Saturday, October 18, 2014

Julie and Japan

I don't know whether to be proud or sad that an article I wrote about Julie ("She Just Singsand Swings the Song and Goes Home) London appeared, in translation, in the very last edition (6/2010) of that venerated (founded 1947) Japanese jazz mag,  Swing Journal. ("Will the last Swing Journal writer please turn out the lights and close the door behind you.") Was it something that I said (wrote)?

My guess is that SJ didn't necessarily close down because business was allll that bad. Methinks they just saw the handwriting on the wall and wanted to get out while the getting was good. Such a venerated Japanese institution!, SJ's demise was nearly analogous to what it would be like if the New Yorker ever folded in the U.S. To actually get paid for writing about one of my most favorite singers in my favorite mag in my fave foreign locale! Some people have all the luck. In this instance, it was I! Here is the English language original:

Considering that  Julie London (1926-2000) is one of the foremost jazz interpreters of American Popular Song, there is surprisingly little information available about the actual production of her recordings. Although the backing she received on many of her releases is in-the-pocket jazz, on the vast majority of them, the liner notes identify neither the arranger or the musicians. Not even the great also saxophonist Benny Carter, clearly recognizable on her "Julie" album---that's the one where she's clad in a skimpy nightie reclining in a transparent butterfly chair---is credited.  In the 1950s, London was noted more for cleavage-driven record jacket photos than for her first-rate vocal skills. Perhaps that is why the management at London's label, Liberty, were wary of listing personnel on her albums, lest her sex bomb image be sullied by the merest suggestion she might actually be a first rate  jazz singer in the bargain. Think Mood Music, instead.

Not that all of her albums are devoid of personnel. A few contain partial listings, and those who made the cut over the span of London's 34-album catalog, include: Jimmy Rowles, Howard Roberts, Andre Previn, Barney Kessel, Gerald Wilson, Bud Shank. And, most significantly bassist-arranger-conductor Don Bagley. And that is because, he appears in one capacity or other on nearly every London recording made between 1960 and right on up to the very end, He does not recall, however, working with London on her 1969 album Yummy, Yummy, Yummy. Understandable, because, this one, her last studio affair, is one of the singer’s few recordings that is, perhaps, best passed over in silence.

I first spoke with Bagley when I phoned him up for a few pieces of discographical information for a Japanese jazz critic friend of mine. He was very helpful, and after a few more minutes of conversation, it was apparent that here was the go-to guy regarding London’s post-1964 studio and live performance activities. And so I made an appointment to sit down and talk with him at his Northridge, CA home in mid-May.

Aside from his musical alliance with London, clearly the longest of his career, the Utah-born musician has worked on extensive basis with the diverse likes of Stan Kenton and Burt Bacharach, and with hundreds of shorter stops along the way for such as Nat ‘’King” Cole, Lars Gullin, Frank Rosolino and Zoot Sims. He has also composed and arranged extensively for movies and TV.

“I first became involved with Bobby Troup in the late fifties,” Bagley recalls. “Troup and Julie had not gotten married yet. He had a TV show, Stars of Jazz, and he was working places around L.A. and I started working clubs with him and got to know Julie. I think I first recorded with her on the  At Home album in 1960.” And yes, Bagley tells me, the album really was recorded at Julie and Bobby’s house.

“When we did Julie at Home, we had a few drinks, dinner, then we recorded. She just loved the musicians.”

At one point in my interview, I tell Bagley my theory as to why there is little hard core discographical information on the back of the album, i.e. that Liberty was trying to “disguise” what were essentially jazz albums as easy listening or mood music albums and he agrees, adding:

“She liked Jimmy Rowles a lot, On the sessions we’d have the very best guys. The Condoli brothers, Bud Shank, Bob Copper, Jack Nimitz. She had been a big fan of the Kenton band. Knew all the guys who were with that band when I was.”

At first, when Bagley began working “on the road” with London, her group consisted of guitar, drum, bass and trumpet.

“But Julie decided she wanted to start playing more Vegas-type places and so we began planning those kinds of shows, which included a big band, a vocal group. She loved the Four Freshmen, so she hired Ken Albers, who was one of the Freshmen, to write the vocal charts. The singers traveled with us. That was leading up to the Americana in 1964. We also worked Vegas, Tahoe, Puerto Rico, Australia, Japan with the big band.”

Bagley did the arrangements, conducted, and rehearsed the band, along with playing bass, too. “I was the guy who established the tempos, got the band off. I was the musical director.”

London’s respect, admiration and love of musicians was a thread that ran throughout my conversation with the musician. This became especially apparent after the singer began touring with the expanded format of a big band.

“I remember one time,“ the bassist fondly recalls, “we went to Miami. It was one of those big hotels run by the mob but with an ostensible front man posing as the owner. This guy sent word to the dressing room, ‘Mister so and so would like to have dinner with Julie after the show.’ And she said, ‘What about my musicians?’ Meaning her four key people. And they said, ‘It’s principals only.’ And she said, 'You tell Mister so and so, I will have dinner with the musicians instead.' And she did!’

But London still depended on guitar, even with the big band, Bagley says. There were always a few spots in the show that used just guitar, bass accompaniment, especially in the recreation of the singer’s patented Julie is Her Name “sound.” Over the years, London had had all the great players, Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts, et al

“But when we got to New York for the Hotel America date, the hotel’s band guitarist was a disappointment, and it just didn’t work for her. I had been with Sal Salvador on Kenton’s band and he was in New York and I called him and asked him if he would do the job. He agreed to do it, but one night, he had to send a substitute, and it was Bucky Pizzarelli. Julie never got over how great Bucky played for her. But it’s Sal Salvador on the album that was recorded there.”

It must have been especially heartening to London when she, Troup, and her core group of players touched down in Japan in 1964 for their first of two visits there (the other was in 1966) and management’s concern, unlike Miami, extended beyond just the star herself.

“I remember how great Tats Nagashima, the booker, was. He was the booker for high-priced talent in Japan at the time. He treated everybody just royally. Not only Julie, but the musicians. He took us out to dinner every night for Kobe beef.  We had a Mercedes downstairs 24 hours a day with a driver. I was with Julie on both tours.”

This was, of course, in keeping with London’s dealings with her musicians. “She treated the musicians so well,“ says Bagley. “If we gave her a price, she’d go higher. We always got paid up front. We were family when we went to the house.” And again he repeated,   “She just loved the musicians.” It’s no surprise, then, that the long-time career musician pauses a moment, then adds, “Julie London was the best boss I ever had.” 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

GBS, Jr.

One time in the ninth grade in class my friend Bruce J. and I were watching a "sex education film" about venereal disease. It was rife with scenes so gross as to turn just about any teen off to the very idea of EVER having sex, much less catching VD, i.e., various and sundry lesions, physical paraphernalia (noses, etc.) falling off, teeth dropping out, and so on and so forth. And then at one point Bruce turned to me and said, "Some people will do anything to get into the movies."  I laughed so hard that I was taken out of class and placed in detention while the film just kept on a rollin'

I think of Bruce often . . .  mostly silly things. My memory today was triggered by a current, non-stop "human interest" segment on CNN about a woman who has announced the date of her euthanasia. Sad, perhaps, the first few times they ran the story. Finally, however, I could take no more and turned to David and observed, "Some people will do anything to get into the movies." Note that I said "movies" and not "TV." And then the above all  all came flashing back to me! Stuck in my brain pan lo these many years, Was there ever a ninth grader in human history who EVER made a remark that droll? Not to mention downright witty.

I wonder if he's still that funny sixty years later?

Wednesday, October 08, 2014


I still recall the date: July 2, 1955. Our junior high school was in California on a ninth grade class trip. Ordinarily, I would never have been able to break free from the group, but my classmates said they would cover for me with our chaperones if I sneaked out; they knew how much of a June Christy fan I was, even though she had only been famous for a year or two. The next hurdle was how I could gain admission to such a smokey-mirrored intime boite as the Crescendo due to being under age? But I donned some hipster shades, dangled an unlit cigarette from my lips  (I didn't even smoke yet), pasted on a false goatee and moustache, and tried to lower my voice to something resembling that of an adult male. ( I was but a few months beyond the stage of being but mere protoplasm in Buster Brown Shoes.) The disguise worked! I got in! I had never even had alcohol before and so I ordered something that sounded nice called a Pink Lady. Yum! (It's still my favorite drink to this day.) I sipped it while waiting for the show to begin. I also was able to fake an adult conversation with a much older guy sitting next to me by the name of Jeff. He was alone, too, and mumbled something about my coming back to his hotel room afterward for a drink. Quite a friendly fellow. 

After about ten minutes, the show began. There was a comedian whose name was Jackie Farrell. I'd never heard of him before and he really wasn't very funny. The audience just sort of sat on their hands and applauded politely when he finished, with only a yuk or two from them along the way. Then there was a band . . . Rene Somebody. They played for about twenty minutes. Cha-cha stuff. And then! Over the p.a. system I heard those magic words: "Ladies and gentlemen, the Crescendo is proud to present the Misty Miss June Christy." She came out to a lot of applause, then began her first song, and it turned out to be my very favorite of all of her numbers, "How High the Moon." But she had only sung a few bars when suddenly the nightclub began to shake like there'd been an an A-bomb drop or an earthquake (I'd been warned about quakes before our trip from West Virginia began.) And as quickly as it had started, the music stopped, and June and the band began making a hasty exit from the stage. Everyone else in the room (the waiters, everyone) commenced screaming, in a state of panic, and running for the doors. 

"That was quite a jolt, Jeff," I said to my neighbor and then I, too, joined in the panic. 

Hitting out-of-doors, I found myself surrounded by people from inside the club, now standing in the street looking up at the night sky. They were up there. Already some military, cops, and official-looking government guys had arrived and the upshot was that no one was allowed to leave until signing a deposition saying they would never reveal what they had just witnessed: Flying Saucers Over Hollywood. (Kind of ironic that June Christy was singing "How High the Moon" when it all happened.) 

Please know that I've never, ever written or said a world about any of this until now because . . . I've been muzzled by army brass. But now it can be told.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Happy Burke-day

Today is the birthday of Johnny Burke, writer of one of the most timeless set of lyrics. . .ever.

Tramping feet with traffic meet,
and fill the street with booming and zooming
In rhythm with the merry
Beat o' my heart.
Birds that sing and bells that ring,
Their voices bring, the rollicky frolicky
Tempo of the dancing beat o' my heart.
It all began the day you smiled at me
In such a charming way
Need I further say, because of you
The world is filled with music
Rumbling trains and roaring planes,
Their noise contains the clickity clackity drumming
From the humming beat o' my heart
Wireless tow'rs that flash their powers,
Or thunder show'rs that pitter and patter,
Are sounding to the pounding beat o' my heart.
And since you're mine, my love song needs
Another line with word divine,
That your name will rhyme with while I sing in time
With every thumping bumping beat o' my heart.

copyright 1934 by Johnny Burke and Harold Spina