Anyone who dismisses Frankie Laine as a camp pop singer really don't know enough about him. Of course, Laine is best known for recording an exhausting string of cap-gun Western-themed songs in the 1950s. But before selling his jazz soul for pop fame and fortune, Laine was an emotional jazz balladeer and a solid swinger of standards. Known as Mr. Rhythm, Laine in the late 1940s could bring his voice down to a confidential hush or open it up with enormous power and passion. In May 1955, at the height of his pop fame, Laine returned to his roots and recorded Jazz Spectacular, which is easily his finest and most expressive album.
Laine recorded Jazz Spectacular over three afternoons in 1955 before his evening gigs at New York's Latin Quarter. He was backed on the jazz date by an all-star swing band led and arranged by trumpeter Buck Clayton. The result remains a perfect marriage of Clayton's brash trumpet and Laine's vivid vocal enthusiasm. I've owned the LP for years, having paid a fortune for it in the early 1980s. Yet most of the people I've told about the album (now on CD) either weren't aware of it or assumed the record wasn't worth the time given Laine's pop image and reputation.
Born in 1913, Frankie Laine (Frank LoVecchio) grew up on Chicago's north side and began singing in church at age 10. His large family often went to hear open-air opera in the park, where Laine was inspired to become a singer. But when the Depression hit, nightclubs closed and radio was too difficult to break into. So Laine took a job as a ballroom dance instructor at the Merry Garden Ballroom [pictured below].
Asked to sing a few songs one night, Laine went up on stage and sang Beside an Open Fireplace. When the song ended, Laine told interviewers years later, he had tears streaming down his cheeks from the sentimental song. But the crowd was silent. Nearsighted, Laine said he couldn't see the audience and just assumed he had bombed. By the time he nervously neared the end of the stage, the crowd went wild, and Laine was hired to sing on a regular basis.
As the Depression deepened, the ballroom switched over to a more profitable dance marathon format. Eventually, Laine became a dance marathon entertainer and contestant. When the ballroom's manager started dance marathons in Baltimore and Atlantic City, he took Laine along. Laine won marathons in Baltimore and Atlantic City, where in 1932 he set a record—145 days of dancing with short breaks for food and rest.
But Laine's popularity was short-lived. In 1935, he began traveling from city to city looking for work as a singer. By 1937, he took a job at a Stamford, CT, leather factory, where he worked for three years. He quit in 1940 and went to New York. After stopping in at a Sunday afternoon jam sessions at the Hickory House, Laine met fellow Chicagoan and clarinetist Joe Marsala [pictured], who let him sing with the orchestra. But Laine left little impression.
Broke, Laine left New York for Chicago, eventually taking a job at Cleveland's Parker Appliance Co., a maker of hydraulic parts for airplanes during World War II. Laine asked to be transferred to the company's Los Angeles plant in 1943 and once there met disc jockey Al Jarvis [pictured]. The two became roommates, and Jarvis took Laine to perform at army hospitals in the area.
Laine quit his job at the war plant in 1946, and at age 34, he still had not been able to fulfill his dream of breaking into show business as a singer. Then one night that year, while singing for free at Billy Berg's club in Hollywood, songwriter Hoagy Carmichael stood up and demanded that the audience quiet down so he could hear Laine sing his song, Rockin' Chair. [Pictured: Billy Berg and Laine]
Carmichael put Laine in touch with Berle Adams [pictured], the co-founder and head of Mercury Records. Adams needed a B-side to a novelty single, The Pickle In The Middle With The Mustard On Top, recorded by comedian Artie Aurbach. Laine had a bit part on Aurbach's whimsical track, so Berle Adams asked Laine to stick around and record I May Be Wrong (But I Think You're Wonderful), which Adams had heard Laine sing at Billy Berg's. Laine was paid $25 for the record, and Laine's friend, Al Jarvis, played the side repeatedly on the air.
As record sales picked up, Adams quickly signed Laine to a Mercury recording contract. For his first single, Laine urged Adams to let him record a song he had heard a woman sing years earlier at a club in Cleveland. The obscure song was That's My Desire. Laine was backed by pianist Carl Fischer and his orchestra. Laine and Fischer would collaborate brilliantly on many of Laine's early Mercury hits, and they jointly composed the standard We'll Be Together Again. [Pictured: Fischer and Laine]
Laine was paid $50 for the record date, and for months the 78-rpm barely sold. Then sales began to climb rapidly, ultimately selling a staggering 2 million copies. Eventually Laine was turned over to Mercury's A&R director Mitch Miller, who said in later interviews that he had heard in Laine's voice "an everyman." To exploit this characteristic and latch onto the Wild West craze popular in the late 1940s, Miller had Laine record songs such as Mule Train, Cry of the Wild Goose, Swamp Girl and similar wagon-wheel fare with enormous success.
Laine's meteoric rise with these songs helped Miller [pictured] land an even bigger job in 1950 as head of A&R at Columbia Records. Miller immediately brought Laine over to the label, who was released from his Mercury contract by agreeing not to cover his own hits for five years. Miller immediately put Laine to work on other "boots and spurs" songs, starting with Jezebel, Granada and Moonlight Gambler. Thanks largely to Laine's pop success, Miller's power grew at Columbia, and his taste (or lack of it) wound up altering the landscape of American popular music.
Increasingly, Miller's formula seemed to include purging the jazz influences from the label's many premium vocalists and compelling them to record sexless novelty tunes that were less challenging to the ears of the label's increasingly suburban album-buying demographic.
Interestingly, Laine's earliest hits for Mercury between 1947 and 1950, sparked a new male vocal style popular with young listeners. With Frank Sinatra nearing the end of his romantic Columbia period and his image ill defined, Laine's big emotional delivery filled the vacuum. His booming and hyper-theatrical style kicked off a "crying" craze that was soon adapted by other pop singers in the early 1950s such as Johnnie Ray [pictured], Eddie Fisher and others.
It was during the heat of Laine's "whiskey and wilderness" period in 1955 that he switched hats and recorded Jazz Spectacular. The early 12-inch Columbia LP was the idea of Buck Clayton, who was friends with Laine and admired his voice. The album was recorded over three afternoons at Columbia's 30th Street Studios while Laine was appearing at New York's Latin Quarter. Charles Granata, author of the reissue's liner notes, interviewed Laine, who said:
"I was scheduled to be in New York to appear at the club. I told [producer] Irv [Townsend], 'I'll be working two shows a night so the only time we can record is in the afternoon.' And as soon as I came in, we started recording, and in three days we had an album. Before the session, Buck and I got together and began to discuss the tunes. Most of the arrangements were sketched out, and then the rest of the band just improvised and played what they wanted. We had no rehearsals before the session—we would just run through them once, and then do 'em. Buck wanted to create the feel of a jam session, but we had to have some structure to it."
Clayton arranged the 10 vocal tracks, and the band over the three-day period featured Clayton and Ray Copeland (trumpets) Urbie Green, J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding (trombones) Hilton Jefferson (alto sax) Budd Johnson and "Big Nick" Nicholas (tenor saxes) Dave McRae (baritone sax) Sir Charles Thompson (piano), Skeeter Best (guitar), Milt Hinton (bass) and Jo Jones (drums).
Jazz Spectacular remains an exciting document of what could happen when a jazz singer was let out of his pop cage for a few days to record the kind of music he loved best. Imagine what could have been if Mitch Miller had had the creative vision and smarts to pair Laine with a wide range of jazz artists, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins. And imagine if Laine had pushed harder to do so. Coming up hard was a blessing and a curse for the singer. While the long struggle gave his voice urgency and conviction, it also made him painfully aware that money and fame were top priorities. What a shame.
JazzWax tracks: Jazz Spectacular was remastered and reissued in 1999. It's available at iTunes as a download or on CD here. Another fabulous and even less-known Frankie Laine jazz album from the 1950 is Rockin' (1957). What makes this album so great are Paul Weston's arrangements.
Here's a taste of the remake of That's My Desire off Rockin'. Pay attention to the fabulous orchestration behind Laine, which almost sounds like a Paul Weston tune-up for Jo Stafford's Swingin' Down Broadway LP recorded a year later for Columbia: