Three great artists, two records and one song – we have it all for you today. Including one of the most unusual pseudonyms in the annals of jazz. When I let on that we are going to hear from a singer who went by the name of King Pleasure, well I’ll bet you won’t be able to resist turning the page.
We have by now covered a lot of ground in classic jazz recordings, and it is getting hard to find something really new – at least new in terms of the era typically covered here. Remember our unofficial motto that if it was never recorded on a brittle shellac 78 rpm disc, it is suspect. But today we come through for you with a new style of singing with a name that sounded like a new language: Vocalese.
There have been jazz singers almost as long as there has been jazz. Early on they stuck to the melody. Some began to take liberties with that melody and as the swing era turned to the bebop era “scat” singing entered the lexicon. But vocalese was none of these things.
Scat singing is the vocal version of a horn solo wherein the singer uses nonsense syllables to create an on-the-fly riff. Sort of a horn solo done vocally. Well, vocalese is almost its opposite – it starts with a familiar instrumental recording and faithfully converts it to a vocal, using words composed purely to go with the instrumentalists’ earlier improvisations.
To appreciate vocalese, there are always two recordings involved – there is the vocal performance, of course, but there is also the inspiration or source material to which the vocalese version pays homage. Which is cool because we get to showcase two records instead of one. And for once, I don’t care which you choose to listen to first – there is no right answer. They are the same, only very different.
King Pleasure is a name that sounds like a villain from an English translation of a foreign language comic book (or worse) but was actually the stage name of Clarence Beeks. Pleasure was among the earliest vocalese performers (probably preceded only by Eddie Jefferson) and certainly the first who saw a bit of commercial success with it in the very early 1950’s.
Partnered with a young Betty Carter, Pleasure made a record in New York on December 12, 1952. This record was a vocalese version of Red Top.
It was based on a record made in Chicago on June 19, 1947 by saxophonist Gene Ammons and his small group – which included the trumpet of the quite obscure Gail Brockman. Ammons (nicknamed “Jug” for his large head) got his start in his native Chicago and got his break when hired by the Billy Eckstine bebop band of the mid 40’s. From there and over the next several years he met Brockman, and plenty of players who would become household names, like Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis and John Coltrain. But in 1947 he was leading a small group with his driving but expressive tenor saxophone.
Red Top is said to have been the nickname of Ammons’ wife at the time, and this recording of that name shows an early version of his “Chicago style” of play that hewed more towards an emerging rhythm and blues than towards the more progressive directions some of his friends were heading. Once you get to the last chorus of the Ammons record, you will notice his “big rhythm” that was leading the way into a new era of R&B.
Fast forward about five years and we see how Pleasure wrote lyrics to the Ammons record, which he follows almost exactly – right down to the unusual intro. Pleasure sang Ammons’ saxophone while Betty Carter did Brockman’s trumpet – and it’s a shame that Brockman did not give her more to work with. One change is that the R&B style rhythm which Ammons unleashed late in his record was present pretty much all the way through the later Pleasure version.
Vocalese singing does not reward a singer’s traditional tools of tone and style, but sacrifices those things for out and out maneuverability and the ability to spit out lyrics with sometimes lightning speed – the human voice is just not as nimble as a wind instrument that makes its notes via multiple fingers on keys or valves.
King Pleasure and Eddie Jefferson are the two best-known early vocalese performers, but the genre really took off in the late 1950’s with the trio of Lambert Hendricks & Ross, who had several popular albums – including their first that mimicked the Count Basie big band with three people (albeit with a little dubbing in the studio). In more modern times The Manhattan Transfer did a lot of this kind of singing in the 1980’s, pulling from source material much like we have right here.
King Pleasure continued performing and recording into the 1970’s and died just shy of his 60th birthday in 1982. Though obscure, he was acknowledged as an influence by Van Morrison, of all people.
Gene Ammons remained based in Chicago for most of his career, and continued to record actively until his death from bone cancer in 1974 at age 49. He suffered some setbacks in his later years, going out of commission during most of the 1960’s while doing two separate prison sentences for narcotics convictions. But he got back on his feet after his final release in 1969 and remained in demand for his music until his death.
The biggest star on these performances would have to be Betty Carter, who was vastly underused on this record – and who was not even credited on the original 78 rpm release. Betty was a native of Flint Michigan and was among the last of the “big band singers” when she quit or was fired for the last of several times by Lionel Hampton in 1951 – the final of multiple battles between their strong wills. Just 23 when she made this record (it was among her first solo projects), Carter would go on to become perhaps the most respected jazz singer of her generation.
Carter may have been the “purest” jazz singer of them all, as she steadfastly refused to perform anything that resembled pop or rock as time changed. After touring with major names like Ray Charles in the 60’s, her fortunes ebbed as musical styles changed. Fortunately, styles started coming back in her direction in the mid 1970’s, and she continued to perform until shortly before her death in 1998.
I have listened to both of these records multiple times, and have concluded that I have no favorite – there are things I like from each. I love Ammons’ tone and style on the tenor sax and I think the recording quality is higher. OK, and the piano is in tune. But the vocalese treatment by Pleasure and Carter has a lot going for it too and is a great early example of the genre. Think of it as a choice of the same delicious double cheeseburger served either plain or with all the fixin’s – whichever you prefer, there is a version of Red Top for you.
December 12, 1952 (1953 release) 45 rpm recording by King Pleasure and June 19, 1947 78 rpm recording by Gene Ammons both from the YouTube pages of the78prof.
Gene Ammons Red Top on the Mercury label from Discogs.org
King Pleasure Red Top on the Prestige label from an eBay listing offering a copy for sale
Period promotional photos of Betty Carter and Gene Ammons from Fresh Sounds Records
Depictions of album covers found at various websites offering copies for sale or at Discogs.org
Later photo of Gene Ammons from Wikipedia