The popularization of the 12-inch LP in 1956 boosted the fortunes of Jackie Cain and Roy Kral. On the larger color covers, the attractive duo was portrayed as hopelessly upbeat lovebirds, while their vocals inside sounded more like personal diary entries than the works of third-party songwriters. Producers and LP art directors cast Jackie and Roy as typical fun-loving suburbanites, but nothing could have been further from the truth.
By the mid-1950s, Jackie and Roy were the parents of two young daughters, and the couple had to perform, record and tour to earn a living and raise a family. Club dates meant rehearsals and working out routines for new material. Record dates meant working with top studio perfectionists on the East and West coasts. Yet despite career and family pressures, Jackie and Roy's love for each other never diminished.
In Part 4 of my conversation with Jackie, the legendary singer talks about being both a mother and recording artist, working for producer Creed Taylor at ABC Paramount in the late 1950s, walking a fine line between jazz and pop, and why one of the most challenging songs of her career was for an album recorded just five years ago:
JazzWax: In 1956, your second daughter, Dana, was born. At this point, you had two children. How were you and Roy managing with your hectic national work schedule?
Jackie Cain: We couldn’t do as much as we wanted to, of course. We were offered a lot of jobs we couldn’t take because we always thought of our kids first.
JW: How did you manage when you had to travel all over the country to perform and record?
JC: Solving that problem was always on our minds. In the mid-1950s, we stopped over in Las Vegas while driving from Los Angeles to Chicago to open at Mister Kelly’s. Roy was walking down the street and bumped into Don Palmer, Charlie Ventura's manager. Don said, “Gee Roy, am I glad to see you. I have a band due to open at the Thunderbird, but they were in an automobile accident and can't appear. Could you and Jackie open instead?” Roy told him about our Chicago commitment. We liked to get to a place about four days early to rehearse. But Don pleaded. He said if we could just open, it would give him enough time to find someone else. Roy told Don that he didn’t have his arrangements with him nor did he have any members of our group.
JW: What did Palmer say?
JC: Don said he'd get us a rhythm section. Roy agreed, and Don got us a group that had never played our music, but it worked out just fine. The guy who managed the lounge at the Thunderbird really liked us. He offered us a contract to play the room anytime we were in town. So Roy and I got to thinking on our drive to Chicago. We decided that after our gig at Mister Kelly's, we'd return to Vegas.
JW: What about your daughters?
JC: When we went back to Chicago, we brought the kids with us. They were at my mother's house. We'd often take them with us on our cross-country road trips when they were young. When they got older and were in school, we'd leave them at home with my mother and stepfather.
JW: Did you ever feel bad about doing that, since your mom had done that to you?
JC: I did feel kind of guilty about it. I used to talk to my daughters’ teachers about this. They’d say if you're not happy, your children aren't going to be happy. I was a big believer in Margaret Mead [pictured]. She said countries that gave their kids more freedom were better off.
JW: What did performing in Las Vegas teach you?
JC: That we were really good at what we did and really connected with audiences. We also realized that that if we bought a house there, we could live there and work in clubs throughout the gambling circuit. Both of our daughters were very young, and we had been crossing the country by car when Dana was just six months old. You can’t believe the amount of preparation I had to go through with the portions of food in jars and heating them up in the cigarette lighter.
JW: How was it working with producer Creed Taylor at ABC Paramount from 1956 to 1958?
JC: Every time we worked with Creed he left us alone. He wouldn't drive you crazy with endless instructions like many producers back then. He let you come in and do what you did best. And he always put us together with great musicians. Or in other situations there were superb musicians we wanted to work with, and Creed got them for us.
JW: Creed had been a big fan of yours since hearing you and Roy sing I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles in the late 1940s.
JC: [Laughs] Really? Well, it showed. On one session, I said, “Creed, you know it would be so great if you could turn down the overhead florescent lights and put in music stands with lights." I wasn’t actually asking for those changes. I was just wishing off the top of my head. Well the next day, Creed had cables running through the studio, the lights were dim, and all the music stands had lights. He had created a club atmosphere. It was quite nice. Everyone was amazed that Creed had done that. I was amazed. Creed was always in our corner. There was even a time when work slowed up and we were at the beach the whole summer. So we called Creed to see if we could record for him. He said yes right away, and we recorded Time and Love in 1972. I’m sorry we didn’t make more money for him.
JW: In 1960 you recorded Sweet and Low Down, your first album for Columbia.
JC: We were supposed to do that album with Red Norvo on vibes. This was right after his tour and recording in 1959 with Frank Sinatra. But Sinatra’s manager wouldn't let him record with us, saying he didn’t want Norvo on any other singer’s album. So we got Larry Bunker, who was no slouch [laughs].
JW: Did your approach to learning songs with Roy change by this point?
JC: Not really. It's just that we'd do it at home. When Roy was working out changes on our piano, I’d be around the house somewhere and I’d hear him. After he mapped out a song, he’d teach it to me. Then we'd add the harmony. We wanted to make sure we knew the song so that audiences could recognize it.
JW: Your material became increasingly sophisticated, yes?
JC: It did. We'd do the first eight bars slowly so we'd get every note right. Then we’d try to improve it. All the music came from Roy's head. He’d find ways to phrase a song to give it a jazz feel, which is something that came naturally to him. He was a good improviser. He’d improvise and find hooks he could use. Neither of us had to struggle to reach notes since we both had the same vocal range. I could go a little higher, but he got to be really good and stretched his voice higher.
JW: How did you work in the cute togetherness feel we hear on the ABC Paramount dates?
JC: We always wanted to phrase lyrics the way you speak. We wanted it to sound almost conversational between us. Like we were reading a book to each other, a little drama. The song Glory of Love is a perfect example. It was a story, and it was about us. We’d also be able to relate to each other while we were performing or recording. While Roy was at the piano playing and singing, I’d be in the crook of the piano making eye contact with him. That was essential for us to stay together and read each other as we sang.
JW: Did you ever push back on Roy’s musical ideas?
JC: Push back? Not me. Roy was the expert. He was an arranger and trained musician. He had experience and had studied music. I didn’t. He always sounded great. I miss his sound. His sound was very rich in harmony. And very deep.
JW: How did you strike the right balance between jazz and pop, and avoid being too, well, hammy?
JC: By striving to be natural and relaxed, and not too dramatic or showy-acty. That's the fine line we had to walk. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to go too far with lyrics, and you wind up acting them out too literally. We always wanted to sound smart and in the groove, not sticky sweet. So our performance had to be just right.
JW: But how exactly did you avoid that?
JC: By just drawing from our own wells and expressing how we felt about what we were singing. We could relate that way because we were married and cared about each other and were in love. Singing our way was like a string quartet rehearsing or playing a great piece of music that’s instrumental. You play it, and your goal is to be consistent, get everything right, and not forget any sections of it.
JW: How did you ever remember the lyrics to all those tricky songs?
JC: It wasn’t hard. I’m very good with lyrics. I remember practically every song I ever knew. If you have a good memory to learn something, then you can do it. You just learn it and keep going over it in your mind. Sometimes I kept a lyric sheet on the piano in case I'd forget lyrics. But I never forgot, so I never had to use the sheets. I suppose it was comforting to know it was there.
JW: Which song's lyrics gave you the most trouble?
JC: Probably Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most. It has a lot of range, unusual intervals, and you have to attune your mind to it.
JC: A few years ago I recorded tracks for an album by saxophonist Bill Kirchner [pictured]. Bill's compositions were avant-garde, with a lot of dissonance in them. I had trouble at first because I wasn’t used to singing those kinds of things. But I learned the songs, and I thought they came off well.
Tomorrow in Part 5, Jackie talks about the rise of rock and how it affected her routine with Roy, the couple's decision to record advertising jingles, recording for Creed Taylor at Verve and CTI Records, and the tragic death of their younger daughter Niki in 1973.
JazzWax tracks: Jackie and Roy's ABC Paramount albums, Bits and Pieces and Glory of Love, are available on one CD here from Jasmine Music. A terrific compilation of the couple's ABC years is available here used, starting at $10. I'm guessing the reason these copies haven't yet been snapped up is because Amazon never included the picture of the album on the opening display. It's a fabulous CD, as are the liner notes.
Bill Kirchner's 2004 album, Everything I Love, which features Jackie singing on two tracks, is available here. The compositions are a bit outside of the box for Jackie, but that's what makes them exciting and novel. You hear Jackie feeling her way through the difficult, unconventional material, ultimately giving them a Jackie Cain touch.