It’s impossible to talk about jazz pianist Horace Silver without regurgitating the same plaudits that, in reality, are entirely accurate. To begin with, Silver is a consistent and prolific composer with an enviable body of original material to his name. Moreover, he is one of the giants of post-War bop piano, a sophisticated craftsman and highly influential trendsetter. The elegant, stylized aspects of blues and gospel music that have infused his playing since the early ’50 subsequently informed the hard bop aesthetic that coalesced later in that decade, many of the musicians who’ve passed through Silver’s combos championing the style in turn.
But if it’s the infectious, earthy tones of compositions like “The Preacher” and “Sister Sadie” for which Silver is best known, it’s the dark, Latin-tinged and exotic side of his discography – compositions like “Song for my Father,” “The Dragon Lady,” “Safari,” “Tokyo Blues,” “Baghdad Blues” and many others – that have made Silver, for me, a lasting favorite.
The influence of Cape Verdean folk music (Silver’s father came from the Portuguese-speaking Cape Verde islands off the West African coast) on Silver’s exotic strain gets a lot of citation. In my opinion the extent of that influence is a bit overstated. If anything, it was Afro-Latin forms – the early Latin bop experiments of Machito, Dizzy Gillespie and Chico O’Farrill, for instance, as well as the pervasiveness of and vogue for popular Latin rhythms like mambo, guaguanco and cha at the time in New York City – that informed Silver’s aesthetic in at least equal measure.
Either way, it’s one of his best-known Latin-derived recordings that gets the spotlight this week. “Señor Blues” first appeared on Silver’s classic 1956 album Six Pieces of Silver. It was recorded by some top-flight musicians, all borrowed from Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers: trumpeter Donald Byrd, tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, bassist Doug Watkins and drummer Louis Hayes. And, crucially, it was one of Silver’s earliest Latin-inspired compositions. The hypnotic melody, unusual time signature and perfectly balanced arrangement of “Señor Blues” exemplify everything appealing about Silver’s darker, more exotic proclivities.
Since its original release, “Señor Blues” has been recorded countless times, organically working its way into the Latin jazz repertoire as well. It has also, perhaps more than any other Silver composition, inspired a fair number of vocal readings over the years. The lyrics were penned by Silver himself, as far as I can tell, and are simple to the point of cliché, and not a bit ridiculous:
Señor Blues is what they call him
Way down Mexicali way
Señoritas fallin’ for him,
With the hope that he will stay
But somehow the image of the wayfaring lothario works here. It fits the mysterious atmosphere of the composition beautifully, summoning the night, heartbreak and wild impulses all at once, transporting the listener to other, more tempestuous places.
1. Jeri Southern, Señor Blues (Capitol F4135)
Vocalist Jeri Southern was born Genevieve Hering in 1926 in the tiny northeastern Nebraska town of Royal.
A tremendous musical talent, Southern began classical piano training very early on. Upon graduating from Notre Dame High School, Southern increasingly gravitated towards pop, and not long thereafter, jazz. Omaha hotel residencies and World War Two Navy recruiting tours were followed by the inevitable move to the Chicago in the late ‘40s. As her professional nightclub career gained momentum, it would be her unique singing – a talent that she’d only developed incidentally – that attracted the most attention.
Better club dates followed, and so did regular Chicago radio and television appearances, and so, eventually, did a contract with Decca Records. Along with some excellent early ‘50s 78 sides for the label, her seven jazz-inflected Decca albums – from 1953’s Warm… Intimate Songs in the Jeri Southern Style to 1958’s Southern Hospitality perhaps best encapsulate Southern’s introspective style. Southern had a gift for balancing control with naturalistic, almost detached, expressiveness – the result of which is a deep, very attractive sense of melancholy. In addition to accompanying herself on piano, Southern’s Decca records also showed a notable penchant for unusual song choices – witness “Miss Johnson Phoned Again Today” or the exotic “One Day I Wrote His Name Upon the Sand.”
Southern’s Decca records proved her most commercially successful, giving her minor hits with “You Better Go Now,” “Joey” and “Fire Down Below.” Several full-length efforts for Roulette Records in the late ‘50s were also of similarly high quality.
After relocating to Los Angeles in the late ‘50s, this 45-only version of “Señor Blues,” released early in 1959, would inaugurate a short-lived contract with Capitol Records. And what a version. With Bob Thompson’s orchestra providing thunderous, dramatic support, Southern is characteristically deadly here, exuding world-weariness and a cool sexuality.
Two full-lengths ensued for Capitol Records – both superlative efforts, again – but Southern, exhausted with the music business’s machinations, famously exited the industry at age thirty-six, in 1962, never to return. In addition to penning the 1972 book Interpreting Popular Music At The Keyboard, Southern would live out her years as a vocal and piano coach in Hollywood. She died in in 1991 from complications from pneumonia.
2. Bill Henderson with the Horace Silver Quintet, Señor Blues (Blue Note 45-1710-A)
Chicago-born jazz singer Bill Henderson (b. 1926) took to show business at a very tender age, singing and dancing for local city Vaudeville-type theater and radio productions. Like many of the post-War generation of jazz modernists, he spent time overseas during World War Two, entertaining in Europe as part of an Army Special Services company. After the war, Henderson returned to Chicago to scuffle, resuming work in the music business in the ‘50s as a vocalist with an early incarnation of Ramsey Lewis’s jazz combo. Again, like many jazz musicians of his generation, Henderson made his way to New York City, relocating there in 1956.
In 1958, Henderson made his debut recording with this, his very confident reading – and the first vocal original, I believe – of “Señor Blues.” Along with Henderson’s distinctive baritone voice, it features the support of the Horace Silver Quintet, who are heard here two years after Silver’s original instrumental recording, this time with Silver, Louis Hayes (drums), Donald Byrd (trumpet), Eugene Taylor (bass) and Junior Cook (tenor saxophone). Released only on 45, it sold fairly well for Blue Note Records, whose 45 discography remained widely popular in the jukebox era of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
This record would be one of several Henderson 45-only releases for Blue Note, and it demonstrates the rich, slightly rasping, blues-tinged croon that was his trademark.
Henderson’s career would be divided between Chicago and the East Coast over the next few years, with a series of solid and versatile bop-oriented albums for the Verve and Vee-Jay labels, dates largely made with different configurations of Chicago-based jazz musicians. (A 1963 Oscar Peterson session was a notable exception).
After time spent in the ‘60s as a vocalist with the Count Basie Orchestra, then still a touring juggernaut, Henderson settled in Los Angeles in the late ‘60s, where he pursued an acting career. There were several jazz albums to his name for Los Angeles-based labels, along with some notable guest spots, but Henderson mostly supported himself with voiceover work and parts in television and film in the ‘70s and ‘80s, his recording and performance schedule slowing correspondingly.
Henderson, still currently living in Los Angeles, seems to have dedicated himself anew to his singing in recent years, with some notable East Coast appearances and a live album, 2008’s But Beautiful: Bill Henderson Live at the Vic, featuring the octogenarian vocalist sounding happily limber.
You can keep up with Bill Henderson at his website.
3. Rose Hardaway, Señor Blues (Decca 9-30893)
A now-obscure entertainer and vocalist, details about Rose Hardaway are meager at best.
Born in Arkansas in 1931, raised in Chicago, Hardaway’s name was best known in the ‘50s, when she spent periods in Detroit, New York City, London and Paris. She seems to have carved a role in musical theater – not to mention a place in elite black entertainment circles – from the start. At least in the early ‘50s, she was noted mostly for her fetching looks and her work in touring entertainment revues – as a risqué shake dancer, namely – the ups and downs of her personal life tracked obsessively by Jet magazine during the decade.
At some point in the mid-‘50s, Hardaway seems to have begun concentrating more on vocal work, with ensuing appearances in touring shows and various musical productions. In the late ‘50s, a handful of recordings also appeared. Released in mid-1959, Hardaway’s “Señor Blues,” a torrid, vampy reading that betrays her theater sensibilities, would be the first, and best, among them. Another Decca 45 (“That’s What We’re Here For b/w “What You Don’t Know Won’t Hurt You”) would follow, with a full-length album by Hardaway released in 1960 for the New York City-based Latin-oriented label Seeco.
That album – It’s Time for Rose Hardaway – was a solid pop vocal effort. It would also be her last recording. There’s little, almost drastically so, about Hardaway’s subsequent whereabouts. She seems to have been beset by various travails at points in her life, however. In 1952, she was picked up for drugs (along with pianist Erroll Garner) as well as cited independently as the “other woman” in the divorce proceeding between dancer Teddy Hale and his wife. And in 1959, she was jailed for some combination of larceny and forgery, though in the short run this seems to have been inconsequential to her recording career.
There are more details, undoubtedly, but for the moment they remain untold, it being hard not to suspect that further personal and legal troubles contributed to her complete disappearance from the limelight. I would love to know more about Rose Hardaway.