By the mid-1960s, Jackie Cain and Roy Kral were slowly becoming victims of a dramatic shift in music tastes. As rock swept away a generation of young listeners, Jackie and Roy's tightly choreographed vocal sound no longer was as radical as it once had been. The couple recorded from time to time and, to reach their already established fan base, they toured extensively. No matter what the couple sang, they always adhered to the same formula of swing, clever chord changes and exploding optimism. From time to time they also squeezed in a few advertisement jingles to pay the bills. [Photo of Jackie and Roy in 1982 by Brian McMillen]
As luck would have it, today is Jackie Cain's birthday. (Happy Birthday, Jackie!) Here in the East, it's a gorgeous, fragrant spring day. Which is exactly the kind of weather you'd want for someone like Jackie, who has made so many jazz fans feel positively great.
In Part 5 of my interview with Jackie, the legendary singer talks about Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, recording jingles with husband Roy, making records with Andre and Dory Previn and Don Sebesky, and the tragic death of her daughter Niki in 1973:
JazzWax: Many jazz singers were fans of Jackie and Roy, yes?
Jackie Cain: Oh sure. Billie Holiday was a fan. I remember she took a blindfold test for Metronome in the early 1950s. They played one of our records for her, and she said something like, "Oh, that’s Jackie and Roy. That’s wonderful. If people want to sing this way, this is how to do it.” We were in her company a lot. She always wanted to touch my hair because it was unusually silky. Billie was very complimentary and very sweet. We’d sit together and listen to music.
JW: Who else did you know well?
JC: Sarah Vaughan also liked us. She called me her “Buddy Girl.” We worked on the same strip in Evanston, IL. I’d go over to hear her on my intermission and she’d come hear us on hers. Carmen McRae didn’t say much, but you could sense she liked us. Musicians and singers aren’t fawning kind of people. They’re genuine. They just give you a big hug and are warm to you, and you just know from that that they like you.
JW: Did you enjoy recording for Columbia Records starting in 1960?
JC: We had a good time. A producer there put us together with Andre Previn. In 1962, Andre and his wife Dory wrote a few songs for us. We recorded an album of their music [Like Sing: Songs by Dory and Andre Previn] and had a great time. Dory and Andre provided a blurb on the back. It said: “Jackie and Roy is our favorite singer.” Which I thought was quite clever. They were very aware of how together we were.
JW: You recorded for a range of labels after that.
JC: The rock thing had become very popular, and our manager insisted we do some songs of the day. We didn’t want to do it because we weren’t familiar with the music. But then we figured out a few artists whose music would work, like Simon and Garfunkel. We did an album in 1966 called Changes for Verve. Roy wrote the vocal arrangements to a handful of songs he had found and Claus Ogerman adapted them for a large orchestra and added some colors, too. I think there were a bunch of Beatles songs on there as well.
JW: How did you and Roy earn a living as rock began to dominate?
JC: We toured and played a lot of clubs, occasionally recording jingles. Probably the best-known one at the time was an ad for Halo Shampoo. It was a little bossa nova thing. We were out of town when we got a call from our bassist, who said the ad executives wanted us singing in the spot. I said, “Oh, we can't, we’re going to be away.”
JW: What did your bassist say?
JC: He kept saying we had to do it, that it was too good to pass up. He told us to postpone our flight. He said: “You won’t be sorry. This will be worth something to you.” So we did it. We canceled our flight and made the ad, which was easy and wonderful to do. When we got back to our gig, we just kept thinking, “Wow that’s great, we did a commercial.”
JW: Was the ad profitable to do?
JC: Yes. The checks started coming and in and we couldn't believe it. In one check we had made more than we had in a month. It was a wordless song. Then we did a Cheerios commercial in which we sang, “Feelin’ groovy, I just had my Cheerios, Groovy, groovy" [laughs]. Joe Beck wrote the arrangement.
JW: Which recording of yours still gives you the biggest thrill?
JC: Probably Time and Love for CTI , with the huge orchestra arranged by Don Sebesky.
JW: How did the session work?
JC: Roy and I put down the vocal tracks. Then Don came in and overdubbed the orchestra. Roy and I already had a recording of all the tracks at home so we could learn the arrangements. Don made it for us. [Producer] Creed [Taylor] and Don helped us through it. A lot of places had to be conducted for us because there were so many open spaces. Don would bring me in with his hand conducting when it was time for me to sing. Creed was in the control room, listening to us and enjoying it. We recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey. Rudy was ecstatic. He kept saying, “This is the way albums should sound” [laughs].
JW: Was working with Creed at CTI different than when he was at ABC?
JC: No, not really. What I've always liked about Creed is that he cared but he wasn’t going to make you do what he wanted. He was very understanding and had a good vibe in the studio. You didn’t feel a lot of anxiety. I also liked some of the things we did on Sweet and Low Down . Roy had just discovered a new niche with his harmonies. But the LP has never gone to CD, which is a shame. [Photo: Bobby Short, Jean Bach and Jackie in the 1990s]
JW: Alec Wilder wrote Niki's Song for your daughter, Niki, didn't he?
JC: Yes. Niki died in 1973 when she was almost 21 years old, in an auto accident. It was horrible. We were like zombies for years after that. We didn’t work. We were stricken. Dana, our other daughter, was only 16, and she and Niki were very close. They traveled with us when they weren’t in school as kids. They had to be best buddies because all they had was each other on those trips.
JW: Did the girls enjoy those cross-country trips?
JC: Yes. We all drove across country several times on Route 66. But we never tried to cover too much ground in one day. We’d leave four to five days for the trip so we had plenty of time. Each afternoon we’d look for a motel and a pool. And the next day we’d get up and go sightseeing. It was so much fun.
JW: What happened to Niki?
JC: The accident happened in 1973. It was the day we had moved into a new house in New Jersey. We had had to vacate our place in Riverdale, N.Y., because after 11 years the owners of the home we were subletting were returning from abroad. We had friends living in the area in New Jersey, and it was a nice town. Five days after we moved in, Niki died.
JW: Was it a drunken driver?
JC: No, no, she fell asleep at the wheel early in the morning, and her car hit a tree. Niki loved horses. She and her boyfriend were planning to buy a horse eventually. They both liked to ride and were outdoorsy. She was driving to a local racetrack every morning to cool the horses down, by walking them around and drying them off. She had a little car that she had recently bought. Driving to the track that morning, there was a shoulder that wasn't too deep. That’s where it happened. When she fell asleep, the car went off the road there. It was horrible.
JW: Where were you and Roy when you got the call?
JC: Roy and I had worked the night before in New York and had gotten to sleep very late. The next morning, early, the phone rang. The person on the other end said, “Your daughter’s been in an accident. You had better get here.” So just we jumped in our clothes and went down. When we got there, she was already dead. I never even got to see her.
JW: How did that terrible day affect you and Roy?
JC: It was so hard to pick our spirits up. A lot of our friends were a tremendous help. One friend came by and rang the doorbell just to bring food and show us a rainbow outside. Irene, Roy’s sister, and her family, were very helpful even though they were in California and we were in New York.
JW: How was Dana?
JC: I think Niki’s accident had a profound effect on her. I think she still has that feeling of loss, as do I. I still think of Niki all the time.
JW: You and Roy personify sunny optimism. Her death must have nearly crushed you.
JC: It was tough. I remember we went on tour afterward. Every place we went we knew people from working there previously. They would come up to us and ask, “How are your daughters?” Then I’d have to tell them, and it wasn’t easy. Then they’d feel bad for asking. I realized early on that Niki's death was a fact of life and that I had to live with it. I also found that the more I talked about it and faced it, the easier it was to get past it. Not to "get over it" but to get past it. You never get over it. Never.
JW: An event that tragic could have split up you and Roy.
JC: Yes. We turned to each other for support, though. We had been married for 24 years at that point and grew even closer.
JW: What would you say was one of the most exciting moments of your career?
JC: Wow, that’s a big question. On the Dick Van Dyke Show, there was an episode where Dick and Mary Tyler Moore had to get up and perform at a party. When it was their turn, they did our arrangement of Mountain Greenery. The only reason I know this is because someone heard Mary Tyler Moore being interviewed by David Letterman. He asked her, "What’s one of the hardest things you've had to do?" Mary said, “Well, I had to learn this song by Jackie and Roy, and sing it on the show. I was so nervous.” She was a good singer. But that was a tough thing to try and duplicate. It felt great to be recognized that way.
JazzWax clip: In 1961, on their Double Take LP, Jackie and Roy revived You Smell So Good, which they first recorded in 1955. Focus carefully on what the duo does in the second half, speeding up some lyrics and then switching into vocalese. This Tommy Wolf tune is a perfect example of why Jackie and Roy were so special—and so often mischaracterized as pop singers rather than the swinging jazz artists they were...
And here's what I believe is the "groovy" Cheerios ad Jackie referred to above...