Hi and Happy New Year to everyone. A friend sent me the above YouTube clip and it knocked me out so much I wanted to share it with all of you. It seems to be from a 1959 Playboy jazz special, but fortunately that leering creep Hugh Hefner has limited screen time and there’s a very young Tony Bennett among the guests, smoking away like everybody else. First off there’s Annie Ross, who gets up and sings “Twisted”, her signature tune. It was originally a blues solo by the great tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray and Annie put lyrics to the whole thing, having to do with psycho-analysis, because of the song’s original title and the fact that visiting the shrink was all the rage back then. The words are really clever and her tongue-in-cheek delivery here is very funny. This practice of putting words to instrumental jazz solos became known as vocalese, and Annie was one of the pioneers of it, along with King Pleasure, Eddie Jefferson, Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks, the last two of whom appear here later on. Years after this, Joni Mitchell recorded a version of Twisted and a lot of people think Joni wrote it, which drove her and Annie both nuts, me too.
Ms. Ross is backed here by none other than one of my all-time music heroes, Count Basie. There are some great shots of him, looking for all the world like a kind of sly yet benign jazz chipmunk. At the time, Annie was part of the vocal jazz trio called Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, they were sort of the forerunner to groups like Manhattan Transfer, though much better and more original, far less slick. L, H & R made records on their own and also performed and recorded with Basie’s big band. On one of their most famous albums, Sing A Song of Basie, they actually became the band, singing all of the horn parts by overdubbing with just the rhythm section. Ross sang the trumpet parts, Dave Lambert the trombones and Jon Hendricks the saxophones. Hendricks put words to everything including various solos, it’s a vocal tour de force. The stress of writing and recording this put two of them in hospital and Hendricks had a nervous breakdown afterward!
Lambert and Hendricks join Ross here for a number from this album, “Everyday I Have the Blues” – Lambert is the white guy on the left. They’re also joined by the great Joe Williams, who sings the lead here and was Basie’s main singer then for a number of years. He looks and sounds the end here – he was impossibly cool, tall and good-looking. He always looked this somber and deadpan when he sang, but was actually a very warm, super-nice guy. L, H & R sing the various horn riffs and obbligatos behind Joe here, though obviously with no overdubs, so it sounds a little thinner than the record. There’s a hilarious bit where Anna sings some really high trumpet punches, her head bobbing jerkily each time as if she were being goosed from behind by one of the guys. My only criticism is that generally, the strain of fitting in all the words causes them to do this at a tempo slightly too slow, also the case with “Twisted” here. Small thing though, it’s so nice to see them doing this live and I never knew footage like this existed. Annie Ross is also very hot and sexy here, with that slightly slinky look, it’s candy for the ears and eyes.
I was really lucky to get the chance to work with both Annie Ross and Joe Williams – Joe’s gone, but Annie still sings a regular gig once a week in NYC with a friend of mine, she’s unstoppable. The gigs I did with Joe were quite unusual and unexpected. In the mid-’80s, there were a series of TV jingles for Carlsberg Light Beer, put to the tune of one of Joe’s big hits with Basie, a blues called “Allright, OK, You Win.” Joe was appearing in town and someone had the bright idea of asking him if he wanted to make an extra $10,000 singing a couple of jingles and he said “Ahhh, yeahhh!” and so was born an ad campaign of real class. The ads were a big hit, the beer sold like crazy, and they had Joe back to do five or six more ads, each one a subtle variation of the original with different types of musical backing. I pinch myself now, but I played bass on most of them, they were among the most fun I ever had doing jingles, we were well-paid plus we got to hang with Joe, who was a real gentleman and a road warrior, one wise cat.
As for Annie Ross, she’s always been one of my all-time pet jazz-chicks, she was and is so incredibly hip and funky, so playing with her for three nights at The Senator during the jazz festival around 1993 or so remains one of my favourite jazz memories. She did not disappoint, she was everything I hoped for – in great musical shape, there was minimal rehearsal, she was delightfully loose and funny. Before we went onstage opening night, she summoned the drummer – my good friend John Sumner – and me to her dressing room and we thought “Oh no, she’s gonna lay a whole bunch of uptight singer crap on us”, but no, she poured us each a huge glass of Scotch, checked that she had our names right and said “Now, I want both you m.f.s to go up there and have as good a time as possible, ’cause if you don’t have a good time, then I can’t have a good time. Bottoms up!”
It was the greatest pep-talk I’ve ever heard. We were willing to go through a wall and die for her from that moment on, we just had a ball playing for her, you couldn’t swing too much for Annie. After the last night, the club threw a party for Annie and the band at which she preceded to drink her pianist Tardo Hammer, Sumner and me under the table – Scotch again – Sumner and I reluctantly said our goodbyes to Annie while we could still talk and lurched off into the night, legless. She was just getting warmed up at about age 64, holding court and telling stories. She’s 83 now and I bet she could still wipe us out. What a woman.
Cheers (hic!) and hope you enjoy this video, which would never be made these days because we’re all too busy with more important things like reality shows and the latest wardrobe malfunction or rehab disaster of some young twerp, sheesh. As for me, I’m going to take a couple of aspirins and nurse my imaginary, retroactive hangover.
© 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.