© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Christy had no musical training, and was unable to read music. She sang by instinct and natural ability. If she was unaware of her technical limitations, her critics soon made her cognizant of them, complaining of faulty intonation, of an imperfect vibrato, and that she often sang flat.
Sometimes it was true, and in classical music such defects would be damning. But jazz has its own set of rules, or rather non-rules, in which self-expression and individuality are more important than perfect technique.
In Jazz, if it sounds right, it is right, and Christy sounded just right to the thousands of fans who recognized in the character of her voice an extra quality, a husky timbre, and a highly personal way of phrasing and bending notes which far transcended any technical deficiency.”
- Michael Sparke, author
“People talk about June's intonation, but I think that made her. That was her style. She would sing something a little flat, and raise it up, or lower it down, and that was her uniqueness. It didn't matter if it was flat, not at all.”
- Conte Candoli, Jazz trumpet player
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles will have more to say about Shirley Luster [aka June Christy] in a future, extended feature about a “chick singa” who epitomized the West Coast “cool” style, but in the meantime, please enjoy this excerpt about June from Michael’s Sparke’s seminal Stan Kenton: This Is An Orchestra! [Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2010]
Referring to Anita O’Day’s And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine, Michael observes:
"One of the drawbacks of a hit record was that fans expected the band to play that song at least once every performance, and when a vocal was involved the strain and monotony were exacerbated, until the singer came to detest the very song that had caused the success. Anita O’Day had never been really comfortable in the Kenton organization, which she found too stuffy and rigid for her free-wheeling lifestyle, and in February 1945 she quit, her departure being described in the media as ‘abrupt,’ or as one writer put it, ‘Anita jumped the band in one of her outbursts.’
It must be said, O'Day recalled the circumstances quite differently, but Kenton confirmed the press reports: "We were in the middle of a job in St. Louis, and all of a sudden Anita comes up to me and says, ‘I’ve had it!’ And I said, 'You've had what?' She says, ‘I’m leaving!' I said, 'You're leaving right now?' She says, 'Right now!’ ‘So I said, “So long,” and she walked off the bandstand.’
Anita had been a popular personality, and her unprofessional departure left a gaping hole in the band's line-up. This time Carlos Gastel [Stan’s promoter] had no successor in the wings, and as Gene Howard recalled: ‘It seemed we never would find a suitable replacement. Every week a new girl would try out, but none of them seemed to have it. It wasn't until we opened at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago in the spring of 1945 that the first real prospect came along.’
Shirley Luster's biggest break thus far had been a short-lived tenancy with Boyd Raeburn, terminated when she was laid low with scarlet fever. Her career was making little progress when she heard Kenton was looking for a new singer, and presented him with some test recordings she had made. "Stan listened to my records and hired me," Shirley recalled. ‘I joined the orchestra on March 22, 1945, in Chicago — I can't remember my own birthday, but I'll never forget that date.’
Stan made it clear she was hired only on a trial basis, and at first her songs were from Anita's book, in the absence of any fresh orchestrations, quite a modest beginning for the singer Milt Bernhart would describe as ‘The Queen of the Kenton Bandstand.' In Stan's words: ‘I became interested in having Shirley sing with the band, and the big project was, how can we name her, because the name Shirley Luster sounded something like a hair-shampoo, and I didn't think it at all befitting. She agreed to change her name, and of course at that time she became June Christy.’
Audree Kenton comments: ‘June never had the command that Anita O'Day had. What June did was what Stanley told her to do: he created June.’ Christy, young, inexperienced, and facing an uncertain future, was certainly more malleable than the forthright O'Day, and was unlikely to demand a change of drummer, or pontificate on how the band should swing. But neither did Kenton exercise a Svengali-like influence over the way she performed, and in fact June told George Simon: ‘Stan always inspired me, but he never told me how to sing.’ At the same time, June's own style was far from fully developed in 1945, and she was replacing a particular sound to which the fans had become accustomed; so if Christy's main influence was O'Day, Stan wasn't likely to discourage her. As Gene Roland told Stan Woolley: '’When June arrived she was more or less an O'Day impersonator. She had Anita's style, and even looked a little like her. At first she did Anita's material, and then Stan developed a style for her and we gradually got away from the O'Day thing.’
The Kenton band produced many stars over the years, but none bigger or brighter than June Christy, who was forever identified with the orchestra, especially as Pete Rugolo arranged many of her solo albums for Capitol Records. At first Kenton limited her repertoire to up-tempo tunes, labelling her with the slogan ‘The Little Girl that Sings with a Beat,’ but it soon became clear that she was equally suited to sing ballads when her iconic interpretation of Willow Weep for Me became a classic.
Christy had no musical training, and was unable to read music. She sang by instinct and natural ability. If she was unaware of her technical limitations, her critics soon made her cognizant of them, complaining of faulty intonation, of an imperfect vibrato, and that she often sang flat. Sometimes it was true, and in classical music such defects would be damning. But jazz has its own set of rules, or rather non-rules, in which self-expression and individuality are more important than perfect technique. In jazz, if it sounds right, it is right, and Christy sounded just right to the thousands of fans who recognized in the character of her voice an extra quality, a husky timbre, and a highly personal way of phrasing and bending notes which far transcended any technical deficiency.
Stan was soon persuaded he had found the voice he was seeking, and personally vetoed any music lessons for Christy, which he was afraid would destroy her originality. Together, June's vocals and Stan's band enhanced each other, providing a perfect match, and one of the finest-ever combinations of jazz voice and orchestra. Kenton expressed it well when he said, "June brings something new to swing — not just rhythm, but real character.’ And Conte Candoli once and for all put paid to those snide comments: ‘People talk about June's intonation, but I think that made her. That was her style. She would sing something a little flat, and raise it up, or lower it down, and that was her uniqueness. It didn't matter if it was flat, not at all.’
June told me she was "scared stiff" when she first opened with the band, but if so it certainly didn't show on May 4, 1945, when Stan led his troops into Chicago's Universal Studios to record the first song specifically arranged for Christy by Gene Roland. Tampico is a novelty number with a catchy rhythm and snappy lyrics specially rewritten for Kenton.
In time, Christy would come to dislike Tampico as much as O'Day hated Tears Flowed Like Wine, but even June would admit how much she owed the song. She sings with such unassailable authority and enthusiasm that ‘June Christy’ was firmly established as a ‘name’ vocalist on the strength of her first-ever waxing, something which, she said, restored her confidence in her own abilities at a time when she most needed such assurance. Tampico was the magic record that cemented June's career, and stayed 13 weeks in the charts, reaching No. 4 in Billboard's Top 20.”
The following video is populated with images of what might suffice for “cool” today. On it, June Christy sings I’ll take Romance with the orchestra arranged and conducted by Pete Rugolo.