Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Corky Hale, queen of harps

The latest Croydon Municipal release is from the little known but wonderful harp player Corky Hale, and it's a gorgeous, summer evening of an album, a collection of instrumentals from 1957. Her Zelig-like career has, in more recent times, seen Corky play on Bjork’s album Debut, and George Michael's Songs From The Last Century, though she neglected to release an album of her own for four decades after her own debut. Fifty years after it was released, Corky finally made her Carnegie Hall debut - as a piano soloist - in 2007.

Corky Hale was born Merrilyn Hecht in Freeport, Illinois, and started taking piano lessons almost as soon as she could walk. At the age of seven, while on a family vacation n Florida, Corky was heard playing in the hotel lobby by resident bandleader Horace Heidt who had a little band jacket made for her and began to feature her in his evening show. Quite the prodigy, young Merrilyn began studying piano at Chicago Conservatory at the age of seven, and harp a year later.

Heidt and his specially designed jacket must have instilled the show-biz bug in Merrilyn, and she ran away from home – well, she ran away from UCLA where her dad had enrolled her – to play the harp on Freddie Martin's TV Show in the early '50s. 

The novelty of a gorgeous teenage harpist was one thing, but she was evidently a real talent. As soon as the show was aired she received a call inviting her onto Liberace's show. His only stipulation was that she dye her dark hair blonde, as he thought it would show up better under the spotlight. She went on to accompany him for three years at a time when he was one of the world's most famous entertainers.

Her parents were entirely unaware of all this malarkey until she turned up, platinum blonde, on their TV screen in Freeport. At 18, Merrilyn had her own flat and a white Buick convertible. She was asked to play harp on Cecil B De Mille's the Ten Commandments, and had a regular slot at the Coconut Grove nightclub, reunited with the Freddie Martin Orchestra, where she started as a harpist, then played piano during intermissions, and even had a few singing spots. Sharing the stage with Frank Sinatra (who she briefly dated), Tony Bennett and Peggy Lee, with Lana Turner, Robert Taylor and Van Johnson in the audience, it was just about the glamorous place Freeport's Merrilyn Hecht could have found herself.

It was during her stint at the Coconut Lounge that Merrilyn Hecht became Corky Hale – her Saturday shows were broadcast on the radio and she needed a more Hollywood-friendly name. Her one and only studio recording session was supervised by promoter and jazz enthusiast Gene Norman who put together a stellar line-up to back Corky's harp playing: on vibraphone was Larry Bunker who had recorded with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee; bassist Red Mitchell was a sidekick of Ornette Coleman and Andre Previn among others; drummer Chico Hamilton had his own respected West Coast jazz quartet, and he brought along flute and tenor sax player Buddy Collette, who had played with Charles Mingus when he was just 16; finally there was session guitarist Howard Roberts who would go on to play on everything from Peggy Lee's Fever to the Munsters theme.

After the album was released, Corky's parents moved to LA and opened up a clothes shop on the Sunset Strip (called Corky Hale) which she was obliged to run, sidelining her performing and recording career. She met and married an Italian knitwear salesman, and her hair returned to its natural colour. After they divorced, she spent time in Italy and London before finding herself in New York in the late '60s, where once again she began playing her harp and piano, on recording sessions for the likes Judy Collins, James Brown and Barbra Streisand, who also hired Corky for three TV specials. She also met her second husband, Mike Stoller of the famous Leiber/Stoller team, in New York – they married in 1970 and are still together.
Outside of music, Corky has been honoured as a Champion of Choice by NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) due to her lifelong support for women’s rights; with husband Mike, she is also a strong advocate of the Southern Poverty Law Centre and serves on the board of the National Coalition to Ban Gun Violence.

Did I mention she also ran Corky's Restaurant on the Lower East Side in the '70s? No wonder she hardly ever had time to go to the studio. All hail Corky Hale, an all-round super lady and a wonderful musician - it's a pleasure to put her very first album back in the racks.

Friday, 2 May 2014

The Midcentury Minx

Some days, it isn't so hard to see why rock'n'roll pissed off so many people. While the pop charts of the immediate pre-rock era were top-heavy with novelty songs about doggies in the window and baby's dimples, it was also a fabulous time for vocal jazz records, especially for women. Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, June Christy and Chris Connor were at their artistic and commercial peaks, and there were plenty of rivals in waiting. Some of their voices were sweet and lightly swinging (Doris Drew), while some smouldered in the Julie London style (take a bow, Dolores Gray). This was the age of the Midcentury Minx, and it would be all but wiped out by rock'n'roll.

Plenty of talented girls whose albums were beautifully housed, whose arrangements and voices were imaginative and seductive, are now largely forgotten. Take Toni Harper, who began as a child star. Her unnervingly mature voice earned her a spot in a 1945 follies at the same Los Angeles theatre where Judy Garland had been discovered. She appeared on Ed Sullivan's early TV shows in 1949 and 1950 and in 1955, aged 18, hit the jazz big time when she recorded Toni Harper Sings with the Oscar Peterson Trio for Verve. It's a wonderfully warm record – Toni went on to record two more fine albums with Marti Paich, toured Japan with Cannonball Adderley in 1963, before retiring completely in 1969, aged just 29.

Other singers were very highly regarded by other musicians but never really clicked with the public. Chicago singer Lurlean Hunter was singing in clubs before the war, accompanying big bands, and cut four albums between 1956 and 1960 with such ace arrangers as Al Nevins, Quincy Jones (who described her voice as “like clothing”) and Al Cohn. Cohn also worked with Irene Kral, a regular vocalist on The Steve Allen Show in 1959. This led to her first solo LP for United Artists Records, entirely written by Allen, and awkwardly titled Steveireneo. The same year, she cut The Band And I with Al Cohn. By 1961, Kral had moved to Tarzana, California to raise a family, and she was off the scene until the late '70s: “Now when I'm old enough to appreciate them”, she sighed, “almost all the really good bands are gone.”

Like the great Ethel Ennis, Sallie Blair (left) was a Baltimore native. She sang with the Johnny Otis band and got her big break on TV's Chance Of A Lifetime in 1956 singing Cry Me A River – this won her a residency in a Miami nightclub. She sang with Cab Calloway and was adored by columnist Walter Winchell, whose praise earned her spots on Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson. Somehow she only got to cut two albums, the coyly named Squeeze Me and Hello Tiger.   

Dolores Gray began as a cabaret artiste in San Francisco before moving to London and studying at RADA. She worked mostly in theatre but had a plum role in the film Designing Woman (1957) as Gregory Peck's former squeeze. The come-hither stylings of Warm Brandy, her only album, appeared in the same year. Theatre critic Michael Phillips once said that Dolores's voice was like "a freight-train slathered in honey." Anne Philips cut just one album in 1959 LP, but had a long career as a New York demo singer in the '50s and '60s. She sang all the backing vocals on Carole King's It Might as Well Rain Until September in 1962 (think of the smooth “til September” part towards the end of the song). Born To Be Blue was was recorded over three dates at the Brill Building writers' favourite Bell Sound Studio in 1959.

Beverley Kenney's voice was breathy and girlish, not dissimilar to Blossom Dearie's. She died tragically young, committing suicide in 1960 when she was only 28. In the '50s she had sung with the Dorsey Brothers, appeared on TV in the Steve Allen Show (on which she sang I Hate Rock'n'Roll) and Playboy's Penthouse in 1958, and had released six albums by the time of her death. Revered in Japan, a collection of 1954 demos entitled Snuggled On Your Shoulder was the first of three Japanese-only collections of unreleased material. Here's a clip of her singing and chatting with Hugh Hefner on Playboy After Dark:

Jane Fielding, even in the digital age, is extremely obscure. The sleevenotes to 1956's superb Embers Glow reveal she was an ice skater who suffered an injury and retired early. Singing slightly behind the beat, her breathy voice was supported on her debut album by a stellar group: Kenny Drew (piano), Joe Maini (alto sax), Ted Efantis (tenor sax), Leroy Vinnegar or Paul Chambers (bass) and Larance Marable (drums). She was a blue-eyed redhead who recorded one other album – Jazz Trio with Lou Levy and Red Mitchell – and that's all we know.

It's a treat to uncover, more than five decades later, the many fine singers who were operating out of New York and LA like Toni Harper and Marcy Lutes, but it must have been galling for them, so talented but still so unknown; unless they had really hit the big time, their careers were usually wounded by rock'n'roll, then killed off by the Beatles' inspired beat boom. While the Japanese have long appreciated female vocal jazz, elsewhere it has largely been bracketed with exotica and the lounge boom since the '90s. The enormous intimacy of this music deserves to be separated from records which only ever sold for their cheesecake covers.

These singers had delicacy, accuracy and cool; their arrangements were hip, dry and understated. Croydon Municipal is happy to give them a home together on the Midcentury Minx compilation, available in all good record stores, or at Amazon if you must.

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