Unfairly compared over the years to June Christy and Anita O'Day—both of whom preceded her in Stan Kenton's big band—Chris actually was in a league of her own. Though all three singers shared a smoky saxophone-like timbre, a careful ear could detect in Chris a warmer, more passionate jazz-inflected sound. Chris also tended to take more interesting risks on recordings, painting herself into harmonic corners and escaping at the last moment, a habit that only added to her charm and daring.
When I interviewed Chris in June 2008, I asked whether the comparisons between her and Christy had something to do with their breath hitting the listener's ear before the notes. "Honey you’re getting into technical stuff now," Chris replied. "It’s a mystery of the ages. I think I have a more intimate knowledge of my audience than June did. I tended to move people emotionally, and I don’t’ think June did so as much. She had a different approach. For me, the goal was always to reach my audience."
And reach her audience she did—without selling out. Despite her movie-star looks and a girl-next-door persona, Chris in the 1950s managed to skirt the gravitational pull of pop music, which captured virtually all of her peers. Instead, Chris preferred to be teamed with established jazz artists such as J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, John Lewis, Oscar Pettiford, Barry Galbraith, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Nick Travis, Lucky Thompson and others. Even her so-called pop efforts sounded more like jazz records, largely because of her hip, in-charge intonation.
Chris also had an ability to captivate listeners by free-falling into a ballad and extracting the true meaning of the lyrics. Early on, Chris was pushed into doing tunes she didn't like, songs she preferred to forget in her later years. When I asked Chris about her two best-known up-tempo novelty songs, And the Bull Walked Around Ole and Chiquita from Chi-wah-wah, she cringed. "I don't even remember the words to those things," she said.
Interestingly, Chris' early solo career was given an enormous boost by producer Creed Taylor, who in 1954 had just arrived in New York and was hired by Bethlehem Records to pull the label out of a tailspin. Creed's very first move was to convince Bethlehem to record its first 10-inch LP using Chris. But rather than bring in a brassy big band, Creed went the other way, teaming her with the Ellis Larkins Trio, and the intimate result, Lullabys of Birdland, was an artistic and promotional stroke of genius. When I asked Creed about the move yesterday, he said, "Little things always mean a lot."
In the years that followed, Chris, like Carmen McRae, became notable for her impeccable taste in song choices. Chris told me that to stand out, she frequently visited Colony Records on Broadway in New York in search of song sheets other singers had overlooked. And she always emerged with a bag full of winners. In fact, her taste was so spot-on that Atlantic Records producer Nesuhi Ertegun gave her complete control over choosing the material for her albums during the seven years she was with the label. Such creative freedom by a female singer was largely unheard of at the time.
Unlike many singers of her generation, Chris had enormous control over the personality of her voice. Depending on the size of the ensemble behind her and the arrangements chosen, Chris could phrase songs to suit the mood. In front of a large orchestra, Chris was all about self-sufficiency, out-roaring even the best studio musicians of the day. But backed by a small group or a string section, Chris could modulate her voice, adding more air for a dewy, vulnerable touch.
When I told Chris that on these ballads she sounded like a jilted lover sitting alone at the bar singing to a half-empty glass, she laughed and said with typical flair: "I don’t know. I never had an earth-shaking love that I lost. Maybe it came from memories of my sister. I don’t question it, honey. It’s just there."
Like McRae and Sarah Vaughan, Chris was one of only a few singers who could play an instrument proficiently. While McRae and Vaughan were accomplished pianists, Chris began her musical career as a clarinetist, which is how she learned her effortless breath control. "I played first chair all four years in high school," she told me. "I led the section."
Chris was so confident in her ability on the clarinet that she taught bandleader and employer Herbie Fields a lesson in 1952: "He was a nice saxophonist but a lousy clarinet player," Chris told me. "When he was taking a breath, I took his clarinet away and showed him how to play it right [laughing]. He wasn’t too upset. Of course, I would never have done that with Benny Goodman."
If you think Chris' voice is special, you should have heard her laugh. When I interviewed Chris, I repeatedly went out of my way to break her up. Which wasn't too difficult, since Chris' speaking voice always sounded as though it was on the verge of a hearty laugh anyway. In fact, listening to Chris' speaking voice was almost as good as listening to her sing.
Chris was particularly sensitive to how words sounded, and during our conversations she loved to draw out choice words ever so slightly, as though bouncing them up in the air for a bit like a big colorful beach ball. Yesterday, as I re-listened to my interview with Chris, the way in which she said the word "champagne" still knocks me out. For most people, it's a two-syllable word. But for Chris, there were three: "SHAM-pay-een," she said similarly to the way she sang the word in All About Ronnie, the song that's most closely associated with her.
But perhaps my favorite part of our chats was asking Chris about her time with the Stan Kenton band of 1953. This is the mighty orchestra that featured Buddy Childers, Ernie Royal, Conte Candoli, Don Dennis, Ruben McFall, Bob Burgess, Keith Moon, Frank Rosolino, Bill Russo, George Roberts, Vinnie Dean, Lee Konitz, Richie Kamuca, Bill Holman, Hank Levy, Stan Kenton, Sal Salvador, Don Bagley and Stan Levey
"When I really got to sing with the [Kenton] band was at the Blue Note in Chicago," Chris said. "After that I was singing every night with the band. But I'll tell you, the first time I heard the band with me in it—you know there were 19 men in there—I was blown away. You try coming in on a lead note with 19 different choices behind you. Boy, that trained my ear [laughing]."
JazzWax tracks: I have most everything Chris recorded as well as some things that never made it into circulation. Rather than go on and on, here are a few of my favorites:
23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West. This Japanese import features the Kenton band live in April 1953 at Chicago's Blue Note. Chris sings There Will Never Be Another You and I'll Remember April. The album is out of print but you can hear samples here and buy the CD here. You'll also find Chris on the out-of-print Mosaic Records box, Stan Kenton: The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Holman and Russo Charts.
Lullabys of Birdland (1954). Recorded with the Ellis Larkins Trio, this album remains a superb singer-trio sessions. Hear for yourself. This is available as a download at iTunes and other online retailers.
He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (1956). Arranged by Ralph Burns, this is my favorite album by Chris—and it was her favorite, too. The album features About the Blues, which to me is Chris' finest recording. Also included: Angel Eyes, Suddenly It's Spring and Why Can't I. This is a perfect recording. It's available as a download at iTunes and other online retailers.