© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles has had a feature on vocalist Annie Ross of Lambert-Hendricks-Ross fame in the works for some time now, but the discovery of the October 1998 issue of Gene Lees’ JazzLetter and his anecdote about girl-singer jokes pushed the project front-and-center at this time.
At the conclusion of this piece, you will find a video with Annie performing her famous version of tenor saxophone Wardell Gray’s Twisted on a 1959 TV show accompanied by the Count Basie Septet. She is joined later by Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks in a stirring version of Everyday I Have The Blues, a tune long-associated with then-Basie vocalist Joe Williams who also makes a brief appearance in the video.
TO THE LADIES
“Here is the latest girl-singer joke.
Pianist calls for a rehearsal. Says to the girl singer, "I want to go over Autumn Leaves. We'll start in G-minor. At bar five, we'll modulate to B-flat major. You'll do three bars in five-four time, and the next bar we'll go to D-major." He continues these complex instructions until the girl protests:
"But you can't expect me to do all that!"
"Why not?" he says. "You did it last night."
Girl-singer jokes are like Polish jokes, Brazilian jokes about the Portuguese, and Canadian jokes about the Newfies. Sample:
"How many girl singers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?"
Answer: "Just one. She'll get the piano player to do it anyway."
Another: "Why does the girl singer knock at her own door?"
Answer: "She can't find her key."
I laugh at these jokes, like everyone else. But the discomfitting truth is that they reflect a deep hostility in the jazz world toward singers, and particularly from pianists, who often resent playing for singers. (This is because pianists are Great Artists and should not be forced into the subservient role of accompanist.) I call it the war between the singers and the pianists, and every singer knows what I mean. Among the exceptions: Mike Renzi, Eddie Higgins, and Lou Levy love to accompany good singers.
There's the rub. Why does every amateur sitting-in girl singer feel constrained to do Lush Life? Only a master should essay it. But the amateurs do it, to show off, I suppose, how good they are, or think they are. And then there are the Sarah Vaughan wannabes who deconstruct My Funny Valentine. Florence Foster Jenkins lived. So did Mrs. Miller.
The amateurs aside, the condescension to girl singers derives in part from an anomaly of the English language.
The terms "boy singer" and "girl singer" derive from the days of the big bands when, during ensemble and instrumental solo passages, the two would sit demurely on chairs in front the sax section, looking, I always thought, an uncomfortable cross between superfluous and hapless.
Because English has limited structural resources for identifying gender — mostly the -ess suffix to which the extreme element of the women's movement has taken umbrage — we don't know what else to call male and female singers. The French word for "sing" is chanter, and a singer is a chanteur or a chanteuse. There was for a time a gossip-column grafting into English of the word chanteuse, but it had about it a faint condescension and sarcasm, ending in the deliberate mispronunciation shon-too-zee. Nowadays actresses want to be called actors, and that seems reasonable. We do not refer to doctresses, after all. But the French aren't confronted by this problem. In French, all things have gender: the world is masculine, the sea is feminine. You never refer to anything as it but as he or she. French has no neuter pronouns.
We were stuck with boy singer and girl singer because we couldn't say singer and singess. The term boy singer has vanished; girl singer has not.
But the girl-singer jokes simply do not fit the reality. Not all of it, anyway. The good "girl singers" are very solidly skilled, and often highly trained.
Once America was blessed with any number of small nightclubs that featured excellent singers singing excellent songs, and even the big record companies were interested in recording them. Some of the best singers played piano ranging from the competent to — Blossom Dearie, for example — the excellent. Most of them were women, and there was a glamour about them, superb singers such as Betty Bennett, Irene Krai, Ethel Ennis, Marge Dodson, Lurlean Hunter, and "regional" singers such as Kiz Harp of Dallas. Many of them are forgotten; Shirley Home has enjoyed a resurgence; in Chicago Audrey Morris is still singing subtly to her own lovely piano accompaniment; New York has Anita Gravine and Nancy Marano (who you might catch writing her scat solos in taxis), and Washington D.C. has Ronnie Wells.
These people were sometimes called jazz singers, although they were no such thing, or torch singers, a term I found demeaning, not to mention inaccurate. Male singers were with equal condescension from an ignorant lay press called crooners.
The songs they sang were drawn from that classic repertoire that grew up in the United States between roughly 1920 and the 1950s, and had any of us been equipped with foresight, we'd have known that the era was ending, doomed by How Much Is That Doggie in the Window? and Papa Loves Mambo and Music Music Music even before the rise of rock.
For a number of reasons, I have been thinking of late how many of those "girl singers" have been friends of mine over the years, and how skillful — aside from gifted— they have been. …
“Another "girl singer" friend is Annie Ross, who in 1957 — forty-one years ago; are you ready for that? —joined Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks to form Lambert-Hendricks-Ross, one of the best vocal groups in jazz history, and the most adventurous.
Annie was born in Mitcham, England, on July 25, 1930, but spent her childhood in Los Angeles with her aunt and foster mother, the Scottish-born singer Ella Logan. Logan had toured Europe, performed in Broadway musicals (including Finian’s Rainbow) and film, and recorded with Adrian Rollini and other bands. In California, Annie was a child movie actress. She moved to Europe in 1947 and sang all over the continent, returning to the United States in 1950. She wrote words to Wardell Gray's Twisted and recorded it, causing a sensation in jazz circles.
The pioneer of bop vocals was Dave Lambert, born in Boston on June 19, 1917. With Buddy Stewart, born in New Hampshire in 1922, he recorded What's This? with the Gene Krupa band in 1945 — the first recorded bebop vocal. (Stewart was also a superb ballad singer. I have always thought that if Clifford Brown had lived, Miles Davis would have had some serious competition for pre-eminence, and so too would Frank Sinatra, had Buddy Stewart lived. Like Clifford Brown, Buddy Stewart was killed in an automobile crash.)
Jon Hendricks was born in Newark, Ohio, on September 15, 1952. When he was fourteen he would sometimes sing with fellow Ohioan Art Tatum. He played drums while he was in college, studying literature and law, but was encouraged by Charlie Parker to make music his profession and moved to New York, where he met Dave Lambert, who became his room-mate. He and Lambert began planning an album that would eventually be called Sing a Song of Basie, to be recorded using ten top New York City studio singers.
They were introduced to Annie at record producer Bob Bach's apartment, and, because of her jazz background, particularly her recording of Twisted (and Farmers Market), they asked her to come to their rehearsals and coach the singers for phrasing. She tried, but the singers just couldn't get the Basie feel, and producer Creed Taylor was growing frustrated. "Frankly," Annie said, "I was a little miffed that they hadn't asked me to do it in the first place." She would get her chance. It was evidently Creed Taylor's idea that they let the vocal group go, and that Jon and Dave, with Annie, overdub their voices up to the full orchestrations.
The album was a smash. It was followed by The Swingers (1959), The Hottest New Group in Jazz (1959), Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross Sing Ellington (1960), and High Flying (1961).
In 1962, Annie returned to England. She was replaced by Yolanda Bavanne. And in 1964, Dave Lambert left the group. He was replaced for a time by Don Chastain, and sometimes in later years Jon worked with his children.
None of it was quite the same. Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, and Annie Ross struck magical sparks, and anyone who never saw them in a club or on a stage such as that of the Monterey Jazz Festival has no idea how much excitement the three of them could generate, singing difficult ensemble passages or complex lyrics set to (by Annie and, even more, by Jon) famous jazz solos.
One night in October, 1966, Dave was returning to New York from a gig in Cape Cod. "He was always a good Samaritan," Jon said. "If anyone was in trouble on the road, he'd always stop and help." Near Westport, Connecticut, Dave saw a motorist with a flat tire. Dave pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. According to Jon, Dave was working on the lugs of the man's wheel when a big semi went roaring by. Jon said Dave was pulled under its wheels. Whatever the details, that was the end of any hope of reconstituting Lambert-Hendricks-Ross.
I would see Annie occasionally in London. She married actor Sean Lynch, whom I found to be a delightfully warm and friendly man. I remember meeting the late Marty Feldman at a party at their apartment. And I remember a letter Annie had received from a farm woman in Devon. Annie had sung my lyrics to Bill Evans' Waltz for Debby on her television show. The woman had written to tell her how touched she had been by that lyric, which expressed her feelings about her little girl, and asked for a copy of it, which Annie sent her. I don't even know the woman's name; but she gave me the best review I ever received.
Annie had her own nightclub, called Annie's room. It was a very pleasant club, in a basement, and I beat its slot machine all one evening. Annie had that club from October 1964 until the fall of 1965, and so when we talked recently I said, "My God, Annie, we haven't spoken in more than thirty years."
Jon and I were talking about Annie, and Sean's name came up. "He was such a lovely person," Jon said.
"I said, 'What do you mean, was?"
"Didn't anyone tell you?" Jon said. "He was killed in an automobile accident."
In 1985, Annie returned to the U.S. and, like Jon Hendricks, lives in New York City. She can sing anything: the L-H-R years have left an impression that bop vocals are all she can do, but she is also an excellent ballad singer. So, by the way, is Jon Hendricks, although few people realize it.
It was inevitable that she and Jon would start thinking about reviving the L-H-R repertoire, and a few months ago they went into rehearsals. "It wasn't really that hard," Annie said, "although at the very beginning, I thought, 'Oh my God!'
"Then it became a matter of, 'Which of Dave's lines do I sing, which ones does Jon sing?'
"But then, after we got over the nervousness, the energy and the excitement were still there. It works, and it swings, and my voice is getting stronger. It's back to that hard swing. It's a workout, but it's worth it. Oh, it feels incredible!"
Jon said, "It's the first time we've sung together in thirty-six years. Well, we did, once in that time, but this is a real reunion. The audiences are incredible. People who heard us in the old days are having tears of joy, and their children are jumping."
Much has been made of the space trip at seventy-seven of John Glenn, as an inspiration to older people. Try this one on: Jon Hendricks is also seventy-seven. And Annie is sixty-nine. And they are out there swinging.”
Jon Hendricks was born in 1921 which now makes him 93 as of 2014; Annie Ross was born in 1930 was now makes her 84 as of 2014.