Monday, May 16, 2016

Carol Sloane's Favorite Male Vocalists

Shirley Horn and Carol Sloane, 1983 (Photo: Carol Sloane)
A few days ago, during a brief conversation on Facebook, I asked singer Carol Sloane who her favorite male jazz vocalists are, and here's what she replied: "They're not all jazz singers, but I'd say Fred Astaire, Joe Mooney, Bill Henderson, Nat King Cole, Joe Williams, Frank Sinatra (of course), and Walter Pidgeon." That last name was a surprise to me, and Carol, who must have sensed it, added: "Yes, the actor—he had a gentle delivery much in keeping with many of his movie roles, and he received a Tony nomination for his part in the Broadway show Take Me Along in the 1950s." On the strength of some videos I've found on YouTube (here he's singing Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do" in 1924), there's no denying that Carol is right about Pidgeon's vocal abilities, and it's definitely our loss that he never got around to recording a whole album like other actors with a penchant for singing, such as, say, Maureen O'Hara and George Sanders. Let's comment briefly on the rest of the names Carol mentioned as her favorites, who are all on my own list of top vocalists, hands down.

Fred Astaire
I've always thought that Fred Astaire was a natural jazz singer, even though he's hardly ever praised for his vocalizing as much as he is for his legendary dancing—but then there are plenty of jazz elements in his dancing moves, not to mention that he was a favorite of most great songwriters, such as Berlin, Porter, and the Gershwins. Though I love his recordings from the '30s and '40s, on which he was often accompanied by fantastic studio bands, the pinnacle of his work as a singer is his 1952 meeting with an all-star quartet led by Oscar Peterson, released as The Astaire Story, an album about which I've written here. Admired by great names such as Sinatra and Tony Bennett, singer-accordionist-organist Joe Mooney was a lot of fun to listen to on the early records he made as part of the Sunshine Boys (a group seemingly modeled on Paul Whiteman's Rhythm Boys) yet, in my opinion, his best album is 1956's Lush Life, cut for Atlantic. Here we can listen to his intimate style and gloriously raspy voice in a small-group setting, doing ten excellent songs and playing the organ. Those who enjoy this record should also look for a CD that includes two albums Moody made in the '60s for Columbia entitled The Greatness and The Happiness of Joe Mooney, both highly recommended. Though he never achieved the recognition that should have been rightfully his, Bill Henderson was a wondrously hip, soulful, bluesy singer whose standout album is a 1963 collaboration with, yet again, the Oscar Peterson Trio. The record is an absolute classic that every jazz fan should own, with Peterson in fine form and Henderson doing what he did best—infusing timeless standards (and even, oddly enough, the country classic "You Are My Sunshine") with a heaping helping of soul.

Bill Henderson
Very few singers in the history of pop and jazz were as classy as Nat King Cole, whose voice and phrasing were like no one else's (though Sammy Davis, Jr. could do an accurate impersonation of the King and Oscar Peterson himself was greatly indebted to him on the few occasions when he sang). Cole's pop records were so successful that it's sometimes easy to overlook his contributions as a jazz pianist fronting his pioneering trio. My favorite Cole album is After Midnight, cut in 1956 for Capitol, an LP that marks a return to the classic King Cole Trio sound, with plenty of engaging vocals and featuring some outstanding guest stars. I've written about this album more in depth here. Like Cole, Joe Williams was another class act, a singer who was equally at home singing the blues and standards out of the Songbook. As a matter of fact, his albums—most of them absolutely recommendable—usually fall under one of those two categories. His 1956 Verve collaboration with the Basieites, Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings, is one of the gems of his discography, while A Man Ain't Supposed to Cry, recorded two years later for Roulette, is a lovely collection of heart-wrenching torch songs. Finally, Frank Sinatra, an American icon about whom pretty much everything has been said thousands of times over. Almost all the records he made for Capitol are absolutely essential, and so is a great deal of his work for Reprise, not to mention the many beautiful sides he cut for Columbia in the '40s and his earlier work as featured vocalist with Tommy Dorsey and Harry James. Recommending something by Sinatra isn't easy, then, because there's too many great titles to choose from. One of Sinatra's lesser-known Capitol efforts is the minimalist Close to You, a 1957 LP on which he's accompanied by the Hollywood String Quartet, with deliciously delicate arrangements by Nelson Riddle. This is really a lovely package, and the one that's perhaps most in need of rediscovery among Sinatra's concept albums. It's always nice to chat with Carol Sloane, a fine singer whose own work is always tasteful and engaging. Perhaps next time we'll ask her about her favorite female jazz vocalists!

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