For those of us who like jazz music that predates the Presidency of John F. Kennedy, finding music that is fresh and new (to us, anyway) is a rarity. So imagine my surprise when I stumbled into some, and from a surprising source: a television commercial.
One of the blogs I follow is Thehomeplaceweb, written by Joni. One of Joni’s recent posts tossed in a little bit of music as an embellishment, and it turned out to be quite the rabbit hole for me.
Several months ago, the Ford Motor Company’s Lincoln Division ran a television ad that prominently featured a woman singing a jazzy tune – It’s A Most Unusual Day. I recall liking it, but had no idea where it came from – there are lots of modern singers who make their livings in studios for commercials and things, and I figured that this was another of them. But Joni proved to me that this was not that at all. Instead, it was a bit recorded in the late 1950’s by a young singer named Beverly Kenney. I was intrigued and had to learn more.
Kenney’s was a short and sad story, punctuated by a period of promise and some wonderful music. From a start delivering singing telegrams, Beverly showed great promise as a young singer who was just twenty-two when she left her native New Jersey for New York and recorded a demo tape in 1954. Then it was on to nightclubs in Miami which led to a year touring with The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra – a big name band in its twilight by 1955. Beverly said at the time that she was apparently too much of a song stylist and not enough of a traditional band singer, and was soon back in New York on her own.
In late 1955, she recorded her first album – Beverly Kenney Sings For Johnny Smith – for Roost/Royal Roost Records, a jazz label named after the famous New York club. Smith was, incidentally, a guitarist who led a trio and was Roost Records’ top selling artist. He was also a perfect partner for the talented young singer.
The tune “Surrey With A Fringe On Top” from the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma was an improbable choice for the opening track on a jazz album, but it highlights how Kenney was not just another run-of-the-mill singer. Her treatment of this song puts her considerable toolkit on display as she makes a horse and buggy sound hip and cool.
Her voice had a playfulness to it, or a sort of effervescence. A little vibrato here and there, the ability to bend notes and tempos while never leaving the song behind and all of it done with a light touch that left me eager for what was coming next. I was not disappointed, as the entire album was a treat.
In mid 1956 she recorded a second album, Come Swing With Me. I found this one a little more uneven, but perhaps only because the larger orchestra made the music seem a little less free flowing.
“You Go To My Head” was one of the selections and highlights Kenney’s abilities with a ballad. Frank Sinatra’s definitive version from 1960 was still in the future when Kenney recorded this track. Where Sinatra would do the song as a lush ballad floating on a soft bed of strings, Kenney’s treatment of the tune is more playful, and perhaps a better approximation of the giddiness of the slight intoxication from alcohol or love. In the early part of her career, if Beverly Kenney could be counted on for anything, it was that she didn’t do anything in the usual way. Her thing was either songs overlooked by most jazz performers, or usual songs done in a way not quite like anyone else had done them.
Kenney’s third Roost album came in 1957 and was with Jimmy Jones and the Basie-Ites, a group of players augmenting their regular incomes as sidemen for the resurgent and influential Count Basie Orchestra of the mid 50’s. This is another treat of an album with nary a bad track.
Remember a moment ago when I said that Kenney handled songs that no other jazz singer would touch? Nobody could have imagined that a silly hit novelty song from 1944 could be turned into a sultry ballad, but Beverly Kenney and the Basie musicians had no trouble at all doing exactly that with “Mairzy Doats”. And quite credibly, too.
This album also gets my vote for her best with a more traditional instrumental background – “My Kind of Love” is a great example of the entire combo at work, with Kenney and the Basie sidemen complementing each other in some first-rate music.
It was after that album that Kenney was signed by Decca Records, a much larger label that offered a bigger chance at success. It was the 1958 Decca album Beverly Kenney Sings For Playboys that probably marked both her artistic and her commercial peak. The pairing with only a bass and Ellis Larkins’ piano was clearly the sandbox where Kenney was queen.
The Playboy angle was likely a crass marketing play at a time when Hugh Hefner’s organization carried a vibe of stylish sophistication. Other than the title and the cover art (for which Decca paid a fee) there is not really anything Playboyish about it. Like this song, “Life Can Be Beautiful”. The album notes were written by Steve Allen, who was a well-known television star and jazz fan, and he noted a rare combination of girlish innocence and worldly experience in Kenney’s voice and in her approach to the material.
It was from this album that Lincoln took the music from its commercial. Oh what the heck, the piece is less than two minutes long in the album, so let’s go for it.
Again, this nimble, swinging jazz treatment is a lot different from the 3-beat waltz time of the song when it was first performed in a 1948 movie. And nimble is a word I keep coming back to. Kenney came at these songs with a sort of nimble finesse found in the better British sports cars of her day, as opposed to the flashy boulevard cruisers that were more common in both cars and in music.
Sadly, things were not all roses and lollipops for Miss Kenney, who took her own life in the spring of 1960 at the age of only 28. Most of her notoriety had been among jazz musicians and the artsy set in her Greenwich Village neighborhood, and she was almost entirely forgotten for the next twenty years. She was the subject of an article in GQ magazine in November of 1992, and her story was investigated in some depth in a 2006 blog post by Bill Reed (which can be found here, for those looking for a deeper dive).
What happened that someone who seemed to be the entire package – voice, style, looks, youth – could have a life go so wrong? Was it a lack of popular success? Some have said she came on the music scene perhaps five years too late. Did she tire of the unglamorous life of a working musician? Or was it something as mundane as the lack of a support network? All of these things may be part of it, but sources indicated that Kenney had been a melancholic personality who seemed to suffer from mental or emotional problems that got worse as time went on.
Really, I think you can hear that downward slide in her last two albums. Born To Be Blue (recorded in the fall of 1958 and released in the spring of ’59) and Like Yesterday (recorded Summer, 1959 and apparently not released until after her January, 1960 death) are not bad albums. They lack, however, that spirit and sparkle that made her earlier work special. Both got away from the small group backing that had been her strength and replaced it with larger orchestras, strings and all. Born To Be Blue has its moments, but it did not fill me with delight as the prior releases did.
The final album, particularly, is a bit of a downer for me because her singing sounds so . . . conventional. There is nothing wrong with conventional singing, but that’s not who Kenney was, and performances that could have as easily been done by Patti Page in 1953 were not why people listened to Beverly.
Some of that could be due, of course, to record producers and band arrangers imposing their choices on her, or maybe even Kenney herself had a desire for more mainstream success and thought she could get it by toning down her style. But in the end, someone whose spark has gone out simply does not care about so many things and these records are signs that this was exactly what was happening.
Which is all too bad, because she made a lot of great music. Although her legacy has endured a long period of obscurity in her native land, it seems that she was appreciated in Japan in a way that never ebbed. Even when her records were long out of catalogs here, they never left Japanese retail shelves. In the last fifteen years or so, Kenney has seen a slow posthumous resurgence in her music, and her story has been shared on several platforms – especially after that Lincoln commercial. So even though Beverly Kenney is not as obscure as some (okay, many) of my subjects, I found hers a story worth passing along. Having been featured on a commercial for Lincoln Hybrid SUVs, she has finally reached a level of fame that eluded her in life. It was a most unusual – if ultimately sad – life and career. But it was one that left a few records that can still win new fans and make them smile.
If you would like to listen to these albums in their entirety, let me share the benefits of my deep dive. Each album and its year of release can be accessed with these links:
Music from the YouTube pages of those credited on them
Images found online via Fresh Sounds Records or featuring the covers of commercially released albums.