There is no cheerier voice in jazz than Jackie Cain's. A teenage singing sensation in Milwaukee and then Chicago in the mid-1940s, Jackie met her life-long husband and singing partner Roy Kral by accident after dropping in at a local club. Shortly after the vocalese duo joined Charlie Ventura in 1948, they rose rapidly to prominence and were featured in the high-octane "Bop for the People" concert in Pasadena, CA, in May 1949. In the 1950s, Jackie and Roy's popularity soared along with wood-decorated station wagons and picket fences. The couple's charm emanated from a newlywed innocence and unabashed love for each other. But it was their hip and swinging vocals, clever band arrangements and superb taste in little-known songs that won critics' acclaim. They were first to record Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most in 1955.
I've always adored Jackie's sound, especially on the Jackie and Roy recordings for ABC/Paramount from 1956 to 1958. The pair were vocal bookends, singing and swinging in the same range, and always coming up with daring ways to make songs modern and catchy. Upping the ante, Roy played piano while he sang and Jackie typically took wide harmonic risks. Toss in a tasteful quartet arranged by Roy or a big band scored by Bill Holman or Neal Hefti, and the results made you feel great. Jackie and Roy sang together for 53 years, finishing each other's lines with uplifting finesse. Roy died in 2002.
In Part 1 of my five-part conversation with Jackie Cain, 80, the legendary vocalese singer talks about growing up hard in Milwaukee, joining Jay Burkhart's band in Chicago at 17 years old, and how she met pianist and eventual husband Roy Kral:
Jackie Cain: I was born in Milwaukee in 1928. When I arrived my parents were already having financial problems. My dad sold office furniture and my mother didn't work. The Depression didn't help. Growing up in the 1930s, my parents fought a lot. They were discreet but I knew things weren’t right. They were unhappy, and they finally divorced when I was 7 or 8 years old. I’m surprised they held out that long.
JW: How did you take their split?
JC: It was hard at first. I was very fond of my father. My mother and I lived with my grandmother until my mother finally landed a job with a photo imaging company. My mother went away for 10 days to train on the company's equipment. When she returned, she went to work selling their services at The Boston Store, a big mid-line department store in Milwaukee.
JW: How did you feel about your mom when she came back?
JC: I was happy to see her. My grandmother didn’t like me much. She didn’t like my father, and I reminded her of him. It was tough. After my mother returned, she had to work to support us and was gone every day. When my mother made enough money, we moved to a rooming house in a big wonderful mansion that overlooked Lake Michigan, near where she worked. We had a big room in the front with French windows and a porch. It was a well-kept place. I was 10 years old.
JW: Were you listening to music at this point?
JC: Oh, yes. Whatever I could hear on the radio. We didn’t have money for a phonograph or records. I always had been musical. From the time I was born, my mother played piano and used to learn songs off the radio and teach them to me. I could sing right away as a kid. I was always in the chorus at school, and in the a cappella choir in high school. I had a great ear.
JW: Did you read music?
JC: No. I was born with good intonation, though and have natural pitch. I wish I did read music, but I was never taught. I could follow music well, though. I was lucky. I soon was singing at small events around town that were pretty simple. Organizations always needed someone to entertain, and I had a good voice as a kid.
JW: You caught an early break on local radio.
JC: Yes, when I was young I was on a show called Cousin Betty. It was a show for children. If people wanted someone remembered on their birthday, they’d send cards in or call the station with requests: “Please have Little Miss Cain sing this or that” [laughs]. It was a good experience.
JW: Were you afraid?
JC: When you’re that young you’re not frightened. You get scared later. I also was singing with the Wurlitzer Melody Kids—a band that the local Wurlitzer music store had assembled. I sang Rhythm Is My Business and other hip stuff.
JW: What was your first big break?
JC: My dad got me a job singing with a commercial band that had been traveling around the Midwest for proms and parties. It was a society band, and the leader played the violin. I sang with the band when it settled into a downtown Milwaukee club called Lakota's. This was roughly 1945,
JW: How long did that last?
JC: A few months. One night some people came into the club, and after I sang they asked me to come over to their table. There was a gentleman there who was visiting his family in Milwaukee. He said, “Gee, you’re a very good singer. Would you be interested in singing with a band that I have in Chicago?”
JW: What did you say?
JC: I said, “Gee, I’ll have to ask my mother." I had just graduated high school and was 17 years old at the time. When I asked my mother, she promptly said no. I kept begging her and carrying on. She still said no. So I disappeared into my room at home for a couple of days and didn’t want to talk to her. I was angry. When the man called the house, I told him my mother wouldn’t let me go alone to Chicago. I would have had to take a train down there, and I had never been out of Milwaukee.
JW: What did he say?
JC: He said, “Look, I’ll have my mother call your mother. And if she goes along with it, you can come and live at our house in Chicago.” His family had a business—a grocery store and meat market. He said they lived behind the store and had just redone the living quarters. He said he was living there with his wife and baby, and said I could share a room with his sister.
JW: What did you think?
JC: Well I had never met his sister, of course, but I was up for anything [laughs]. So his mother called my mother. She said I could stay at the house and that she’d keep her eye on me. She also said I could have dinners with them.
JW: Did your mother give in?
JC: My mother agreed, and it was the first time I had ever lived in a situation with a family around me. It felt great. I think I paid $10 a week to have these wonderful family meals every night. His mother was a great cook. Every time we’d be eating dinner, if the bell rang, someone had to get up from the table and wait on the person in their store. All of those family things felt good to an only child, especially one with divorced parents. I was very grateful for everything.
JW: What was the name of the bandleader who invited you to Chicago?
JC: Jay Burkhart. He had been in the army and was an arranger. He was arranging for the band, and he had a lot of great players who also could write and arrange. They even wrote a couple of special charts for me. I was really thrilled, but I was kind of scared. It was a big band, and I kept thinking, “I hope I can hear the note I’m supposed to come in on” [laughs]. When you’re inexperienced and you're doing something new that’s more advanced than what you’ve done before, you’re always a little worried. But I didn’t have any problems.
JW: How was Burkhart’s band?
JC: It was actually very good. It was called the Jay Burkhart Jazz Cradle, and the band lasted quite some time. In fact, a lot of people sang the same arrangements I did after I left. Roy’s sister Irene [pictured] sang in the band. So did Joe Williams. Guitarist Jimmy Raney played with Burkhart. So did guitarist Jimmy Gourley.
JW: Did your mother remarry?
JC: Yes, right around this time. Her new husband was a nice man but I missed my father so at first I wasn’t very welcoming to him. But he turned out to be great. I was very lucky.
JW: Was Jay Burkhart's band in step with the times?
JC: Yes. The music scene was getting hipper, and he wrote some great charts with a little dissonance in them. At one point I wanted more work, to get more experience. So I hooked up with Bob Anderson, a tenor saxophonist who was writing my arrangements. He took me to Jump Town, a jazz club in Chicago. When we got there, the George Davis Quartet was playing.
JW: Who was the pianist?
JC: Roy [Kral] [laughs].
JW: Did you talk to him?
JC: Not immediately. After the set, Bob went up to Roy and said, “You ought to let Jackie sit in. She’s a good singer.” Roy said, “Nah, I don’t like to play for girl singers.” Bob said, “Why?” Roy said, “Well, because they never know what they want to sing, and when they tell you their key, it’s usually in the key of Z.”
JW: Was that the end of it?
JC: Bob came back and told me and we laughed about it. We went to the bar to have a drink with Roy, and Bob asked again. Well Roy and I got to talking and it just so happened that I knew a song that Roy knew. So suddenly he wasn’t so negative about playing behind me.
JW: What was the song?
JC: Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe. It was a song that Frances Wayne [pictured] had sung with Woody Herman. I sang it as Roy played, and he was taken by the fact that I not only knew the song but that I sang it in the same key in which Frances recorded it. Actually, I didn’t know what key she or I sang it in [laughs]. I still don’t.
JW: How did the song and Roy's playing go over at the club?
JC: When we finished the song, it broke up the place. The club went nuts. The reaction was great. The club owner was there and told George Davis, “You need a singer.” George didn’t resist [laughs].
Tomorrow, Jackie talks about being discovered by Chicago radio host Dave Garroway, why Charlie Ventura wouldn't talk to Jackie and Roy for almost a year after hiring them, how Jackie taught Roy Kral to sing, and the intricate way in which the couple choreographed their breezy brand of vocalese.
JazzWax clip: This track is from 1954, which puts us a little ahead of our story. But it will give you a perfect illustration of Jackie Cain and Roy Kral's symbiosis. Listen as they work effortlessly in and out of each other's hip harmonies. It's the audio version of watching two great ballroom dancers...