Working with Charlie Ventura in 1948 and 1949 thrust Jackie Cain and her singing partner Roy Kral into a high-anxiety environment. In addition to performing with Ventura almost nightly, Roy had to arrange the band's book, rehearse the Ventura group when charts were completed, and work with Jackie on complex vocalese treatments. During this period of high stress and little sleep, the duo fell in love as they provided each other with emotional and creative support. But by mid-1949, the Ventura experience had run its course for the couple, and they were ready strike out on their own.
When Jackie talks of her late husband today, the brightness in her voice dims ever so slightly. This is to be expected, considering they were married for more than 50 years and spent virtually every waking minute together. As we spoke recently, Jackie softy reminded me that she has been a widow for seven years, always aware of how long she has been on her own, without her other loving, creative half.
In Part 3 of my interview series with Jackie, the legendary singer talks about working with Ventura, the basis for Roy's Euphoria, leaving Ventura, and meeting Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman in the early 1950s:
JazzWax: Charlie Ventura sounds like a guy who could hold a grudge.
Jackie Cain: He was. When we were singing at the Blue Note in Chicago, if I got too much audience attention on my solo number, Charlie wouldn’t let me do another during the next set. This went on for the entire time Roy and I were with the band. On other occasions Charlie wouldn't even talk to us. After the press mix-up early on [when a newspaper wrote about Jackie and Roy rather than Ventura], Charlie raised hell with his manager, saying, “Hey, I’m paying for the publicity and the press is focusing on them?” I never understood his reaction. We were part of his band. We couldn't control what the newspaper was going to report. And whatever happened good for us was good for him, too. I think he was just terribly sensitive. And jealous, I guess.
JW: Was he like this even at the famed Pasadena Concert in May 1949?
JC: Yes, even then Charlie was still holding a grudge, although it wasn’t as noticeable. The Pasadena Concert actually was our last concert with the band. Roy and I left shortly afterward.
JW: During that famed concert, you and Roy had many standout moments, particularly on Euphoria.
JC: [Laughs] That was wonderful. No words, just voices singing like instruments, which is what vocalese is, really. Charlie had asked Roy for an arrangement of 'S Wonderful, as an instrumental for the band. As Roy wrote it, he came up with this bop riff. We took the riff and turned it into Euphoria, which is based on 'S Wonderful's chord changes. We just lengthened the riff and put something in there that was distinctly ours.
JW: That was a very popular hit for you two. It still is.
JC: Yes. Funny, as we toured with Charlie, we were often on the radio. The announcer would sometimes be back in the studio announcing the songs as though he was there. One time an announcer read the title [Euphoria] and said, “Now here’s a lovely ballad by trombonist Kai Winding." And on would come Euphoria [laughs]. Which was hardly a lovely ballad, you know. Other times radio DJs thought "Jackie" was a "he" and would announce me that way [laughs] [Photo from the Pasadena Concert].
JW: The Ventura band was pretty popular when you left.
JC: Yes, that was the year the band won Down Beat's award for best group of the year. We attracted a lot of attention. Looking back, it was stupid that we left the band when we did. It was just getting hot. But we had had enough and wanted to do new things.
JW: Had your relationship with Roy changed by this point?
JC: Yes. We had begun to date while we were in Charlie's band. I had had my eye on Roy right away, of course. I thought he was great. He was Czech and I’m part Polish and part German. So the chemistry felt right. He had started driving me home when I was living with Jay Burkhart's family in 1946. He’d borrow his father’s car and take me all the way out to where the Burkharts lived near Gary [Indiana]. I know Roy was starting to think differently about me.
JW: When did the relationship change?
JC: We became an item gradually. It started in Chicago when we were at the Beehive, just before we joined Charlie. We both lived in Hyde Park Manor, an apartment hotel near the club. I had a room there. Roy had a room on another floor. By the time we were with Ventura, we were seeing each other.
JW: What did you think about Roy toward the end of your stay with Ventura?
JC: Roy was seven years older than me and had been married twice before. He had married his high school sweetheart and had a child with her. He also had met someone while he was in Detroit after being discharged from the army. Some female disc jockey who had gotten the hots for him and kept coming into the club to see him. He had a child with her. By the time we met, he was divorced.
JW: Wow, talk about warning signs…
JC: I know, but I was still gung-ho because I really cared about him. We saw everything the same way. My mother was shocked when I told her I wanted to marry a musician who had been married twice and had two children [laughs]. Both my mother and father were kind of upset at first. They said, “This isn’t good for you.” But once they met Roy and we had been together for a while, they saw what I saw and approved. Roy and I got married in 1949, after leaving Charlie's band.
JW: In late 1949, you and Roy recorded for Atlantic with your own sextet. Then your discography is quiet until 1953. Why?
JC: Because we decided to start a family. We sang a great deal in clubs, and I had my first child, Nicoli, in 1952. We called her Niki. My girlfriend always used to call me Niki so we decided to call Nicoli by that name.
JW: In 1954, you and Roy recorded with Neal Hefti for Coral Records.
JC: Neal [pictured] was wonderful. Bob Thiele, the producer, was there and unfortunately made us record songs we didn’t like, like Banana Split and Take Me to the Circus. Tunes that were so dumb and not much fun.
JW: In 1955, it looks as though you were billed for the first time on an album as “Jackie and Roy.”
JC: By then we were known for choosing hip, little-known songs or tunes that were new and nobody was aware of yet. Roy found many of them by doing research in a lot of songbooks. We liked songs that were offbeat and playful but sophisticated. We loved to surprise audiences with out-of-the-way songs by great composers.
JW: Once you became a duo act, the voices-as-instruments sound began to recede and was replaced with a more modern, cooler duet sound. How did you and Roy work that?
JC: The times were changing and we could hear that. There was only so much vocalese you could do before audience interest would wear thin. Audiences wanted to hear stories in the songs. When Roy and I worked together, the first thing that had to be perfect were the chord changes. Once Roy found a song he liked, he’d work on it alone to find the chord changes that he liked while I took care of chores around the house. This made the songs different and more fun to listen to. Roy would always alter the chord changes to make them more intricate or more dissonant but trying not to go too far. Then we'd work out our routine until it was perfect.
JW: In 1955 you were the first to record Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most. Did you know the song's composer?
JC: Actually we did. We had met Tommy Wolf in St. Louis in 1954. Tommy had come to hear us at a local club. After we finished, he came up and introduced himself to us. He was very ecstatic about what we had done, and he told us we were great and how much he loved our work. He made us feel real good. He pointed out parts of the song that he liked best. Some things we did were contrapuntal, and we used a lot of harmony and we went in and out of harmony. So there was a lot to listen to. Tommy got it all.
JW: What happened next?
JC: Tommy asked us to come see him at the Crystal Palace nearby, where he was the house pianist. The Crystal Palace was co-owned by the husband of Fran Landesman, a songwriter. Fran would write lovely lyrics and Tommy would put them to music. So we went over to hear him at the Crystal Palace on our night off. [Photo of Fran Landesman seated atop the piano and Tommy Wolf at the keyboard]
JW: How was Tommy?
JC: Seeing him perform was an eye-opener. He was doing all these wonderful original tunes he had written with Fran. Tommy played and sang at the piano. His songs written with Fran included Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, You Inspire Me and I Love You Real. Their songs were very clever and sounded as if they had been written for us. After the set, Tommy told us about Fran.
JW: What did you tell him?
JC: We asked Tommy to send us a copy of Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most. He said many people had wanted to record it since he and Fran wrote it [in 1952] but that no one ever did.
JC: Tommy said it was too avant-garde for some audiences. Which is true. It's not an easy song. Once you hear a song enough and know it. It has become an underground hit and standard just by being done by so many artists because artist who do it love it. The lyrics don’t circle back and repeat. It’s not like a true pop song. It’s poignant, beautiful and one big, long story.
JW: You really paved the way for other modern singers who specialized in choosing off-beat songs.
JC: [Laughs] We were always ahead of our time. That’s what arranger Ralph Burns [pictured] always used to tell us. “You guys are just too far ahead of your time.” We didn’t think about the audience so much. I mean we wanted to please people so we chose things that were strong pieces that we loved. But we knew that if we loved a song, we could do it well and that would translate to audiences. Most of the time it did.
JW: Your careers and visibility really start to take off once you signed with ABC Paramount in 1956.
JC: Yes, that was Creed Taylor’s doing. He loved what we had done in the late 1940s with Charlie Ventura. At ABC, we started to shift into little-known songs and standards. We wanted to focus on an upbeat approach, with tight harmonies.
Tomorrow, Jackie talks about moving to Las Vegas with Roy, further refining their sound, the song that gave her the most trouble, and joining Columbia Records in 1961.
JazzWax tracks: Jackie Cain and Roy Kral's period with Charlie Ventura is well documented on a four disc box from Proper Records called Charlie Ventura: Bop for the People. It includes the complete Pasadena Concert of May 1949, which remains one of the great live concert recordings. You'll find it on CD here. Or the concert is available on a single disc from Fresh Sound, also called Bop for the People here.
JazzWax clip: Here's a clip of Jackie and Roy riffing on Daahud, from their 1961 Columbia release, Double Take...