “a person of the folk,” Rainey recorded in various musical settings and exhibited the influence of genuine rural blues. She is widely recognized as the first great female blues vocalist.ma-rainey-and-husband

Rainey worked at the Springer Opera House in 1900, performing as a singer and dancer in the local talent show, “A Bunch of Blackberries.” On February 2, 1904, Pridgett married comedy songster William “Pa” Rainey. Billed as “Ma” and “Pa” Rainey the couple toured Southern tent shows and cabarets. Though she did not hear blues in Columbus, Rainey’s extensive travels had, by 1905, brought her into contact with authentic country blues, which she worked into her song repertoire. “Her ability to capture the mood and essence of black rural southern life of the 1920s,” noted Daphane Harrison in Black Pearls: Blues Queens “quickly endeared her to throngs of followers throughout the South.”

ma-and-bessie

While performing with the Moses Stokes troupe in 1912, the Raineys were introduced to the show’s newly recruited dancer, Bessie Smith. Eight years Smith’s senior, Rainey quickly befriended the young performer. Despite earlier historical accounts crediting Rainey as Smith’s vocal coach, it has been generally agreed by modern scholars that Rainey played less of a role in the shaping of Smith’s singing style. “Ma Rainey probably did pass some of her singing experience on to Bessie,” explained Chris Albertson in the liner notes to Giants of Jazz, “but the instruction must have been rudimentary. Though they shared an extraordinary command of the idiom, the two women delivered their messages in styles and voices that were dissimilar and manifestly personal.”

ma-rainey-and-husband

Around 1915, the Raineys toured with Fat Chappelle’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels. Afterward, they were billed as the “Assassinators of the Blues” with Tolliver’s Circus and Musical Extravaganza. Separated from her husband in 1916, Rainey subsequently toured with her own band, Madam Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Sets, featuring a chorus line and a Cotton Blossoms Show, and Donald McGregor’s Carnival Show.

With the help of Mayo “Ink” Williams, Rainey first recorded for the Paramount label in 1923 (three years after the first blues side recorded by Mamie Smith). Already a popular singer in the Southern theater circuit, Rainey entered the recording industry as an experienced and stylistically mature talent. Her first session, cut with Austin and Her Blue Serenaders, featured the traditional number “Bo-Weevil Blues.” Fellow blues singer, Victoria Spivey, later said of the recording, as quoted in The Devil’s Music, “Ain’t nobody in the world been able to holler ‘Hey Boweevil’ like her. Not like Ma. Nobody.”

She left behind an immense recorded legacy, which continued to move and influence successive generations of blues, country, and rock & roll musicians. In 1983, Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame; seven years later, she was inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Even though she was married to Pa Rainey, Ma Rainey did nothing to hide her love of women. In 1928 she recorded “Prove it on Me Blues,” which makes no secret of her relationships with women.

“Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,

They must have been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.

Wear my clothes just like a fan, Talk to gals just like any old man

‘Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me, Sure got to prove it on me.”

In 1925 the police raided a party hosted by Ma Rainey. When the police arrived, they found some of the women undressed and in “intimate” situations. Ma Rainey was arrested for throwing an “indecent party.”

Ma and Pa Rainey mentored another famous bisexual Blues singer, Bessie Smith, known as The Empress of the Blues. Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were close friends and possibly lovers. As a matter of fact, it was Bessie Smith who bailed Ma Rainey out of jail in 1925.

In 1923, Rainey also released “Moonshine Blues” with Lovie Austin, and “Yonder Comes the Blues” with Louis Armstrong. That same year, Rainey recorded “See See Rider,” a number that, as Arnold Shaw observed in Black Popular Music in America, emerged as “one of the most famous and recorded of all blues songs. (Rainey’s) was the first recording of that song, giving her a hold on the copyright, and one of the best of the more than 100 versions.”

In August 1924, Rainey—along with the 12 string guitar of Miles Pruitt and an unknown second guitar accompanist—recorded the eight bar blues number “Shave ‘Em Dry.” In the liner notes to The Blues, folklorist W.K. McNeil observed that the number “is typical of Rainey’s output, a driving, unornamated vocal propelled along by an accompanist who plays the number straight. Her artistry brings life to what in lesser hands would be a dull, elementary piece.

Unlike many other blues musicians, Rainey earned a reputation as a professional on stage and in business. According to Mayo Williams, as quoted in the liner notes to August Wilson’s 1988 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, “Ma Rainey was a shrewd business woman. We never tried to put any swindles on her. During Rainey’s five-year recording career at Paramount she cut nearly ninety sides, most of which dealt with the subjects of love and sexuality—bawdy themes that often earned her the billing of “Madam Rainey.” As William Barlow explained, in Looking Up at Down, her songs were also “diverse, yet deeply rooted in day-to-day experiences of black people from the South. Ma Rainey’s blues were simple, straightforward stories about heart break, promiscuity, drinking binges, the odyssey of travel, the workplace and the prison road gang, magic and superstition—in short, the southern landscape of African-Americans in the Post-Reconstruction era.”

ma-rainey-and-band

With the success of her early recordings, Rainey took part in a Paramount promotional tour that featured a newly assembled back-up band. In 1924, pianist and arranger Thomas A. Dorsey recruited members for Rainey’s touring band, The Wild Cats Jazz Band. Serving as both director and manager, Dorsey assembled able musicians who could read arrangements as well as play in a down “home blues” style. Rainey’s tour debut at Chicago’s Grand Theater on State Street marked the first appearance of a “down home” blues artist at the famous southside venue.

Draped in long gowns and covered in diamonds and a necklace of gold pieces, Rainey had a powerful command over her audiences. She often opened her stage show singing “Moonshine Blues” inside the cabinet of an over-sized victrola, from which she emerged to greet a near-frantic audience. As Dorsey recalled, in The Rise of Gospel Blues, “When she started singing, the gold in her teeth would sparkle. She was in the spotlight. She possessed listeners; they swayed, they rocked, they moaned and groaned, as they felt the blues with her.”

Until 1926, Rainey performed with her Wild Jazz Cats on the Theater Owner’s Booking Association circuit (TOBA). That year, after Dorsey left the band, she recorded with various musicians on the Paramount label—often under the name of Ma Rainey and her Georgia Jazz Band which, on various occasions, included musicians such as pianists Fletcher Henderson, Claude Hopkins and Willie the Lion Smith; reed players Don Redman, Buster Bailey and Coleman Hawkins; and trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Tommy Ladnier. In 1927, Rainey cut sides such as “Black Cat, Hoot Owl Blues” with the Tub Jug Washboard Band. During her last sessions, held in 1928, she sang in the company of her former pianist Thomas “Georgia Tom” Dorsey and guitarist Hudson “Tampa Red” Whittaker, producing such numbers as “Black Eye Blues,” “Runaway Blues” and “Sleep Talking Blues.”
 

Though the TOBA and vaudeville circuits had gone into decline by the early 1930s, Rainey still performed, often resorting to playing tent shows. Following the death of her mother and sister, Rainey retired from the music business in 1935 and settled in Columbus. For the next several years, she devoted her time to the ownership of two entertainment venues—the Lyric Theater and the Airdome—as well as activities in the Friendship Baptist Church. Rainey died in Rome, Georgia—some sources say Columbus—on December 22, 1939.

She left behind an immense recorded legacy, which continued to move and influence successive generations of blues, country, and rock & roll musicians. In 1983, Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame; seven years later, she was inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The Sad End of an R&B Diva

As a founding member of The Supremes, Florence Ballard should have had it all. On the day Ballard would have turned 70, we look back on a life and career tragically cut short.

Florence Ballard was born in Detroit on June 30, 1943, the ninth of fifteen children. Young Florence moved all around the city as her father struggled to support the large family while working at General Motors. When she was fifteen, the family settled in the Brewster-Douglas housing project. Her father died of cancer the following year.

florence-young            florence-very-young

Around that time, she became friends with doo wop trio The Primes (two of whom would later form The Temptations). When the group’s manager, Milton Jenkins, decided to create a sister act called The Primettes, he made Ballard its founding member. He also relied on her to find the rest of the band. Ballard convinced Mary Wilson, whom she’d met at a talent show, to join and also enlisted the services of her neighbor, 15-year-old Diane Ross. Betty McGlown – who was dating one of The Primes at the time – was the final member of the quartet.

The group played talent shows, sock hops and parties around Detroit and landed an audition with Berry Gordy, head of what would eventually become Motown Records. Gordy liked their sound but told them they were too young and advised them to stay in school.

florence-y-supremes

Not long after, Ballard was raped at knife point by a high school basketball player. She went into seclusion for a while, months later finally telling her group mates about the attack. According to friends, Ballard was not the same after the rape, becoming more distrustful, pessimistic and self-destructive. She would later drop out of high school, but managed eventually to rejoin The Primettes.

florence-supremes

By 1960, Berry Gordy felt the girls were ready to record. Relaunched as The Supremes – a name chosen by Ballard – the group was signed by Gordy to Tamla Records. With Barbara Martin replacing Betty McGlown, The Supremes released “I Want a Guy,” but the single failed to chart. Their next release, “Buttered Popcorn,” would be the only one to feature Ballard as the lone vocal lead. Though the song didn’t make a dent nationally, it was a regional hit. Their next single, 1962’s “Your Heart Belongs To Me,” was their first under the Motown name, and their first to chart.

It was also the first to feature Diane Ross as the lead.

florence-mad

A year later, Ross had taken over as the group’s lead vocalist, with the others now mostly relegated to back up roles. The situation did not sit well with Ballard – known as the ‘sassy’ one of the group, she was never shy about expressing her opinions – but she wanted to stick with the group anyway. Success didn’t come right away, however, and around the the Hitsville U.S.A. studios, the group was jokingly referred to as “the no-hit Supremes.” Finally, in 1964, they found their way to the top of the charts with a tune they’d been reluctant to even record – “Where Did Our Love Go.”

“Where Did Our Love Go” began a remarkable run, with their next four singles all reaching No. 1. Within a year The Supremes were international stars, and were arguably the second most popular act in the world behind The Beatles. They were one of the first African-American acts to achieve crossover success with white audiences, recording movie soundtracks, appearing in films, performing on The Ed Sullivan Show no fewer than 17 times, and even marketing their own brand of bread.

cindy-birdsong  Cindy Birdsong

But tensions in the group were simmering as it became clear that Berry Gordy considered Ross – now going by Diana with an “a” – the star. When Ballard came down with a sore throat before a show, Ross stepped in to sing lead on Ballard’s signature song, “People.” After that, Gordy gave the song to Ross. Depressed, Ballard battled with her weight and alcohol, struggling at times to fit into her dresses, and missing shows and recording dates because of her drinking. Berry Gordy quietly started grooming another singer, Cindy Birdsong, to take her place – even going so far as to secretly fly Birdsong to all Supremes shows just in case Ballard failed to show up. Ballard got wind of the plot and reacted by getting drunk before a show at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas in 1967.

It would be the last time she took the stage as a Supreme.

Gordon sent her packing back to Detroit. For her six-year tenure with The Supremes – one that saw the group release ten No. 1 singles – she was given a one-time payment of $139,804. As part of the agreement, she wasn’t allowed to promote herself as a former Supreme or even mention having been associated with Motown Records.

florence-music-month      florence-is-supreme

Nonetheless, Ballard tried to launch a solo career following her dismissal from the group, but after two singles that failed to chart, ABC Records shelved her album. She took some time off to raise the three children she had between 1968 and 1971. But in 1971, her husband left and her house was foreclosed on. She sued Motown for additional royalties but lost. Just a few years after founding the hottest group in country, she was on welfare.

Ballard began drinking heavily and put on more weight. Her fortunes improved a bit when she won an insurance settlement and was able to buy a small house for her family in Detroit. By 1975, she had reconciled with Diana Ross and was talking about trying to relaunch her singing career.

But years of hard living caught up with her. On February 21, 1976, she died from a blood clot in one of her arteries. She was just 32 years old.

florence-grave

Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross all came to Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church to pay tribute to the founder of one of the most important acts of the 1960s.

Years later, when Jennifer Hudson won the Oscar for her role in Dreamgirls, a movie inspired by The Supremes, she dedicated her award to Florence Ballard, “who never got a chance” – an overstatement, perhaps, but one that captures the sadness behind one of the more tragic tales of the Motown era.

 

Who was the Only Vocalist That Recorded with John Coltrane?

I urge you to listen to listen to the velvet voice of this man. It’s like listening to honey…

At the time of his death in 1983, Johnny Hartman was already a ghost. A supreme interpreter of ballads with a lush, velvety baritone, Hartman combated indifference for nearly forty years, his one moment in the sun a 1963 collaboration with saxophonist John Coltrane’s classic quartet. That album, the superb John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, is Hartman’s definitive statement and remains, along with a glass of white wine and a crackling fire, an essential aid to seduction. For all that, Hartman’s post-Coltrane efforts, on the Impulse! label and otherwise, failed to earn him the fame he deserved. His passing was a murmur; a whimper rather than a bang. The anonymity he struggled against claimed him, and the world was none the wiser.

johnny-hartman-john-coltrane                    j-album

Though he was never the most distinctive vocalist, Johnny Hartman rose above others to become the most commanding, smooth balladeer of the 1950s and ’60s, a black crooner closely following Billy Eckstine and building on the form with his notable jazz collaborations, including the 1963 masterpiece John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman.

j-young

Born in Chicago, he began singing early on and performed while in Special Services in the Army. Hartman studied music while at college and made his professional debut in the mid-’40s, performing with Earl Hines and recording his first sides for Regent/Savoy. After Hines’ band broke up later in 1947, Hartman moved to the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band and stayed for two years, recording a few additional sides for Mercury as well.

j-songs-from-heart         j-all   j-just-dropped

Johnny Hartman’s first proper LP came in 1956 with Songs from the Heart, recorded for Bethlehem and featuring a quartet led by trumpeter Howard McGhee. He recorded a second (All of Me) later that year, but then was virtually off-record until 1963, when his duet album John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman appeared on Impulse. A beautiful set of ballad standards, including top-flight renditions of “Lush Life” and “My One and Only Love,” the album sparked a flurry of activity for Hartman, including two more albums for Impulse: 1963’s I Just Dropped by to Say Hello and the following year’s The Voice That Is. During the late ’60s and early ’70s, he recorded a range of jazz and pop standards albums for ABC, Perception, and Blue Note. Hartman recorded sparingly during the 1970s, but returned with two albums recorded in 1980, one of which (Once in Every Life) earned a Grammy nomination just two years before his death in 1983.

j-every    j-voice

Today, Johnny Hartman ‘ while still a relatively obscure figure ‘ is better known than at any time during his life. The CD era resurrected him, and his records are heard by jazz fans the world over. He is still best known for John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, but several other Impulse albums  have joined that classic in the pantheon of great vocal jazz recordings.

Hartman is considered an acquired taste by some. His romantic sound isn’t to everyone’s taste, yet the best of his work lives on in boudoirs everywhere. One might call Hartman the thinking person’s Barry White. I can tell from personal experience that the first two bars of ‘They Say It’s Wonderful’ are enough to melt any woman. Still, there is more to the Hartman revival than superb mood music. This music endures because Hartman was an artist of the highest order. His elegant phrasing enlivens any tune. Take, for example, Fats Waller’s ‘Ain’t Misbehavin”, which Hartman recorded twice (once for Bethlehem on Songs from the Heart and again for ABC/Paramount on The Unforgettable Johnny Hartman ). As recorded by Waller on RCA in 1943, ‘Ain’t Misbehavin” is a transparent lie. One imagines Waller’s fingers crossed behind is back as he tells his love that he’s ‘got no place to go’ and that he is ‘home about eight, just [him] and [his] radio.’ ‘Of course I’m faithful, sugar!’ Waller’s classic tune declares with a wink, ‘Don’t you believe me?’ By contrast, Hartman’s rendition is jaded, yet sincere. It is a declaration of fidelity from a world-weary playboy. ‘Your kisses are worth waiting for,’ he sings, ‘Why don’t you believe me?’ The real difference lies in the way Waller and Hartman pronounce the word ‘believe’ in their recordings. Waller razzes the word, blubbering his lips over the initial ‘b’. Hartman caresses the word, extending it over three beats. The singer in Hartman’s version is wounded when his beloved doesn’t buy his story. Waller is a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

After a string of disappointing attempts to lend his sound to contemporary pop tunes (a strategy that worked for very few of Hartman’s generation) and a few strong collaborations with Japanese musicians (although never a household name in the United States, Hartman was ‘ in the immortal words of Tom Waits ‘ big in Japan), Hartman had receded from the public’s ear. The man who had once seemed the natural heir apparent to Billy Eckstine was fast becoming an invisible man.

Which Band Leader Hired a “Musician” Just to Gargle?

American bandleader and musical jokester Spike Jones was best known for his crazy sound effects and  strange instruments. He had a keen ear for pop, jazz, and classical. and found popularity with his wacky novelty songs of the 1940s and ’50s.

Spike was a musical genius. Born Lindley Armstrong Jones on December 14, 1911,  to Murray and Ada (née Armstrong) Jones in Long Beach, California. His father was employed as a station agent for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and the family moved frequently due to his work.

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Jones (the son of a railroad man, hence the nickname) had started as a jazz drummer. He began playing drums at the age of 11. As a teenager, he formed a band called Spike Jones and His Five Tacks. After he graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic High School in 1929, he began playing percussion at nightclubs around Hollywood.

By the late 1930s, he was working as a session drummer for several Los Angeles recording studios and performing in bands on live radio shows  and became a radio session player  shortly thereafter working with top-drawer stars like Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, among others. (One of the more interesting bits of Jones trivia is that if you listen hard enough, that’s him gently working his wire brushes in the background on Bing’s “White Christmas.”)

But as in-demand as he might have been, musician union restrictions only allowed so many radio dates to be worked by one drummer. To this end (and to distinguish himself from the pack), Jones added a full set of tuned cowbells, guns, whistles, and sirens to his already existing drum set, thus insuring steady work as a both a drummer and small-scale sound effects man.To set himself apart from other studio drummers, Jones began adding unusual sound effects to his performances, using items like automobile horns, cowbells, door bells and kitchen utensils. He was soon being hired for his ability to produce unique noises, which added surprise and humor to recordings and radio programs.

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At the beginning of the 1940s, in the wild and woolly days before multi-track recording, MTV, and certainly digital entertainment content, Spike Jones put together a top-flight musical organization that the world has not seen the likes of since. Known as the City Slickers, the emphasis was on comedy, primarily doing dead-on satires of popular songs on the hit parade and taking the air out of pompous classical selections as well.

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By 1942, his sixth record under the new band’s name, “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” became not only a national hit but a national mania, and Jones’ self-named “musical depreciation revue” was off and running. The song—which had been written to accompany an anti-Nazi cartoon produced by Walt Disney during World War II—appeared on a record that sold 1.5 million copies. Its success made Jones a household name. Although these additions made him unique in a field loaded with anonymous sidemen, Spike had bigger and crazier ideas. After putting together various after-hours small groups that played “corny just for fun” (including early recordings with the Penny-Funnies and Cinema-Fritzers bands for the short-lived Cinematone company.)

Not merely content to do cornball renderings of standard material or trite novelty tunes for comedic effect, Jones’ musical vision encompassed whistles, bells, gargling, broken glass, and gunshots perfectly timed and wedded to the most musical and unmusical of source points. His stage show was no less mind-boggling, needing a full railroad car just to carry the props alone, all presented without electronic gimmickry of any kind, with visuals that would make your eyes pop out of your head. Though he often downplayed his musical achievements (all part of the master plan of selling the idea to the general public), the fact remains that Spike was a strict bandleader and taskmaster, making sure his musicians were precision tight and adept in a variety of musical styles from Dixieland to classical, with a caliber of musicianship several notches higher than most big bands of the day that played so-called “straight” music.

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In other words, Jones was no dummy. He knew what he was doing when he put the whole concept together — checkerboard suits and all. It gave him Top Ten hits on phonograph records and proved immensely popular as a stage show, in movies, and on television. (It became a badge of honor with pop musicians that you really hadn’t tasted true success until Spike Jones & the City Slickers had destroyed your song.) A definite precursor to the video age, Jones didn’t merely play the songs funny, he illustrated them as well, a total audio and visual assault for the senses.

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The bands assembled over the years under the City Slickers banner would feature everyone from singers, midgets, acrobats, and vaudeville comics to musicians who could just plain blow their brains out, all hand-picked by Jones. From George Rock’s braying, high-register trumpet and kiddie voices to Freddie Morgan’s incredible rubber-faced pantomime banjo shenanigans, from Sir Frederick Gas’ insane “twig” bowing to Billy Barty’s Liberace impressions, here was a band that truly defied description. Musicians who could play multiple instruments in a wide variety of styles were commonplace, making the City Slickers the cracker jack unit they were. But certain members of the troupe (like Gas or Barty) were hired because they did one thing extremely well, and would proceed to do it on a nightly basis, key players all. (For years, the rumor persisted that Jones had a guy on the payroll who did nothing but gargle.)

The City Slickers went on to record more hit songs, utilizing comical voice effects, the sounds of live goats and barking dogs and instruments from slide whistles and tubas to a “latrinophone,” which was a toilet accessorized with strings so that it could be played like a harp. Their recordings of the 1940s and ’50s included “Cocktails for Two” (with a chorus of hiccuping singers), “You Always Hurt the One You Love” and “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” (with one of the band members lisping in a baby voice). They also parodied famous works of classical music, like Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube” waltz and George Bizet’s opera Carmen.

 

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During the 1940s, the City Slickers began a tour called the Musical Depreciation Revue, which ran for several years. Jones, fronting the band, wore loudly colored, checkered suits and added countless props to his stage routine. He continued this performance style in television appearances throughout the 1950s. In the 1960s, Jones formed a more traditional band and recorded albums in a straightforward Dixieland style; however, he would always be best remembered for his comedic work.

Although parodies of pop music continued to proliferate (Weird Al Yankovic is probably the closest modern-day equivalent, although he’s closer in style to an Allan Sherman; he sings funny lyrics to normal songs, he doesn’t play them funny), the simple fact remains that Spike Jones & His City Slickers did it better than anyone before or since.

Other performers, like Frank Zappa & Captain Beefheart,  have mentioned Jones as an important influence on their own sense of humor and their satirical recordings. Jones’s admirers range from radio personality Dr. Demento to author Thomas Pynchon to the director Spike Jonze, who adapted a variant of Jones’s name as his own professional name.

Jones died on May 1, 1965, in Los Angeles, California, due to complications related to emphysema. He was 53 years old. He had been married twice, to two singers: Patricia Ann Middleton, with whom he had a daughter, and then to Helen Greco, with whom he had two daughters and a son.