Saturday, June 18, 2005
Mister Trace, Keener of Lost Jazzettes
Whatever happened to (just for starters)?: Helene de lys, Bea Abbott, Helen Carroll, Betty Blake, Nikki Price, Dori Howard, Ann Gilbert, Honi Gordon, Carole Carr, Charlene Bartley, Flo Handy, Janet Brace, Ann Hathaway, Pat Healy, Betty Rhodes, Donna Brooks, Cathy Hayes, Marlene Cord, Lynn Taylor, Sue Evans, Marilyn Moore, Thelma Gracen, Clea Bradford, Paula Greer, Marjorie Lee, Easy Williams, Joy Bryan, Barbara Russell, Linda Merrill, Thelma Thompson. . . not to be confused with another singer, Claudia Thompson.
Does anyone know; more importantly, does anybody even care whatever became of all of these mostly late 50s - early 60s jazz or jazz-oriented female singers who (nearly) all have several things in common?:
Most, for example, were "one-album wonders"; some were good (several very good); and after their brief moment of vinyl glory, disappeared without a trace, vanquished, for the most part, by the onslaught of the British Invasion (think "Beatles"). In addition, nearly all were to be heard on labels that didn't have a shelf life much longer than the various singers whose vocal wares in which they trafficked, i.e. Bea Monde, Dawn, Trend, AMR, Edison, Gold Coast. . .and Acme (?).
Also, more than a few bore at least passing stylistic resemblance, replete with those long, long vowels, and husky chest tones just this side of pneumonia, to the (arguably) most influential jazz singer to have successfully come of artistic age in the mid-1950s, Chris Connor. One even has visions of those pretenders to Chris' throne running around the block in the rain before every take in order to insure the proper amount of Connorian plangency.
In almost every instance where I've tried to uncover the denouement of the lives and careers of these various singers, I've come up empty handed. And, in fact, a master list I keep of both male and female "missing in action" singers is much larger than the one included above. Note that I haven't even mentioned all those fallen- below-radar "boy" singers.
Fortunately, over the years, I've been able to remove several from the list. I've learned, for example, that:
Roberta Peck, who had exactly one really terrific album on Columbia, is alive and well and living in New Haven, CN.
Bev Kelly is a psychotherapist in Long Beach, CA and now answers to the name of DOCTOR Bev Kelly. She recently released a new CD.
Cora Lee Day, who also released just one album---on Roulette---turned up living just down the block from me here in L.A. I believe that Cora, who I came to know fairly well, died in 1996 after a successful career in acting (Daughters of the Dust), to which she turned after her brief but spectacularly unsuccessful stab at singing. At least, the Internet Movie Database lists her as deceased, and I never see Cora out front of her house anymore when I drive by, so....
Jo Ann Miller, ended up a very big fish in the smallish pond of regional theatre as a producer. She died last year.
Nanci Malcomb (Vik Records, class of '58) became a legal secretary, which is something I learned when I was introduced to her at a San Fernando jazz club recently ("NANCI MALCOMB!!!"). Thus, enabling me to cross her off my MIA list.
Toni Lee Scott, an absolutely terrific singer until recently with---you guessed it---just one album to her credit, on Fred Astaire's Ava label. She is now living in the Northwest, and not long ago---after a near forty-years hiatus---released her sophomore disc effort. I haven't heard it yet, but if it's half as good as the Ava....
Laurie Allyn is, perhaps, the oddest example of all, having had an album recorded 48 years ago just recently see the light of day on the VSOP label. In '57, she had gone home to Texas for visit, while there got wind of the fact that her label had folded in advance of the release of her album, and somehow she just never made it back to L.A. For the record, it is a first-rate Marty Paich-arranged effort. Worth the wait!
Ironically, two of the most elusive singers for me turned out to be from my home town of Charleston, West (by god) Virginia: the aforementioned Janet Brace (without a trace), and Jennie Smith, who, with her four lps and a skosh of singles, was never that obscure. Charleston is not an especially large town, and few jazz singers come from there. In fact, hardly anyone ever leaves there. But Jennie Smith proved really tough to track down!
I even went so far as to write every likely Kristof (Smith's real surname) in the U.S.---not too many of them---trying to find her. I never heard back. But I am like a dog with a bone in such regards, i.e. I don't give up easily. Finally, Bob Lilley, a chap with a West Virginia Radio web site, supplied me with the email address of Smith's brother, and the rest is history. Recently, I even received a nice email from Jennie.
To paraphrase my grandma, "If Jennie Smith'd been a snake she'da bit me," for this former hometown girl made good from Charleston, WV is, as revealed in her email to me, retired, and married AND living right here in L.A.
I should add that my appreciation for Smith's somewhat slight but significant ouevre, especially the two albums she cut with the brilliant arranger Ray ("Lady in Satin") Ellis, for RCA in 1957 and Columbia 1959 (no Acme Records for our Ms. Smith), simply knows no bounds. The lps with Ellis are as different from one another as day from night, but both IMHO are ***** efforts. And I'm not just saying that because Smith and I first saw the light of day in adjoining hollers.
It should come as no surprise that Jennie Smith continues to have an especially strong fan base in Japan---foremost arbiters in such matters---where her first album, simply called Jennie (notice that I didn't use the word "eponymous") has mostly remained in print on CD for a number of years.
Just to insure that NO ONE will ever again come up empty handed when Googling for information about this wonderful singer (the net is surprisingly bereft of same), here is a list of other key words that will almost surely guarantee landing on this page whenever anyone sets out to discover "Whatever Happened to Jennie Smith?":
Jo Ann Kristof (Jennie's real name), Steve Allen (a longtime TV employer), "Love Among the Young" (the title of her RCA album), the "Hollywood Palace" (another important TV credit), West Virginia dee-jay Hugh McPherson (an early mentor), Lionel Hampton (her first employer. . .not too shabby), Look Magazine (they once ran a nice feature on Smith when she first landed on the shores of NYC), Chevrolet (she was Mrs. Chevrolet to singer Frankie Randall's Mister C. in an ad campaign), Mort Garson (the arranger of her third album), Donn Trenner (arr. for her fourth lp).
Now. . .if I could only figure out whatever happened to good ole West Virginia gal Janet Brace, whose one One ONE lp, "Special Delivery" (1956), is still available on CD in---natch---Japan.
My web site
Posted by Bill Reed at 1:21 PM