Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Jeri Southern [From the Archives]

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The contributions that Orrin Keepnews and Gene Lees have made to Jazz over the past fifty years are immense and go well beyond anything that can be described in this brief introduction.  Orrin’s work in recording and reissuing the music and Gene’s in writing about it have made the world of Jazz a far richer place because they devoted so much of their talent and creative genius to it.

Teaming up to develop and describe this retrospective of Jeri Southern’s early recordings at Decca is certainly an indication of the respect and admiration that Orrin and Gene have for this member of the Jazz family, a female vocalist who was not accorded enough of either in her lifetime.

When the likes of Orrin Keepnews and Gene Lees have so much praise to offer about the song stylings of Jeri Southern, the least I can do is to listen to them and to recommend that you do so as well.

© -  Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The Very Thought of You: The Decca Years, 1951-1957 [Decca GRP – 671]

“Here is a good clear look at one of the very best singers to emerge from the Pop/Jazz/Show-tune musical world that flourished in the mid-century years. By now this era can seem incredibly long ago and far away, but at its strongest it still retains all of its power to charm us and move us - and to demonstrate that, in the best of hands, this area of popular music is a true art form.

It has been my pleasure to work on this project with Kathryn King - a long-time friend with a solid track record of her own as a record producer, who has the considerable added incentive of being the daughter of the artist who is heard here in retrospect. Jeri Southern began her significant recording career with the half-dozen years at Decca from which this CD is drawn, As we picked our way through an extensive body of music, finding that our individual lists of preferred songs were looking remarkably similar, it did seem best to follow chronology in a general way, but without being excessive about it. As a result, tempo and instrumentation and the emotional content of these songs have led to a program that seems to pretty much set is own pace.

I knew Jeri Southern hardly at all; I only met her after she had ended her singing career. But I first heard her a long time ago, and have been fascinated over the years by what I consider to be a striking example of one of the major show-business paradoxes. This woman, a warm-voiced, sensitive, intelligent interpreter of the wonderful repertoire that a lot of us insist on capitalizing as The Great American Song Book, had all the qualities that I associate with two closely allied, important and consistently undervalued fields: being a jazz singer and being what for want of a better name is often called a cabaret singer. In Jeri's case this included the helpful fact that she was an excellent musician [among some attributes that in my view she shares with Carmen McRae is that she may well have been her own best accompanist]. But like so many of the best qualified female singers of the pre-rock days of the Fifties and early Sixties, she was typecast into a ‘pop vocalist’ category and as a result suffered through deliberate (although presumably quite well-intentioned) efforts to make her sound like everyone else and concentrate on the kind of lower-level Tin Pan Alley music that only a song-plugger or a music publisher could love.

The only two women I can think of who entirely fought their way through that mess and emerged as universally acknowledged major artists were obviously very strong, very tough, and supported by even tougher friends and associates. Ella Fitzgerald, who of course had Norman Granz as her all-American blocking back; and the totally indomitable Peggy Lee [who was a good friend of Jeri’s and, I’m inclined to suspect, would have been her role model if Ms. Southern had by nature been a more hard-shelled personality]. But that was not the way it worked out for Jeri; it should realty not be surprising to learn that her relatively early retreat from the show biz battlefront was basically the result of her being - to apply a phrase usually used to describe a jazz musician whose work goes sailing way over the heads of his audience – “too hip for the room.”

Way back when I first heard this voice, I was in Chicago visiting a World War II army buddy - it couldn’t have been past the very beginning of the Fifties, maybe earlier. He and his wife insisted on my listening to the laidback late night disc jockey who was The Man of the moment, Dave Garroway, soon to become one of the very first of the star night time (and subsequently early morning) casual television hosts. But all that lay ahead. What Garroway was doing at that particular time was shouting the praises of a great young locally-based singer by the name of Jeri Southern.

I became a fan at first hearing, then admittedly cooled off as her career seemed to be going in directions that I didn’t care for – you’ll note that we have not included one of her most popular recordings, a folksong tear-jerker called "Scarlet Ribbons.” Consequently, it took me much too long to become aware of some important factors. One was that her voice remained a great instrument, and another that she was singing a very high percentage of the right kind of songs -  merely note in passing that the writers represented here include Rodgers and Hart [four times], Cafe Porter [twice], Jerome Kerr [two more] and Kurt Weill.

It also seems apparent that she was doing battle energetically and in two ways against the kind of arrangements that were all too often in deadly vogue in those days. For one, in a period when a singer’s worth seemed to be measured by the size of the accompanying orchestra, she nevertheless succeeded fairly often in working on records in much the same setting as she would appear in clubs: backed only by a rhythm section, which on five of these numbers is led by guitarist/arranger Dave Barbour [long and closely a collaborator with Peggy Lee). It’s a formula that at times even allows her to be the piano player -  check out the Southern solos on Ray Noble's I HADN'T ANYONE ‘TILL YOU and her own I DON T KNOW WHERE TO TURN. And secondly, even when the writing behind her was lush and potentially overbearing, someone -- perhaps the artist herself, or a properly- motivated manager or other colleague  - often was able to keep the background writing under control. Or, when necessary, she seems to have been able simply to overcome it. I refer to my own listening notes on possibly my personal favorite in this collection, the magnificent Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin MY SHIP. It was a specific and private comment, not intended for publication, but it now strikes me as quiet generally applicable to this compilation, and indeed as a summation of the artistry of Jeri Southern. “The strings are a matter of taste  I wrote, "but it is such a great performance of a great song.”

-         0rrin Keepnews

Remembering Jeri – Gene Lees

"Once upon a time, America was blessed with any number of small nightclubs that featured excellent singers singing excellent songs, and even the' big record companies were interested in recording them. Some of the best of them played piano, ranging from the competent to the excellent, Most of them were women, and there was a glamour about them, superb singers such as Betty Bennett, Irene Kral, Ethel Ennis, Marge Dodson, Lurlean Hunter, Audrey Morris, Shirley Horn, and even regional singers, such as Kiz Harp of Dallas. Many of them are forgotten now; Shirley Horn alone has enjoyed a resurgence.

They were sometimes called jazz singers, although they were no such thing, or torch singers a term I found demeaning, not to mention horrendously inaccurate. Male singers were with equal condescension from an ignorant lay press called crooners.

The songs they sang were drawn from that superb classic repertoire that grew up in the United States between roughly 1920 and the 1950s, and had any of us been equipped with foresight, we’d have known that the era was ending, doomed by “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” and “Papa Loves Mambo” and “Music Music Music “even before the rise of Bill Haley and His Comets, Elvis Presley, arid the Rolling Stones.

Of all these singers, one of the greatest was Jeri Southern, born Genevieve Lillian Hering near Royal, Nebraska on August 5, 1926, the baby in a family of two boys and three girls. Her grandfather had come from Germany in 1868, and in 1879 built a water-powered mill on Verdigris Creek. His sons and grandsons, including Jeri’s father, worked there. I am indebted to Jeri’s sister, Helen Meuwissen), for this information about Jeri’s early life.

“She could play the piano by ear when she was three, Helen said. She started studying at six. I don t think she ever quit taking lessons. (I car confirm this Jeri was doing some formal study of piano to the end of her life.) She went to Notre Dame Academy in Omaha, and always credited the nuns there for her background. She took voice lessons in Omaha with Harry Cooper. It was her desire to be a classical singer.”

Jeri also studied classical piano in Omaha with a much beloved teacher, Karl Tunberg. But her ambitions in the classical world evaporated one evening when she walked into a nightclub and heard a pianist playing jazz. She loved this music, and the experience changed her life. After high school graduation, she moved to Chicago.

She started playing standards in clubs, and got more experience as a pianist in local Chicago big bands. Eventually, as her reputation grew, she was advised that she could make more money if she would sing, a standard casting for women pianists in those days: women were not supposed to be instrumentalists, they were supposed to sing, or, just maybe, play the harp. So she did start to sing, and accompanied herself at the piano. She abandoned her trained operatic voice and began singing in her speaking voice, which had a smoky sound, with a very soft enunciation and a haunting intimacy. And her career took off.

Her greatest popularity was in the 1950s. The first of her records I heard was YOU BETTER GO NOW, the oldest track on this CD. I was blown away by it: the simplicity, the exquisite lack of affectation or mannerism. She recorded it for Decca in late 1951, just after she turned 25. She then turned out a series of superb performances for Decca, through to the Rodgers and Hart gems she recorded November 26, 1957: YOU'RE NEARER and NOBODY’S HEART. I met Jeri probably two years later, in 1959. She eventually left Decca and went on to record for other labels.

Unlike many performers, her stage career represented a great struggle for Jeri. First, she was extremely shy. I remember her telling me during our Chicago friendship that the first time she arrived at a nightclub and saw her name on the marquee, it terrified her. She deeply felt the responsibility of drawing and pleasing an audience – she was intimidated by the look of expectation in their eyes.

There are performers who passionately crave the audience. They will climb over footlights, climb over the tables, do anything to claim the audience’s attention and, I suppose, love – or the illusion of love. Jeri wasn’t like that. She simply loved the music. The music was everything, She was almost too much a musician, and certainty a perfectionist. Her philosophy of performing was the diametrical opposite of Carmen McRae's, who not only wouldn't do a song the same way twice, but probably couldn’t remember how she did it the last time. Jeri worked on interpretation until she got it ‘right,' which is to say the way she wanted it. She would then stick with her chosen interpretation. She was also disinterested in scat singing. I have noticed an interesting thing about those with the harmonic and instrumental skills to scat-sing - they often don’t and won’t do it. Nat Cole was a classic example of this fidelity to the original melody; so was Jeri.

As her reputation grew, her handlers – the managers, agents, publicists, record company executives - set out to make her into a pop star. Certainty with her Germanic beauty, she had the basic material for it. They dressed her in fancy gowns.  They took her away from her beloved piano and stood her in front of a microphone with some else to play for her. Nothing could have been more diabolically designed to send her fleeing from the spotlight.  And so, like Jo Stafford [and for the record, Greta Garbo, Doris Day, and others], she simply quit. She walked away from the business and the discomfort it brought her.

But the musicianship was always there, and she took to teaching. She wrote a textbook, Interpreting Popular Music at the Keyboard.   She enjoyed composing, and over the years wrote pop songs with various partners [one of which, I Don’t Know Where to Turn is included here], and even ventured into other genres like orchestrating film scores and writing classical songs.

I used to drop by to visit her every once in a white at her apartment in Hollywood. Illustrating some point in a discussion of this song or that, she would go to the piano and play and sing for me. She simply got better throughout her life, and during these occasional private performances, I could only shake my head and think what the world was missing. Her piano playing in those last years was remarkable. It had grown richer harmonically, and the tone had evolved into a dark golden sound.

She was working on a book of piano arrangements of songs by her friend Peggy Lee, also a friend of mine. One sunny afternoon a few years age, I telephoned Peggy. How re you doing? I began.

‘I’m very sad,’ she said. ‘Jeri Southern died this morning.’

As I learned later, she succumbed to double pneumonia. The date was August 4, 1991. The next day, August 5, she would have turned sixty-five.

Once she told me that during those Chicago years, she considered me her closest friend in the world. It is an honor I will not forget. I truly loved Jeri, not only the singer but the person inside who through music so diffidently allowed us glimpses into her all-too-sensitive soul.”

-         Gene Lees

Jeri Southern at Home

"Jeri Southern was essentially an intensely private person whose talent for music thrust her into a public career. Since Gene Lees and Orrin Keepnews have done such a fine job of describing my mother's public life, I thought it would be of interest to her still devoted audience to learn something of her private life. as I knew it.

My mothers life was unusual in a number of respects, not the least of which was the fact that a great deal happened to her at a very early age. She started performing as a pianist while still in her teens, moved from Nebraska to Chicago, developed a following there, married, signed a record deal, had a baby, and had her first great commercial success as a recording artist, all by the time she was 25. At 36 she retired from her public career. For the next 30 years her time was as much taken up with music as it had been before, but as a teacher, a writer and a composer - she never went back to performing.

Shortly after recording YOU BETTER GO NOW, my mother moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, where she lived for the rest of her life. Taking the title of one of the songs she recorded perhaps a little too closely to heart ( Married I Can Always Get"), she married four times; three of her husbands were musicians, one a radio der5onatity. My earliest memories are from the house we had in Malibu, a wonderful place right on the water, where she and I would take daily "walks' with our hyperactive Irish Setter. The intellectual pursuits, the preoccupation, the pleasures my mother enjoyed at the Malibu house were the ones she carried with her throughout her Life – she loved reading, exploring the whole dimension of the mind, summoning the restorative powers of the sun, and most of all, playing the piano. 

She always practiced classical pieces, although she never performed them. Some of her favorite things to play were Beethoven sonatas, Grieg’s Holberg SuiteDebussy’s Images, and in later years the Brahms Intermezzi.  She would also compose and improvise at the piano. Because she suffered from what could only be described as a crippling case of performance anxiety, she hated to be observed while she played, and only really enjoyed herself when she thought that no one was listening. So it was that I got in the habit of sneaking

She had the most exquisite command of  harmony, so that when she played a tune, she would basically use it as a launching pad for an extended improvisation which often went very far afield harmonically.  Sometimes, as I sat surreptitiously listening  to these explorations of  hers, I would be certain she could never figure out how to get back to  the original key of the  piece, but she always did, and in the most spectacular way, with subtle and elegant voice leading and chord progressions that were simply stunning. For a period of years she also studied guitar with a fuzzy-voiced Italian whose greatest contribution to our lives, notwithstanding the guitar lessons was probably the killer spaghetti sauce recipe she induced him, after much cajoling, to surrender.

When she was at home she spent a lot of time reading. She was fascinated by the work of Carl Jung, whose ideas became an essential part of her world view. She was also very taken with Gurdjieff, and even got interested in numerology toward the end of her life. She found it exciting to contemplate both the innumerable possibilities of inner space, so to speak, and the complexities of the physical world.

Another pursuit of her life at home was listening to the work of other singers. Her perfectionism made her a tough audience, but there were a few to whom she would return again and again. As one can immediately discern from listening to her recordings, she felt that the most important criterion for a great singer was a reverence for and communication of the lyric. She was not swayed by technical brilliance; the only singer with astonishing vocal technique whose work she enjoyed was Mel Torme, and that was because he delivers a lyric so well. She also loved Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Lucy Reed, Jackie and Roy, and the Hi-Los.

Music was really the playing field for her entire life. And with a few important exceptions, all of her most important relationships were with musicians, with whom she could share her opinions, her discoveries, her delights. Though she lived in Hollywood most of her adult life, she was not involved in that world. To say that she was reticent socially would be a mammoth understatement.

She hated parties and social gatherings, and had the same small circle of friends the day she died that she’d had for decades before. But for those of us who were privileged to be close to her, she had that rarest of gifts - acceptance. She was a loving, supportive, non-judgmental friend and mother. She loved her family and, in an important part of her mind and heart, she never really left Nebraska.

I still miss her so much, but it fulfills the dream of a Lifetime to be able to put this package together, to remind the world of what a wonderful singer she was."

- Kathryn King

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave your comments here. Thank you.