Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Unsung Vocalists of the Past 6: Johnnie Johnston

For a brief spell in the 1940s, it seemed as though Missouri-born crooner Johnnie Johnston was destined for stardom, both as a singer and as an actor. As one of the first artists to be signed to Capitol, Johnston was selling records in respectable quantities and appearing in movies with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. A few questionable personal decisions and unfortunate career moves would eventually end it all, but the surviving recordings that Johnston made in the '40s and '50s amply showcase his talent and provide a good excuse to take a look at his short career.

Born in St. Louis in 1915 (he was just a few days older than Frank Sinatra, and so 2015 marks the centenary of his birth as well), Johnnie Johnston had a beautiful light baritone voice, which, together with his attractive looks, made him a natural to pursue a career as an entertainer. In the 1930s he began a short tenure as the vocalist with the sweet band of Art Kassel, but it was actually his radio and nightclub appearances that would make Hollywood and the record industry beckon. Therefore, Johnston—whose first name was occasionally spelled "Johnny"—soon found himself appearing in low-budget musicals such as Sweater Girl, Incendiary Blonde, and You Can't Ration Love. He was also cast in more important productions, notably Star-Spangled Rhythm, with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, and This Time for Keeps, alongside Esther Williams and Xavier Cugat. In time he would even appear in one of the first and most popular rock'n'roll movies, Rock Around the Clock (1956), but by then his star had pretty much waned.

In 1942, Johnston became one of the first artists to be signed to the fledgling Capitol Records label and scored hits with "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year," "(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings," and "One More Dream." In 1945, his version of the haunting David Raksin and Johnny Mercer song, "Laura" peaked at number 5 on the Billboard charts for five weeks, and suddenly it seemed that Johnston had come to stay. Being slated to sing a couple of songs in the star-studded 1946 Jerome Kern biopic, Till the Clouds Roll By, with Sinatra, Lena Horne, and Judy Garland, among many others, certainly could not hurt, but here is where the Johnston story starts going awry. After filming two medleys with his future wife, Kathryn Grayson, Johnston seems to have gotten into a serious row with studio mogul Louis B. Mayer, which ultimately led to the deletion of his scenes from the final cut of the movie. Just why this argument came about is unclear seventy years later; Edward Chase, who wrote the liner notes for the only CD release of Johnston's recordings currently available, describes it in rather vague terms:

Then, so the story has it, Louis B. Mayer came onto the set, where Johnston, perhaps carried away with his incipient success, proceeded in a jocular way, and with coarse language, to humiliate him. The upshot was that Mayer, unforgiving, summarily dismissed him from the film, and ordered the actor's two completed scenes to be deleted from the final cut.

It is unclear why a newcomer like Johnston would feel that it was a good idea to "humiliate" a powerful man like Mayer, but whatever actually happened that day on the set, this run-in with the studio boss definitely hurt Johnston's career. Not only was he cut from the movie, but his subsequent recordings for MGM after leaving Capitol did not sell well, and Johnston never recaptured the momentum he had gained with "Laura" and his previous hit records. In 1947, following their meeting on the set of Till the Clouds Roll By, Johnston and Kathryn Grayson married, but their marriage only lasted until 1951. That same year Johnston starred in the Broadway production A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a very promising show based on a novel by Betty Smith and with a score by none other than Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields. The show, however, was a flop from which Johnston's career would never recover, and other than his appearance in Rock Around the Clock, his work would be limited to occasional television spots and a few nightclub dates. According to his New York Times obituary, Johnston had come out of retirement very seldom (for instance, to perform at Capitol Records' fortieth-anniversary party), and by the time of his death in 1996 in Cape Coral, Florida, he had been married six times.

The only CD compilation of Johnston's recordings that is still readily available was released in 2007 by the British label Flare Records, and it features 24 of the best cuts he made for Capitol and MGM between 1944 and 1956. Though he is evidently influenced by Bing Crosby, he often sounds a little bit like a more mature Russ Columbo, which may actually indicate that he has been listening carefully to Frank Sinatra's early Columbia work of the period. This is particularly noticeable in his hit version of "Laura," which he sings in a softer, more understated tone than, say, Dick Haymes, who also recorded it around the same time. Unlike Crosby and Sinatra at that stage of their careers, Johnston used several different arrangers and conductors on these sessions, notably Paul Weston, Lennie Hayton, Sonny Burke, Carl Kress, and Lloyd Shaffer. Johnston did not always get to record first-rate songs, but besides the hits, there are quite a few gems here, including "Irresistible You," "There Must Be a Way," "Autumn Serenade" (memorably revived by Johnny Hartman on his album with John Coltrane), "Why Should I Cry Over You," "When You and I Were Seventeen," "As We Are Today," and "Melancholy Rhapsody."

One of the tunes from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, "I'll Buy You a Star," a little overdone in this Max Goberman arrangement, is also included, as is "I've Told Ev'ry Little Star / The Song Is You," the one surviving medley with Grayson from Till the Clouds Roll By (the other one they cut seems to have been damaged and lost forever). The CD closes with two songs from Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate ("So in Love" and "Wunderbar") that Johnston recorded with Grayson (by then already his ex-wife and the star of the film version of that Porter musical) In Los Angeles in 1956. In my opinion, the pairing of Johnston's baritone and Grayson's operatic voice does not blend very well, and in any case, a light operatic approach was never Johnston's forte. But, overall, there is a wealth of attractive material here that more often than not suits Johnston extremely well and shows that his legacy definitely deserves to be better appreciated that it is today.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Arranged by... Nelson Riddle: Rosemary Clooney's Rosie Solves the Swingin' Riddle!

After a two-week-long silence due to my having led a group of students from the University of Tennessee at Martin on a study-abroad trip to Europe, The Vintage Bandstand returns with the first installment in the new Arranged by... series of articles. These posts will concentrate on albums on which legendary arrangers have left an indelible mark. And for the first one we are taking a closer look at one of Rosemary Clooney's masterpieces, recorded in 1960 for RCA-Victor and arranged by the great Nelson Riddle.

By the time he wrote these twelve charts for Rosemary Clooney in 1960, Nelson Riddle had made musical history throughout the 1950s with the epoch-making albums he arranged for Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, and most of all, Frank Sinatra. He had also been working with Clooney for several years as the musical director of her television show, and the closeness and warmth of that association comes across on the album they cut together, which someone at RCA shamelessly decided to name Rosie Solves the Swingin' Riddle!, not even sparing the exclamation point at the end.

Riddle and Clooney several years after this project
While the title may be a ridiculous attempt at wordplay, the album itself remains one of the best in the prolific careers of both Rosie and Nelson, a perfect blend of self-assured singing and sympathetic arranging. The emotional connection between the two is very evident: indeed, in the original liner notes, Riddle mentions that Clooney "happens to be one of my favorite people," and then goes on to say that "Rosemary Clooney is a wonderful vocalist. More than a singer, she's a musician. She does everything well. Her phrasing, taste, and ability to swing make arranging and conducting a real pleasure. As a consequence, this album has been one of my most enjoyable experiences." As Riddle biographer Peter J. Levinson states in his notes to the 2004 CD reissue, Clooney shared a similar view about her work with the arranger: he quotes Rosie as saying that her association with Nelson was "the best blending of my job and my personal life that I've ever had." And so it was, because Clooney's relationship with Riddle was not all work and no play—the two were involved in an affair that would ultimately lead to the collapse of both of their marriages, and one that Rosie would remember fondly several years later when she called Nelson the love of her life.

Leaving their personal lives aside, there is no doubt, upon listening to Rosie Solves the Swingin' Riddle!, that the romantic connection that vocalist and arranger shared translated naturally to the finished recorded product. The album was cut in May and June 1960, and Riddle's studio orchestra featured at the time some of the best West Coast musicians around, including trumpeters Cappy Lewis, Pete Candoli, Shorty Sherock, and Don Fagerquist, saxophonists Buddy Collette and Plas Johnson, guitarist Al Hendrickson, pianist Bill Miller (famous for his work with Sinatra), bassist Joe Comfort, and drummer Alvin Stoller, among others. Many of them were familiar with Clooney's singing from working in the orchestra used on her television show, which makes the interaction between singer and band even closer and more effective. As they worked together in the 1950s, Riddle and Sinatra had come naturally to the realization that the clear-cut division between swingers and ballads in the old swing band days needn't be that strict, because swingers could be slowed down and, similarly, ballads could be made to swing lightly. That idea became one of Riddle's trademarks and added to the appeal of his arrangements; such a principle is clearly at work on this album, and as usual, to great effect.

This is apparent in the album opener, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's "Get Me to the Church on Time," which is brassy but more understated than one would think. The next tune, "Angry," pretty much fits the same mold, while Hoagy Carmichael's reflective ballad, "I Get Along Without You Very Well," is taken at a much sprightlier tempo than other versions by, say, Sinatra or Chet Baker. In the hands of Clooney and Riddle, it is a ballad that swings easily but that does not lose any of its introspective quality. The two reach back in time quite a bit on some of the tracks: that is the case with the Gene Austin-associated "How Am I to Know" (with lyrics by Dorothy Parker), beautifully punctuated by saxophone solos from Plas Johnson. Other songs included in the album that often hark back to the old vaudeville days are "I Ain't Got Nobody," Shelton Brooks's "Some of These Days," "Shine on Harvest Moon," and the Ethel Waters classic "Cabin in the Sky," all of which demonstrate Clooney's appreciation of first-class pop and jazz-inflected songwriting.

On Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's "You Took Advantage of Me," Riddle's writing is clearly reminiscent of his work with Sinatra on Songs for Swinging Lovers and A Swingin' Affair, and Rosie's singing, underscored by George Roberts's clever work on trombone,  shows how important lyrics always were to her when it came to interpreting a song. The Latin-tinged arrangement of "April in Paris" is initially driven by Jack Costanzo on bongos, but toward the end of the chart, the orchestra takes over and supports Clooney's vocals in style. Annotator Levinson calls "By Myself," written by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz and revived by Fred Astaire in the movie The Band Wagon, "the gem of this CD," and in the light of the seamless interaction between Clooney and the orchestra, it is hard to argue with him. But then the album is really a gem as a whole, and by the time we reach the last track, "Limehouse Blues," we are more than ready to overlook the occasional gimmicks that Riddle employs on this Asian-influenced melody, which actually works very well as a closer. It is to this record what, say, "It Happened in Monterey" was to Sinatra's Songs for Swinging Lovers. The CD reissue includes two bonus tracks, recorded almost a year later, in April 1961, and although "Without Love" and "The Wonderful Season of Love" (the theme from the then-current movie Return to Peyton Place) are more conventional ballads, they are worthy additions to the package and show what a good string writer Riddle was. Overall, Rosie Solves the Swingin' Riddle! can be considered the crown jewel of the personal and professional association between Rosemary Clooney and Nelson Riddle, a passionate romantic affair that, fortunately for us, also resulted in a most swinging musical affair.

Rosie and Nelson at work in the studio