The Singer-Pianists – Take 2

November 20, 2013

Important in the jazz world since its earliest days, the singer-pianist comes in all styles. As mentioned in Take 1, although mining this rich lode I am not seeking to be definitive. My choices are self-indulgent, they are artists whose work I admire and enjoy, but they are also artists who stand high if rated only as a singer, and who are similarly excellent when only playing the piano. And when doing both simultaneously succeed in retaining very high standards despite the very different qualities needed in the art of piano playing and the art of singing.

In Take 1, only one artist was featured; this time there are three. Necessarily, I will have to be brief, but this is not in any way disparaging – it is nothing more than acceptance that writing at length, as I did in the case of Fats Waller, it would take until the end of time to deal with all possible artists. Come to think of it, that schedule applies if there are three at a time, or thirty, but . . .

The three artists featured here are Nellie Lutcher, Dardanelle, and Daryl Sherman.

Nellie Lutcher

Master Classics Records

Master Classics Records

For me, and I expect for many others, Nellie Lutcher arrived with a bang. This was a result of a succession of hit records played regularly on BBC radio programs in the UK. They were similarly aired in the USA, helping her to hit parade success there; this followed her signing to Capitol Records in 1947. The first of Nellie’s hits was Hurry On Down, a song in the currently popular R&B style; on this she displayed her distinctive vocal sound, earthy, knowing, and slyly suggestive, as well as her driving piano playing. Nellie was then in her early thirties and was already a rounded and experienced musician. She was born into a musical family on 15 October 1915, in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her father played bass in a jazz band and as Nellie swiftly developed her instrumental skills she joined him. As she gained in confidence, she moved on to the Southern Rhythm Boys band, where in addition to playing piano she also arranged, and from the late 1930s into the mid-1940s attracted considerable attention, particularly on the west coast. Nellie’s younger brother, Joe Lutcher, was also a professional musician, playing alto saxophone, and like his sister moved to California where he worked with several notable artists. Nellie played mainly club dates in California but she also appeared on the March of Dimes and this was when Capitol recognized her potential and brought her into their special, and at the time notably musician-oriented, fold.

ASV Living Era Records

ASV Living Era Records

 

Nellie’s first hit was followed by two other raunchy songs that suited her vocal delivery and percussive piano playing, He’s A Real Gone Guy,and Fine Brown Frame, both similarly successful. Nellie also sang moody songs with flair, among them another hit, The Song Is Ended. Capitalizing on her popularity in the UK, she toured there in 1950. Unfortunately, although her Capitol singles were hits, and her album, Real Gone, was a success, times were changing, as were musical tastes and the growing popularity of the softly sophisticated song stylists edged singers like Nellie aside. Soft and sophisticated are not words that leap to mind when describing her. She moved to Liberty Records where she recorded Our New Nellie to considerable acclaim, but the front-rank period of her career was over and from the late 1960s into the early 1970s she took an office job, working at the Hollywood Local of the AF of M. Her brother Joe also bowed out in the mid-1950s; in his case to become an evangelical preacher. Meanwhile, Nellie continued to make occasional club appearances, on both the west and the east coast, but it was not until the mid- to late 1980s, when her early records were re-released on the Stateside and particularly the Jukebox Lil labels, that she returned to the spotlight’s flicker. Through these reissues it became apparent to a new generation of fans, and fellow musicians, that she was special; a singer who followed her own ideas on what she should sing and how she should sing it, and a piano player who compounded enthusiasm with great skill. And, in all that she did, Nellie was always musicianly. In her late years, Nellie continued to play gigs and also appeared on her own PBS television show and on Marian McPartland’s radio show, Piano Jazz, on NPR. Nellie Lutcher died 8 June 2007.

 

Dardanelle

Audiophile Records

Audiophile Records

If asked to find just one word with which to describe Dardanelle, it would not be inappropriate, I think, to select ‘storyteller’. A highly-accomplished musician, she was born Marcia Marie Mullen, in Avalon, Mississippi, on 27 December 1917, and played piano and sang from her earliest years. She studied through school and university and by the early 1940s had established herself on the eastern seaboard through working with a number of bands. She did, though, have her own ideas on the direction she wanted to take and formed a trio with bassist Paul Edenfield and guitarist Tal Farlow. Swiftly gaining popularity, the trio enjoyed a year-long residency at New York’s Copacabana and followed this with gigs at other New York nightspots. At the end of the 1940s, Dardanelle put her career on hold and following marriage to Walter Hadley spent most of her time raising a family. From the mid-1950s until the mid-1960s, she played church organ in Chicago and also appeared on radio and television. In the mid-1960s, now living in New Jersey, she formed a new trio, this one including her son, Skip Hadley, on drums. Ten years on and Dardanelle returned fully to the jazz fold, working with musicians such as guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, bassist George Duvivier and drummer Grady Tate. In the early 1980s Dardanelle was active on the club circuit and also appeared at jazz festivals and concert halls, and made records, an immersion in work that helped her through a divorce and the death of Skip Hadley. She worked in the USA, Japan and on cruise liners, survived a particularly vicious mugging, and continued to make records that displayed her gentle vocal style and her fluid piano playing.

Stash Records

Stash Records

 

In the mid-1980s, Dardanelle moved back to her home state where she had a spell as artist-in-residence at the University of Mississippi and continued to make public appearances, sometimes joined by her second son, bassist Brian Hadley. She also appeared regularly on radio, reading excerpts from her autobiography, then a work-in-progress. Some of these radio snippets were released on audiotape, a copy of which she sent to me and which, I regret to say, has long-since vanished. I recall that the stories she told matched the repertoire from which she drew the songs she sang. In these, her favorites were always those that reflected her interest in and love for the people and places of the Deep South. She continued to make records, mainly for Stash and Audiophile, and it is clear from some of these, for example Dardanelle Echoes Singing Ladies, that she held in very high regard singers of the past. A consummate musician, Dardanelle’s singing was always elegant, charming, and filled with love. Dardanelle died on 8 August 1997.

 

Daryl Sherman

Nagoya photo pink Feb 2013

During her formative years, there was no shortage of good jazz musicians for Daryl Sherman to hear. Her family background was intensely musical and in her early years she was encouraged by her father, trombonist Sammy Sherman. It in her piano playing that Daryl reveals her love for jazz in all its forms and this is especially apparent when she plays with echoes of bop. And this love is also there when she sings the sophisticated songs of Cole Porter or delves into the witty lyrics of Johnny Mercer. Importantly, she does all of this with sparkling skill, enormous enthusiasm, and always an irrepressible swing. For several years, Daryl had a regular spot at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where she not only entertained the public, but also had the great pleasure and privilege of playing the Steinway piano that was used by Cole Porter during his long stay at the hotel. Later in life, Daryl recorded with a musician she had known for many years, stride piano player Dave McKenna; this is on her CD, Jubilee, where she displays her vocal skill when accompanied by another pianist. Contrastingly, her piano playing was spotlighted on an Audiophile album with Mr Tram Associates (Daryl, Barbara Lea, Dick Sudhalter, Loren Schoenberg) Getting Some Fun Out Of Life, and on a recording made late in his life by her father; this was Arbors Records’ Sammy Sherman, A Jazz Original – Live At Chan’s.

Audiophile Records

Audiophile Records

Daryl had mainly sung on her first album, I’m A Dreamer, and her willingness to sing in collaboration with other pianists is demonstrated on Johnny Mercer A Centennial Tribute where on a couple of songs her singing is accompanied by Barbara Carroll and Marian McPartland. On New O’leans, her paean to post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, Daryl is primarily accompanied by a regular collaborator, guitarist James Chirillo. Also recorded in the Crescent City is Mississippi Belle – Cole Porter in The Quarter, a further delightful tribute to place and time and music.

 

Daryl’s repertoire is extensive and has at its core songs by the great masters of American popular music; in addition to Cole Porter she has recorded the music of Richard Rodgers, with lyrics by both witty Lorenz Hart and romantic Oscar Hammerstein (A Hundred Million Miracles), and the music of Johnny Mercer, whose songs combine rich melodies with lyrics that can be acerbically witty or unsentimentally romantic (A Centennial Tribute). Many of the songs composed by leading figures from Tin Pan Alley’s heydays were originally used in Broadway shows and Hollywood’s musicals and Daryl shows a special fondness for these nostalgic memory-tugging moments.

Arbors Records

Arbors Records

The ballads that feature strongly in Daryl’s shows often require a soft and subtle approach and it is not surprising that from choice she prefers to work with bass and guitar accompaniment, making up for the absence of a drummer with her own hard-swinging undercurrent at the piano. An exceptional singer, a strikingly good pianist; as a singing-pianist Daryl Sherman is one of a small handful of the very best of this important art.

 

As always, these CDs can be found at Amazon.

 

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