Recording Date: Jan 23, 1956-Apr 1961
All Music Guide
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Around 1975, the jazz singer once known as the epitome of cool interrupted a long retirement to try her hand at coaching. One of the aspiring vocalists who passed through June Christy's home in North Hollywood was Lesley Mitchell, the niece of Christy's former bassist Red Mitchell. The young woman was eager to learn the magic of Stan Kenton's star discovery of 1945, whom Rosemary Clooney recalled as "the California kind of singer" with the lovely spring dresses and the suntan and the blonde, blonde hair." Later, the title of her trademark song, "Something Cool," gave Christy a convenient identity in the press. Yet Mitchell certainly wasn't prepared for the singing "techniques" her hero shared: "She said that before her gigs with Kenton. she would step out onto the loading dock of the theater and scream bloody murder at the top of her lungs. That was her warm-up."
Christy had belied her "cool" image in 13 solo albums for Capitol (1954-1965). There, in a throaty alto filled with soul and pain, she indulged her taste for dark story-songs about conflicted love. Her singing was sometimes as troubled as her subject matter. In a field where Sarah Vaughan and Mel Torme were setting almost unattainable standards of vocal perfection, Christy's technical shortcomings made her sound all the more human. "One of my difficulties has always been intonation," she acknowledged in Down Beat. "I don't think I swing too well, either." The critics never let her forget it: John S. Wilson of the New York Times dismissed her voice as a "flat, hoarse monotone": Mark Gardner of England's Jazz Journal declared her "by no stretch of the imagination a jazz singer." After the release of her Something Cool album, with its ice-blue cover painting of her face beside a frosty cocktail, reviewers began calling her cold, which hurt her the most. "I don't know of anyone who knew my mother who considered her cold," said her daughter Shay Cooper. "The thing that stands out most about her is her incredible warmth and compassion."
Christy's forte was the ballad, and this CD gathers 16 of her best - each a souvenir of one of the most honest interpreters in jazz, and the most discerning. Singer Mark Murphy, her colleague on Capitol, was astounded at her ear tor offbeat tunes. "She was very, very adventurous." he said. "She even attempted songs that were almost beyond her range. These songs are evolved lyrically, evolved harmonically. June wasn't singing for a pop audience."
She had taken a hard road at age 20. At that time, the former Shirley Luster of Decatur. Illinois replaced her idol Anita O'Day - the founder of the "cool school" of frosty-voiced jazz singers - with Stan Kenton's orchestra. Christy had to out-sing Kenton's screaming brass and master written-out bebop improvisations in tunes like "How High the Moon." "No one in my family is musically inclined." she told DJ Gordon Spencer in 1985. "My mother thought that I was out of my mind." Bold and frightened at the same time, she was always looking to ease her anxiety, and became known for her ability to outdrink almost everyone on the band bus. A stabilizing influence came from the man she married in 1947: Kenton saxophonist Bob Cooper, whom Art Pepper once recalled as "one of the warmest, most polite, pleasantest people - just a sweetheart." The couple stayed together until Christy died.
By the early '50s. she had embarked on a solo career with Capitol. The label kept assigning her trite pop ditties, which she hated. Christy rebelled in 1953 when she fought to record a dramatic vignette by revue composer Billy Barnes. "Something Cool" was the monologue of a woman who regales a stranger in a bar with delusional tales of her glitzy past. Barnes wrote it at the dawn of a growing fascination with "cool" and all its trappings - slick, shiny cars; hipster lingo; the music of Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. Christy's vocal suggested a dark underside to that world, while arranger Pete Rugolo. another Kenton graduate, mocked the title phrase with a dissonant stab of brass.
"Something Cool" led off an album of equally rarefied songs. They include "Lonely House." a chillingly atmospheric lament from the Kurt Weill-Langston Hughes musical Street Scene. "The Night We Called It A Day," an urbane torch song by Matt Dennis and Tom Adair and "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise," a 1928 operetta ballad that became a jazz standard when Christy recorded it. Rugolo, who had studied with the jazz-influenced French composer Darius Milhaud, belonged to a new school of arrangers - Gil Evans, Johnny Richards, George Russell - whose use of classical harmony and tone color had revolutionized their field. "I wrote some awfully difficult things for June." he said, "and some crazy endings, but I was lucky - nobody ever told me, 'That's too weird." Just before the album's release, however. Christy told a DJ: "It probably won't sell, but it's my baby and it's gonna come out anyway."
By decade's end, Something Coo! had amazed everyone by selling a quarter-million copies. For lovers of sophisticated jazz singing, it remains a milestone. In 1960. Christy and Rugolo remade the whole album in stereo, yielding the tracks heard here. Christy's singing had grown more strained, but her feeling had only deepened.
After Something Cool, said the arranger. "Capitol let June do anything she wanted." That included six more albums with Rugolo, who for all his experimentation was as sensitive to the words as Christy. On The Song Is June (1958) they took a blithe Rodgers and Hart song about solitude. "Nobody's Heart," and turned it into an admission of sheer hopelessness. Many of the other songs they recorded together challenged the blase stereotype of "cool." In Russ Freeman and Jerry Gladstone's "The Wind," the cold night is a tempest of shattered dreams. Rugolo evokes it with a quintet of icy strings, while Christy's self-inflicted cry of failure - "You fool, you fool!" - cuts to the bone. In 1961 she made a bittersweet holiday album of originals by Connie Pearce and Arnold Miller, an obscure writing team that she loved. "This Time Of Year," the title song, shifts the alcoholic despair of "Something Cool" to a snowy Christmas Eve. Three other tunes from that album - the folk-like "The Magic Gift," the children's ballad "The Little Star," and "Winter's Got Spring Up Its Sleeve" - don't rely on Christmas for their charm.
Christy's voice was at its sunniest in Gone For The Day (1957), a set of outdoorsy love songs. It includes Rugolo's Interlude, a onetime Kenton instrumental with a lyric written for Christy by Bob Russell. The leafy Shangri-La of that album appealed to her much more than the inside of any nightclub. Earthy as a country girl, she stored her gowns in her kitchen broom closet, and liked telling people she only went on the road when she needed to pay for new drapes. "I want so much to be at home with Coop all the time and to paint and work in the garden," she said in Down Beat "Yet I want to accomplish this which I feel so strongly inside. It's a terrible conflict with me."
In her San Fernando Valley house, she loved hanging out with musician friends like trombonist Frank Rosolino, saxophonist Pete Christlieb, and Joe Castro, who became her pianist in 1958. Castro was known for the trio he led at the Mocambo in Hollywood, and for the late-night jam sessions he held at Falcon Lair, the Beverly Hills mansion he shared with heiress Doris Duke. Called a "hard-swinging, jubilant modern soloist" by Leonard Feather, he was equally gifted as an accompanist and tunesmith. and turned Christy on to songs like Billy Strayhorn's "Kissing Bug," which he recorded with her on Ballads For Night People (1959).
From the same album comes "Night People." a tune from The Nemos Set, the 1959 Broadway show in which Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman (along with bookwriter-beatnik Jay Landesman) explored the Beat Generation. Bob Cooper's chart, a fugue-like interweaving of oboe, French horn and alto flute, posed no apparent problem for Christy. Though she couldn't read music, she was a "very quick learner." Castro said. "Once through and that was it." The next year. Cooper placed his wife in counterpoint with an oboe on the mournful "Cry Like The Wind," from their jazz version of the score of Broadway's Do Re Mi.
Reluctantly, Christy toured to support her records. She entertained the troops in Korea, played Japan and Hawaii, traveled with Kenton and the Four Freshmen, and worked solo dates in clubs like the Crescendo on Hollywood's Sunset Strip. Her fear of audiences was intense - "They want to be up here, and I'd rather be down there." she told Castro - but she tried to hide it. Except for the obligatory "Something Cool," she stuck with chirpy up-tunes, sung through a clenched smile as she snapped her fingers nervously. "When she got offstage, she'd be shaking and just a nervous wreck." said her daughter Shay. She began relying on Johnny Walker scotch to calm her nerves before a show, and the effects were all too obvious. Castro later shuddered at the memory of Christy "by herself in her Lincoln, driving home over those hills every night."
By the mid-'60s her voice had deteriorated, as had the market for jazz singing. Her last Capitol album, Something Broadway. Something Latin, featured a choice selection of showtunes marred by cheesy Latin settings. The British jazz magazine Crescendo dismissed it curtly with the words: "better luck next time." Not quite forty, Christy moved into retirement. At home in Sherman Oaks, she raised Shay, watched TV. and played golf with Cooper, who continued a studio career. Her will to sing remained, but so did her phobias. Joining Kenton at the 1972 Newport Jazz Festival in New York, she was almost crippled with fright before a loving audience. The studio was still her home, though, and five years later she made her last album, Impromptu, with a quintet of her old West Coast pals, including Frank Rosolino and pianist Lou Levy. Though the wear in her voice disturbed some listeners. Christy sang with newfound rhythmic verve, while her ballads were almost painfully raw. Clearty she knew her vocals had the ring of truth. "She was awfully excited about making that album," said Shay, who later sang along to it with her mother as they did the dishes. "I think it was the only record of hers that she liked."
Every few years she gave performing another try, with increasingly sad results. Other members of Kenton's "cool school" had fallen apart in various ways. Anita O'Oay traded heroin addiction for years of alcoholism. Chris Connor's often wildly uninhibited singing was sparked by her own drinking problem, which she conquered in the late 70s. In 1982. Ann Richards. Kenton's ex-wife and singer, put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger. Christy succumbed to kidney failure on June 21.1990. Four years later. Bob Cooper died of a heart attack in his car on the way to a rehearsal in Hollywood.
Strangely. Christy had long considered herself just an ex-band singer. In her interview with Gordon Spencer, she brushed off her solo work as if it meant nothing at all. Time has proven her wrong. The arrangements here still sound modern, while the singing is more moving than ever. As these ballads show. June Christy's voice is many degrees warmer than cool.
- James Gavin. New York City. 1999