Distilling the 60 year career of the perennially cool Quincy Jones down to a brief list of highlights would probably read something like this: was the first African-American vice president of a major record label (Mercury); released a string of successful instrumental albums under his own name for Mercury, one of which spawned the worldwide hit, "Soul Bossa Nova" (1962); composed for such motion pictures as The Pawnbroker (1965), In the Heat of the Night (1967), and The Color Purple (1985); produced Michael Jackson's Off the Wall (1979) and Thriller (1983); organized and produced the We Are the World project (1985). This, of course, leaves a lot of his work as composer, performer, conductor, arranger and producer unmentioned. To honor the man's 80th birthday, we offer some of our personal favorites from our favorite decade, the 1960's.
Also benefitting from Jones' deft hand was the the rococo diva of jazz, the empress of embellishment, Sarah Vaughan. If Dinah earned her sovereignty, then Sassy was due her appellation of "The Divine One," thanks to her astonishing range, which she exuberantly displayed from basso rumblings to operatic trills. Like Washington, Vaughan's album output during her long stay at Mercury was curiously spotty; the other jazz divas -- Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday on Verve, Carmen McRae on Decca/Kapp, even Gloria Lynne on Everest -- all seemed to have better luck. Unlike Washington, however, Vaughan's collaboration with Quincy Jones didn't result in her jazziest album -- as the title Vaughan and Violins suggests, it is lush, plush, and decidedly pop-oriented. However, unlike many other Sassy-plus-strings recordings from the era, which bathed the already rich chocolate mousse Vaughan voice in so much whipped cream, Vaughan and Violins was once again a triumph of Jones' innate good taste and restraint. The strings gently accent the make-out mood without overwhelming it, and the Divine One reels her luxurious instrument in just enough to make her occasional embellishments, when she employs them, thrilling rather than overbearing. The "hit" from these sessions was "Misty," but to our ears, the real gem is a truly haunting rendition of "The Thrill is Gone." We love the amount of reverb Jones adds to the final "gone," as Sassy slides down the note to shattering silence. (There were four more Vaughan/Jones studio collaborations: You're Mine You , Vaughan and Voices , Viva Vaughan , and Sarah Vaughan Sings the Mancini Songbook , plus one live recording, Sassy Swings the Tivoli . The latter is considered one of the classic live jazz albums; the rest contain some good, some bad, and some ugly. Vaughan and Voices is particularly to be avoided; Viva Vaughan and Sings Mancini [which contains overlap material from Voices and Viva] are mostly harmless 1960's camp with a few gems among the rhinestones. You're Mine You is the best of the bunch, although the strings, and Sassy's needs-to-be-heard-to-be-believed rendition of "Maria" from West Side Story, may have jazz purists running for the hills.)
Way over on the other side of the musical spectrum, perhaps Jones' biggest commercial success of the 1960's came from a little story about a girl with a louse of a boyfriend named Johnny, who dumped her for a witch named Judy -- but it's her party, and she'll cry if she wants to. That's right, Quincy "Thriller" Jones also discovered and produced the Tenafly teen queen, Lesley Gore.
Lesley Gore wasn't the only bouffant blonde to benefit from Quincy Jones' finesse in the 1960's, however. Peggy Lee also swung under his baton, although despite their professional and personal respect for one another, they strangely only recorded two full albums, If You Go (1961) and Blues Cross Country (1962). Even more strangely, these two albums don't even really constitute essential listening for either Lee or Jones fans. The latter, with its punchy big band arrangements, and cute concept and song selection (from "Kansas City" to "St. Louis Blues" to "I Left My Sugar in Salt Lake City"...get it?), is the better of the two, tapping into both singer and arranger's jazzy, swinging side. If You Go has an impeccable track listing, but the purple prose of the liner notes ("...Magnificent misty-eyed performances of beautiful love songs...") is unfortunately matched by Jones' unusually precious backings, while Lee sometimes seems less misty than hazy. Five years later, however, Lee would provide lyrics to a song Jones had written for the score to Walk, Don't Run (1966), Cary Grant's final film. This tender bossa nova became a minor standard, and its poignancy, and the fact that it resulted in a direct writing collaboration between the two, speaks far more eloquently than their actual recorded teaming. (That same year, Peggy Lee co-wrote [with composer Johnny Mandel] and recorded one of her all-time finest songs, "The Shining Sea," which many have interpreted as a love letter to Jones: "...his strong, brown hands..."). Here, Peggy sings her collaboration with Jones, "Stay with Me," as a duet with Andy Williams; the song only appeared on one of her Capitol singles, paired with "Happy Feet," also from Walk, Don't Run, and also written with Jones.
Jones' groundbreaking work for movie scores deserves an entire blog (or book) of its own; and of course, his monumental successes in the prevailing decades are for someone else to write about. We hope we've shed a little light on what perhaps may be more neglected nuggets from an exhaustive and commendable lifetime of achievement.
March 14, 1933