The post-War decades were golden times for the torch-y, late-night jazz vocal.
Swing-style jazz retained some of its earlier mainstream popularity but, by the late ’40s and ’50s, big bands were shrinking, their relevancy plateauing. Out of practical necessity, and certainly in terms of its cultural currency, smaller-group jazz, especially bop, was ascendant.
The modern, jazz-inflected vocal ballad would achieve some sort of apotheosis in this time. As the locus of jazz moved away from ballrooms and halls to clubs and lounges, smaller groups and more intimate settings prevailed, engendering the popular image, if not reality, of aworld-weary singer captivating dimly-lit club-goers.
Interestingly, as audiences for jazz were becoming more select, the best-selling representatives of jazz, modern or otherwise, became its vocalists. Musicians steeped in jazz – Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day, Billy Eckstine, Peggy Lee, Carmen McRae, Ella Fitzgerald, June Christy, etc. – sold albums by the million. So did singers like Julie London, Nat “King” Cole, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, who brought subtle jazz sensibilities, if not jazz pedigrees (especially in Cole’s case) to their performances.
Crucially, too, recording technology had improved enough by the ’50s to effectively capture the sensitivity of vocal performances on the long-playing album format, most of all its quiet ballad performances. Superlative examples like Helen Carr’s Down in the Depths of the 90th Floor, Johnny Hartman’s Songs From the Heart, Chris Connor’s Sings Ballads of the Sad Cafe and Mel Torme’s It’s a Blue World were hushed expositions of atmosphere and stylized loneliness. They sounded great on hi-fidelity stereos. So did Peggy Lee’s Dream Street, Nat “King” Cole’s Love is the Thing, Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, Jeri Southern’s Coffee, Cigarettes & Memories and all of Julie London’s early small-group releases – releases that, incidentally, sold very, very well.
And so the working reality of smaller, quieter supporting groups, the vogue for torch-y jazz ballads and the affordances of modern recording technology that, made, in turn, these captured performances a rewarding experience for at-home listeners guaranteed that lot of jazz and jazz-inspired vocalists cut records in the ’50s and ’60s. Together they loosely form a fascinating, often obscure, discography of LPs and 45s.
Female vocalists are unequivocally more closely associated with the form, and a future post is planned for them. This week, however, I survey a few of the most haunting examples from the men.
1. Babs Gonzales, Lonely One (Prestige 45-204B)
A true original, Babs Gonzales led a fascinating, colorful life, working, in addition to myriad odd jobs, as singer, lyricist and composer, bandleader, poet, manager and active proponent of jazz and jazz culture. However, if it’s hard to pin down exactly what Babs Gonzales was, it’s because he was first and foremost a personality – a scenester, a tireless self-mythologizer and authentically colorful character.
Born Lee Brown in 1919, Babs grew up in Newark, New Jersey. Early on he showed an aptitude for music, growing up playing drums and piano and singing in local clubs barely out of his teens. He had a gift for adopting personae, too, reinventing himself as Gonzales while living in Hollywood, where he famously worked as Errol Flynn’s chauffeur.
The inimitable Babs Gonzales, shown here with group in the mid-to-late '40s. Image courtesy of William P. Gottlieb via Wikimedia Commons
Gonzales returned and inserted himself into the jazz and creative world of post-War New York City, working and living there – singing, writing, recording, collaborating, hustling, generally presiding – on-and-off, with some obligatory spells in Europe, until his passing in 1980. His wide-ranging exploits are better-documented elsewhere (see I Paid My Dues, a wildly entertaining biography). But it’s worth noting here a bit more about his contributions as a recording artist, especially those as a singer.
Of particular note are Babs’s early recordings, where he focused the most on his singing. (As ‘50s wore on, his releases tended to feature his distinct spoken-word musings – a separate, better-known chapter of his story.) Babs Gonzales was not only one of the first jazz singers to effectively embrace bop, but he was a pioneer of vocalese, a post-War extension of scat improvisation that used words, rather than nonsense syllables, sung as bop jazz solos, a technique later made more famous by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.
His most important 78 sides were recorded between the mid-‘40s and the early ‘50s, during which time he sang with top-tier beboppers – including James Moody’s orchestra and Babs’s own group, Three Bips & a Bop – and released some of his best-known compositions, including “Oop-Pa-A-Da,” recorded by Dizzy Gillespie in 1947.
While prolific – a dizzying number of records were made for major labels and tiny independents alike – there is some truth to the consensus that his singing was limited, and that there was a whiff of novelty hanging about his recordings. But Gonzales also wrote some very serious, very dark songs like “Weird Lullaby,” “Prelude to a Nightmare” and “Lullaby of the Doomed,” all of which received terrific instrumental treatment in the hands of jazz heavyweights like Wynton Kelly, Art Pepper and Bennie Green.
Atmospheric and stunningly beautiful, “Lonely One” belongs among those as well. Recorded with an unknown trio for the great Prestige Records in a comparatively late 1961, Babs brings such harrowing, effective feeling that one wishes for more like this, but, sadly, this would be among of his last “serious” recordings as a jazz singer.
2. Oscar Lindsay, Blue Prelude (ABB – 489)
Born in 1923 or 1924, singer Oscar Lindsay was a founding member of early black harmony group the Four Shades of Rhythm, who began gigging in their home city of Cleveland during World War Two. A vocalist, drummer – Lindsay played the now rarely-seen cocktail drums – and mainstay of the group, Lindsay persisted through several personnel turnovers, a half-dozen 45s and 78s, long club residencies in Chicago (the group’s second home) and national tours.
After one final 45 release in 1960, the Four Shades of Rhythm dissolved. Like popular precursors the Ink Spots, the Four Shades of Rhythm had played their own instruments, and, while not a jazz group per se, they could and did swing. Like the Cats and the Fiddle, for example, or Slim and Slam (Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart), they also sang in jazz-inflected settings, adding popular jazz numbers like “Robbin’s Nest” and “Ghost of a Chance” to their repertory of ballads, uptempo numbers and instrumentals.
So it is less unlikely than it first might seem that, after the Four Shades of Rhythm ended, Lindsay would further explore jazz. Based and working in Chicago, he released a few solo recordings in the early ‘60s, among them The Sophisticated Sounds Of Oscar Lindsay, an obscure and interesting album of jazz and pop balladry, supported by Chicago jazz pianist John Young and his group.
Which brings us to this selection, a version of Gordon Jenkins’s beautiful, despairing late-night ballad “Blue Prelude,” that, I believe, is again supported by John Young and group. Of the era’s well-known versions, including Peggy Lee’s and Judy Garland’s, this version owes perhaps the most to the doom-y atmosphere of Nina Simone’s 1959 treatment. Even by Simone’s standards, however, Lindsay’s is intense, a nocturne built of syrup-slow tempo, deep sensitivity and Lindsay’s wistful intonation.
This seems to have been Lindsay’s last commercial release as a leader, though apparently he still sang with groups into the early 1980s.
Oscar Lindsay passed away in the mid-‘90s.
Sources: Marv Goldberg’s R&B Notebooks, Red Saunders Research Foundation.
3. Burnie Peacock Quartet (Vocal by Harry Reed), “Jewell” (Burnie’s Label BL-218)
Burnie, or Bernie, Peacock was an alto saxophonist and working jazz musician whose recorded legacy spanned the better part of two decades and whose career was spent largely, and largely anonymously, in the trenches of jazz and R&B session and ensemble support work.
Likely born in the late teens or early ’20s, Peacock came up playing music in Detroit and, like many younger journeyman musicians of the ‘40s, could move capably between swing and bop. In the late ‘30s Peacock played briefly with the Jimmy Raschel band, an important incubator for modern jazz players in Detroit. After his return from military service, Peacock passed through the ranks of several regrouped, streamlined versions of popular pre-War orchestras, including those of Don Redman, Lucky Millinder and Cab Calloway.
Contrary to popular history, the lines between bop, swing jazz and R&B were frequently blurred in the early ’50s, and, not unlike many professional musicians of the era who identified first as jazz musicians, Peacock – who spent a lot of time in New York City during this time – not only contributed to early ‘50s R&B-oriented sessions (by top sellers like Annisteen Allen, Bull Moose Jackson and Ruth Brown) but also led a handful of instrumental 78 sides clearly intended for the R&B market.
Those early solo sides document a sing-song-y tone, somewhat in the popular style of Earl Bostic, that hasn’t necessarily worn as well with time. A decade later (after time spent in Korea, again for the military), though, when this recording was made, his tone had clearly mellowed.
From 1962, “Jewell,” the only 45 released on this label, is moonlit mellowness personified, mood music of the highest, most atmospheric order. Sadly and quite surprisingly, vocalist Harry Reed, who here demonstrates his capabilities as a jazz vocalist to great effect, remains a total mystery.
Peacock was working again in the Detroit area at this point. He would spend the next five or six years recording occasionally as a supporting musician for Motown Records as part of their large pool of studio talent, including hits for the Miracles and the Marvelettes, but he seems to have drifted into obscurity after that.