The late 1940s and early 1950s were liberating years for harmonic vocal groups. The rise of the suburbs and collapse of the big bands pushed singing groups to go out on their own. Some groups like the Ravens, the Orioles, the Platters and others influenced by the Mills Brothers and Ink Spots took a gospel-based r&b approach and wound up swaying a generation of doo-wop and soul artists. Other groups like the Four Freshmen and the Encores modeled themselves after the Modernaires, Six Hits and a Miss, and the Mel-Tones. They straddled jazz and pop, eventually influencing the Beach Boys, the Four Seasons and other rock groups. Among the hippest of the latter set were the Hi-Lo's. (Prepare yourself for a big surprise below).
Formed in 1953, the Hi-Lo's featured four West Coast-based background singers, two of whom were members of Billy May's Encores. The Hi-Lo's' name was said to have come from members' varying heights and vocal ranges. In 1954, the group was discovered by bandleader Jerry Fielding, who helped land them a recording contract. By May 1954, the Hi-Lo's had their only charted single, My Baby Just Cares for Me, which reached No. 29. In the mid-1950s, Judy Garland took the group on tour.
The Hi-Lo's would record 26 albums, mostly for the Columbia, Reprise and Kapp labels. In the pre-Elvis years, when crew cuts and a non-sexual, conservative look were the norm for pop entertainers, the quartet was marketed as a more rambunctious alternative to the staid Four Freshmen. But by 1963, music tastes changed and the college-obsessed group disbanded, but not before recording a popular Hertz ad ("Hertz puts youuuuu in the driver's seat"). In 1967 two of the four members, Gene Puerling and Don Shelton, formed the Singers Unlimited.
What made the Hi-Lo's so appealing in the 1950s was their high-energy attack and seemingly effortless way in which they handled perilous vocal arrangements. They weren't as well produced as the Four Freshmen, who recorded for Capitol. Song choices and band arrangements for the Hi-Lo's could be spotty and flat, leaving both pop and jazz listeners less than satisfied. You always got the feeling the group had more potential than the people and material surrounding them. But the Hi-Lo's remained more swingy and vocally daring than the predictable Four Freshmen. The Hi-Lo's were hyperactive and eager to please, which boosted their appeal.
One of their albums, The Hi-Lo's and All That Jazz, has long been out of print and is currently going for about $20 used at Amazon. Recorded on June 30, 1958 (it just celebrated its 50th anniversary), the album has long been hailed by critics for its jazzy warmth and vocal tension.
Earlier this week, while roaming the web, I came across a Hi-Lo's tribute site that lets you listen to the album for free. What's more, the site offers other listening treats. I'll provide the link in a moment.
One reason And All That Jazz sounds so good is that the album was arranged and conducted by Marty Paich [pictured below] using his famed Dek-Tette. As a result, the instrumental support was smarter and cooler than the bland arrangements normally scored for the group's recording sessions by Frank Comstock. The Paich Dek-Tette also gave the vocal group a huge jazz lift: Frank Beach and Jack Sheldon (trumpets), Bob Enevoldsen (trombone), Vince DeRosa (French horn), John Kitzmiller (tuba), Herb Geller (alto sax), Bill Perkins (tenor sax), Bud Shank (baritone sax), Clare Fischer (piano), Joe Mondragon (bass), Mel Lewis (drums) and Alvin Stoller (bongo).
For a fun comparison, listen to And All That Jazz followed by The Four Freshmen and Five Trombones, which can be downloaded here. Both albums are solid swingers.
And now for the link. You'll find And All That Jazz under this site's "downloads" section here (click on the "mp3s" folder and then the "next" set of listings on the bottom right). Enjoy!
JazzWax video clips: The Hi-Lo's were especially popular on television in the 1950s, appearing on a range of celebrity variety shows. Here are the Hi-Lo's on The Rosemary Clooney Show with singer-composer Matt Dennis [pictured] singing one of Dennis' songs, Relax. Try to ignore Dennis' knee-high socks, strange smoking jacket worn to a volleyball game, and all the corn. Focus instead on the swinging way in which the Hi-Lo's bat the song around.
Think the Hi-Lo's were square? Dig this 1959 clip of the group with Frank Sinatra [pictured] singing I'll Never Smile Again. Watch Sinatra give it up, and dig that left eyebrow rise at 2:09 into the song. And dig the harmonic wind-down. What a shame the quartet never recorded an album with Sinatra. Makes you wonder how they would have affected the Chairman's swinging style.
And finally, here's the group's uncredited vocal on a Hertz ad from the early 1960s, back when gas was 31.9 cents a gallon, beaches were clear of plastic debris, and a summer road-trip in a convertible without air conditioning was perfectly enjoyable. Be sure to dig New Orleans' Bourbon St. and the highway with zero traffic!
Still want more clips of the Hi-Lo's and other vocal groups? Try this site. Be sure to check out the Ink Spots' The Gypsy.