A collection of reviews about my favorite recordings of vintage jazz, classic pop, and the crooners, including the biggest stars and some obscure names, published by Anton Garcia-Fernandez in Martin, Tennessee, U.S.A.
Vintage Records Review Desk 3: Tony Martin, Dickie Valentine, Chris Connor, Count Basie, Harry James
Now that our first baby daughter, Lillian Sabela Garcia-Fernandez, "Libby," has arrived and filled our lives with joy, I understandably have less free time to devote to writing articles for The Vintage Bandstand. However, a recent trip to Nashville's best used record store, The Great Escape, yielded some interesting finds, five of which are briefly under scrutiny here. None of them are new releases, but in my opinion, they are all worth your time and your money for different reasons.
We begin with three vocal records—two interesting compilations and an all-time classic album. The first of them, The Best of Tony Martin: The Mercury Years (Mercury, 1996), brings together the twenty-five tracks that Tony Martin laid down for Mercury over a two-year period, in 1946 and 1947. By this time, Martin was an established star thanks to several hit recordings made for Brunswick and Decca before World War II. These post-war Mercury sides represent a sort of transition for Martin, who would make his most enduring contributions to American popular music after leaving the label and signing with RCA. The six sessions that Martin cut for Mercury find him covering other artists' hits, such as Eddy Howard's "To Each His Own" and Johnny Mercer's "A Gal in Calico," but also attempting older songs like "Guilty", "I'll See You in My Dreams," and "I Kiss Your Hand, Madame," as well as standards such as "Stardust," "Body and Soul," and "Tea for Two." Martin's rich, powerful voice is in perfect form here, accompanied by accomplished studio orchestras conducted by Al Sack and with occasional backing from vocal groups The Starlighters and The Lyttle Sisters.
Though totally unknown in the United States and endowed with a vocal instrument that was not as powerful as Martin's, British crooner Dickie Valentine quickly built a loyal following in the United Kingdom throughout the 1950s, scoring big hits like "Mr. Sandman" and "The Finger of Suspicion." His fifties singles are compiled in the three-CD set The Complete 50s Singles (Acrobat, 2010), which even unearths his rare early recordings with the Ted Heath Orchestra. These were the days before the advent of rock'n'roll, before Elvis and Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard, and Valentine's soft, caressing voice was tailor-made for sweet, romantic ballads. Like most vocalists of the period, Valentine came out of the very active British dance band scene, graduating to a very successful solo career after a brief stint with Heath, whose band would back him on some of his solo recordings. His voice was better suited to ballads than to rhythm numbers, which is perhaps why he waxed several waltzes and covered quite a few Nat King Cole numbers for the British market. By the late 1950s his record sales were deeply affected by the growing popularity of skiffle and rock'n'roll, to such an extent that he virtually quit making records in the 1960s. His life came to a tragic closing in 1971, following a car crash, but the songs featured in this compilation are among the best British pop produced in the 1950s.
In 1954, around the same time that Valentine was hitting his stride in the British Isles, Chris Connor put an end to her long tenure with the Stan Kenton Orchestra and kicked off her solo career with a 10-inch LP cut for Bethlehem Records. Its contents, along with material culled from further sessions made around the same time, were reissued on Chris Connor Sings Lullabys of Birdland (Avenue Jazz, 2000). The CD opens with five songs on which Connor is beautifully accompanied by a trio led by the often-underrated Ellis Larkins, whose backing shows a perfect understanding of Connor's wistful vocal style. As the title of the album suggests, Connor does treat classics such as "What Is There to Say," "Try a Little Tenderness," and "Spring Is Here" as lullabies sung in a subdued, relaxed way, sometimes vaguely reminiscent of Lee Wiley's fifties recordings. These five opening tunes are followed by three sides from a session with a full orchestra arranged and conducted by Sy Oliver, which are not as satisfying despite Connor's fine vocals and Oliver's tasteful arrangements. Among these, the ballad "Blue Silhouette" is decidedly the winner. Connor returns to a small-group setting for the last session that makes up the CD, for which the Vinnie Burke Quintet provides some elegant backing that is very well suited to Connor's voice. Together, they turn in some great renditions of standards like "A Cottage for Sale," "How Long Has This Been Going On?" and "Gone with the Wind," closing the session with an interesting reading of Gordon Jenkins' "Goodbye." Overall, this is one of the best albums in the discography of Chris Connor and proves that, at least in the early years of her solo career, she felt much more comfortable singing with a jazz-oriented small group than with a larger orchestra.
The most pleasant surprises of my record-buying trip to Nashville, though, were two compilations that I was certainly not expecting to find. One of them, The Complete Decca Recordings (MCA, 1992) of Count Basie, is a three-CD set that no serious jazz record collection should be without. Cut between 1937 and 1939, these are the sides that cemented the reputation of one of the most swinging of all big bands, whose ranks were graced during this period by so much talent that it would be unfair not to mention each and every one of the participants. In any case, Basie's sidemen on his Decca recordings include, among others, Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Herschel Evans, Claude Williams, Freddie Green, Chu Berry, Dicky Wells, Walter Page, Jo Jones, and Harry "Sweets" Edison, all of them at or near the peak of their powers. Vocal duties were handled by Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes, both of whom cut some of their career-defining sides for Basie, and with musicians of such stature, it is no wonder that even the weaker numbers that Decca made the band record make for a thrilling listening experience. The set, complete with photos, personnel information, and comprehensive liner notes by Steven Lasker, constitutes, in the words of critics Richard Cook and Brian Morton, "desert-island music and . . . a priority for collectors." Unfortunately, it is currently out of print, but anyone lucky enough, as I was, to find a copy, needn't have any second thoughts about adding it to their collection.
Also out of print is the final disc under review today, a lovely collection of live cuts by Harry James and His Music Makers made during an engagement at the Hollywood Palladium in March and April of 1955 and issued on CD simply as Trumpet Blues (Drive Entertainment, 1995). There is at least a two-fold reason why this release is highly recommendable: for one thing, there is a dearth of live recordings of the James band from the 1950s; moreover, these are excellent recordings made using a pioneering stereo tape recorder developed by the sound engineer Gerry Macdonald. Then, of course, there is the music itself: it is, indeed, a joy to listen to the James orchestra in such high fidelity going through an appealing mixture of old hits ("You Made Me Love You"), throwbacks to James' tenure with Benny Goodman ("Roll 'Em," "Don't Be That Way," "Stealin' Apples"), and some Basie-influenced numbers ("Two O'Clock Jump," "Back Beat Boogie"). The CD opens with James' own hard-swinging "Trumpet Blues" and features a beautiful reading of "Serenade in Blue" and a Latin-flavored take on "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White." The Harry James band that appeared at the Hollywood Palladium in 1955 boasted a group of outstanding musicians, including such legends as Juan Tizol (valve trombone), Willie Smith (alto sax), Corky Corcoran (tenor sax), and Larry Kinnamon (piano). Unreleased for almost forty years, these recordings attest to the amazing musicianship of the post-Big Band Era James orchestra, and the good news is that Macdonald also captured the bands of Les Brown and Les & Larry Elgart on the same stage and using the same recording equipment.