Ask someone to name the top three female jazz singers of all time, certainly from the years of (what I think of as) “peak jazz” in the 1940’s and 50’s, and the three names that will almost always land in a tight group at the top are Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan – not necessarily in that order. Each did the music in her own inimitable way, and we are all richer for their long careers.
If we were to expand the list, there are many more names. Etta James, Nancy Wilson, Carmen MacRae, Betty Carter, and, well, I could keep going. What is interesting is that African-American singers are always the ones who naturally jump to the front of most minds and come first from most tongues. And there is a reason for this – because all of these ladies were just so, so good.
There is, however, a much tougher question we could ask – name the top three female jazz singers of all time who are NOT of African ancestry. This is where things break down a bit. Of the era we highlight here, Peggy Lee’s name will be up there, but after that there will be a handful artists who only come to mind after no little amount of thought – almost always met by the response of “Oh yeah, that’s right, I forgot about her!” Look at any “top ten” kind of list and there will be a smattering of names, but not all of the names make all of the lists. There is Julie London, there is Anita O’Day, there is Blossom Dearie, and there is another one who will make any list I have a part in – June Christy.
Born November 20, 1925 in Springfield, Illinois, Shirley Luster grew into a born singer who was singing for local bands before she even started high school. She caught a break after graduation and sang for a couple of bigger but still obscure names under the name of Sharon Leslie. Her jump to the big time came when she heard that Stan Kenton was looking for a singer. She got the job and changed her name for the last time – to June Christy.
Stan Kenton’s was not the kind of band that was a natural place for a singer, but June was his one and only into the very early 1950’s, giving him some of the biggest commercial hits his band ever had (such as they were). It was there, however, that she picked up that special something that made her stand out. Being backed by a band that specialized in innovative chord structures and harmonies formed June Christy’s musical sensibilities. We have featured Stan the Man a couple of times (here and here) but never the girl who gave his band its signature vocal sound.
Although it is not my feature piece, I will throw in a bonus track that exemplifies June’s atypical experience as the big band era came to a close. Because a jazz piece here without a 78 rpm record just seems wrong. This 1946 Kenton recording of Willow Weep For Me (which reverses typical period roles with about 65% June and 35% band) shines a bit of light on her musical foundations. Even though she never learned to read music she soaked up the experience which added to a naturally high “musical IQ”.
Perhaps this is how she did a pretty good job of avoiding the worst trends in pop music during her active years, and there were quite a few of them. I have long considered the early 1950’s to be a kind of musical desert. No wonder rock and roll came along.
And then there was that voice – nobody sounded quite like June Christy. Her voice had a certain quality to it – is laryngitical a word? If not it should be, because it is how I would describe her bright, clean and sometimes sultry voice that always seemed on the verge of a case of laryngitis. A teeny bit of raspy that was there from the very beginning and made June readily identifiable.
This post was actually going to be about a record that Ella Fitzgerald made in the 1940’s. We are going to have to come back to that one, because through some really random musical jumps I found my way to June’s first solo album, Something Cool. I have not stopped listening to it for the last week.
It began as a 10 inch LP issued by Capitol in 1954, enlarged to a 12 inch LP the following year with the addition of four songs, for a new total of eleven.
Those small LPs were a very short-lived thing. They were intended for popular music when Columbia introduced the LP in 1948, with the larger 12 inch discs meant for classical titles. Columbia and the others turned out to be wrong because the 10 inchers were pretty much gone by 1955.
June was backed by several musicians usually associated with the Kenton orbit, including leader/arranger Pete Rugulo – and her saxophone playing long-time husband Bob Cooper. The album proved quite popular, so much so that June and Pete Rugolo re-recorded the entire thing in stereo for a 1960 re-release. I guess new cover art in color was a good choice to accompany the new stereo sound.
The album was a style-setter that led jazz singing into a cool, west coast style that dominated in the 1950’s. Albums that sounded like this were all over the place by 1957 or so, but they were not a thing in 1954 when this one hit the stores.
I was going to feature another of the original seven cuts from the 1954 release, but I kept coming back to the opener and title track – Something Cool. It was a fresh piece of music when Christy recorded it on August 14, 1953. Not just fresh, but different from what everyone else was doing. For those who don’t know, the number one record in the U.S. three months before the recording date was How Much Is That Doggie In The Window by Patti Page – a record that will assuredly not be found mentioned in any discussion of jazz of the period. Several artists have covered Something Cool over the decades, but June Christy was the first to commit it to vinyl and it will always be associated with her.
There seems to be a fairly lively debate over whether the 1953 mono recording or the 1960 stereo session is the better effort. I say tomayto-tomahto, because each has its special thing. The earlier version is more pure while the newer one is June with another six years of lived experience and a band with a slightly different flavor.
Something Cool was written by Billy Barnes, a guy known more for musical theater and television music writing than for jazz (or jazz-ish) pieces. No matter, because this one is enough. It is like one of those pieces of flash fiction – the song packs a deftly told story of regret, loneliness (and probably alcoholism) into a touch over four minutes. And it does the job masterfully.
June always leaned more to jazz than to pop, and so never had the big radio hits that others like Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee or Rosemary Clooney could still put on charts in the years before rock and roll hit critical mass. She also pretty much retired in the mid 1960’s, only making a few appearances from then until she died in 1990 at the age of 64. And maybe going inactive before her kind of music caught its second wind is why she has been forgotten by a lot of listeners. Of course with Ella and Sarah (and others) putting out one great recording after another (and over much longer careers) it is easy to see how someone like June Christy could get lost in the background.
But she turned out a solid series of albums before she put down the mic, and should be remembered better than she is by modern listeners. Her voice, her style and her taste in material all came together to make the world a better place for those of us into this kind of music. I hope it makes the world at least a little bit better for you too.
Orignal 10 inch LP of Something Cool – from a copy listed for sale at AbeBooks.com
June Christy and her longtime saxophonist husband Bob Cooper, 1947-48, in the public domain as donated by photographer William Gottlieb, via Wikimedia Commons
1946 Capitol release of Stan Kenton’s Willow Weep For Me from the YouTube page of The78Prof.
1955 12 inch LP – from a copy listed for sale at Amazon.com
1960 album cover from Discogs.com
1954 release of the song Something Cool from the YouTube page of Okmusix
Cover of 1957 album Fair And Warmer from the blog at OnTheRecord.co