Thursday, March 14, 2013

We and Mr. Jones

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.

1966 E.P. re-issue of 1956 recordings by Dinah Washington, arranged and conducted by Quincy Jones

Jones had his background in jazz, fronting his own acclaimed band, as well as arranging and conducting for Mercury Records' jazz subsidiary, EmArcy. One of his most felicitous pairings was with the legendary Dinah Washington. She was hailed as "Queen of the Blues"; and while La Washington always (correctly) protested that she could sing anything, "anything at all," she still cherished her royal title, quite often taking it a bit too literally for some! Everything about Dinah was big: her talent, her personality, and her voice, and she found the perfect partner in Jones, who stroked her queenly ego, but also matched her toe to toe in the studio, both in terms of his control of the sessions, and the muscular, yet sympathetic arrangements he created around her magnificently lusty voice. 

Quincy and the Queen made four proper albums together, as well as collaborating on a number of sessions which found their way onto various singles and compilation albums. All have their merits, but their first pairing, For Those in Love (1955), is one of the few true "jazz" albums in Washington's catalog, and arguably the best. The eight tracks are split between Tin Pan Alley standards like Rodgers and Hart's "This Can't Be Love" and Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You," and more contemporary Broadway and film fare of the highest quality. "You Don't Know What Love Is" has since been recorded to death by nearly every chanteuse of all stripes, but it was new to most ears when the Queen recorded it for this album. In true regal fashion, hers is the definitive version. (For the record, the subsequent Washington/Jones albums were The Swingin' Miss D [1956], Tears and Laughter [1961] and I Wanna Be Loved [1962]. All four are available on individual CD's/downloads, with the exception of Tears and Laughter, the songs from which are available on the final installment of the massive The Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury.)

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 [1962], Vaughan and Voices [1964], Viva Vaughan [1964], and Sarah Vaughan Sings the Mancini Songbook [1965], plus one live recording, Sassy Swings the Tivoli [1963]. 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.

Left to right: Quincy Jones, Millie "My Boy Lollipop" Small, Lesley Gore, 1964.

With the aid of arranger Claus Ogerman and his trademark "big" pop sound (Jones stayed strictly in the production booth for these sessions), Jones helped the 17 year old Gore become an overnight superstar. Her remarkable run of hits in 1963-64 all benefitted from the unmistakable mark of quality that Jones no doubt insisted upon. Not only was the song craft of "It's My Party," "She's a Fool," "That's the Way Boys Are" and "Maybe I Know" impeccable (Jones would help Gore cherry pick only the best), but hold these spit-polished-to-a-gleam productions up to much of the slapdash claptrap that too many would-be Lesley Gores were forced to endure, and there's simply no comparison. Although other factors certainly had a part in the result, the fact that the very talented Gore only managed one more Top 40 hit after she and Jones parted ways in 1965 speaks volumes. Here's our absolute favorite  Gore/Jones collaboration: the legendary "sleigh bells" single mix of "Look of Love," from the pens of the extraordinary Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, with the fabulous Miss Ellie helping out on background duty with session queens Jean Thomas and Miki Harris.

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.

As noted previously, Jones was a hit recording artist under his own name, and the string of instrumental albums he and his orchestra released from 1962 through 1966 are all perfect examples of early-to-mid Sixties cool. "Soul Bossa Nova," from Big Band Bossa Nova (1962), is the best known "hit" from this period, an original composition from an album otherwise comprised of either legitimate Brazilian songs "souled up," or American pop hits given similar treatment. It was later used and rediscovered, for better or worse, on the soundtrack of Mike Myer's Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997). Camp contrivance and lounge lizards aside, all of Jones' subsequent 1960's albums are worth rediscovering, but our absolute favorite is Quincy Plays For Pussycats (1965), which features an insanely groovy treatment of Ramsey Lewis' too-cool-for-school "The In Crowd." If this doesn't make you want to slip on some go-go boots and Pony all night long, you're probably reading the wrong blog.

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


  1. Nothing could be finah than Quincy and Dinah.

    1. And Q was a slick slice of fine back in the day. No wonder Dinah was so coquettish around him, and Peggy succumbed to his brand of "Fever"...

  2. HE'S BACK!
    (without missing a beat!)

    (btw-i love "you're mine you)

    1. Don't call it a comeback! I hate that word! It's a return!

      Love you.

  3. I loved Quincy's late 80s (?) album BACK ON THE BLOCK,with that star-studded list of guests - it was F-U-N-K-Y ! Also his album with Donna Summer where she does that sensational version of "Lush Life", as good as Sarah or Nancy Wilson or ... I will have to investigate the Pussycats album ...

    1. I have a love/hate relationship with Donna's Quincy album...I don't think it works particularly well as an album, yet I like almost all of the individual songs. ("State of Independence" is definitely in my Donna Top 5.) I think the problem, for me, is that it sounds really overproduced when taken whole; when I listen to the songs individually, I can appreciate their merits better.