Oscar Peterson accompanied a number of leading jazz singers as the house pianist at Norman Granz's Verve label in the '50s. But one of the finest albums he made in this capacity was for a singer who today is largely unknown. The album was Toni: Toni Harper Sings, and it's positively splendid. Half the album was recorded on December 29, 1955—a day after Peterson recorded with guitarist and trio-mate Herb Ellis on Ellis in Wonderland and a day before Peterson's In a Romantic Mood with Russ Garcia's strings. The other half of the Toni session was recorded on January 3, 1956.
Harper started as a child dancer-singer and was discovered at age 8 by choreographer Nick Castle. Impressed mostly with her voice, which was mature beyond her years, Castle cast her in a 1945 follies at the same Los Angeles theater where Judy Garland had been discovered. [Pictured: Toni Harper photographed for Life in 1948]
In 1946 Harper had a hit with Candy Store Blues, and she appeared on Ed Sullivan's early TV shows in 1949 and 1950. Then in 1955, at age 18, Harper hit the jazz big time when she had an opportunity to record with the Oscar Peterson Trio, probably after Granz heard her perform in Los Angeles.
Following Toni, Granz paired her with Buddy Bregman [pictured] for a recording session on Valentine's Day in 1956. But there wasn't enough material recorded for a complete album. This may have had something to do with the large number of takes needed on each track to achieve a master. In all fairness to Harper, the song choices were offbeat and likely difficult to sing cold. None of the five tracks recorded was an American Songbook standard, and one of the tracks was rejected. The scraps wound up on a Verve vocal compilation.
Next, Harper recorded two albums for RCA—Lady Lonely in 1959 and Night Mood in 1960 with Marty Paich and strings. In 1963, Harper toured with Cannonball Adderley, and in 1965 she appeared in the film How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. The advent of rock seems to have nudged her into an early retirement from performing in 1966 at age 29.
But Harper on Toni is sublime. She and Peterson deliver each song as if pouring honey from a pitcher. Tunes flow in slow motion, even the ones they take at a medium tempo. On songs like Gone with the Wind, I Could Write a Book and Like Someone in Love, Harper takes her sweet time, drawing out notes and using a delivery that's as soft as the sound of kitten's feet. [Pictured from left: Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson and Herb Ellis]
Harper clearly was influenced by Sarah Vaughan, but her style was distinctly her own. Rather than sass up material, which would have branded her a Vaughan imitator, Harper's style conveyed enormous intimacy without ever going overboard. Why Granz didn't make a greater effort to develop her as a talent by pairing her with trios is a mystery. But for one gleaming moment in the mid-'50s, Harper was a jazz great working with Billie and Ella's pianist. [Pictured: Toni Harper in 1957]
JazzWax tracks: Toni: Toni Harper Sings with pianist Oscar Peterson, guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown is available at iTunes and here. It's a beautiful album by any definition.
JazzWax note: It looks like Toni Harper-Dunlap has a site here. There was no contact information listed. Otherwise I would have reached out to chat about this album. Perhaps she'll read this post and email me with comments. If so, I'll be sure to share them with you.
JazzWax clip: Here's Toni Harper with Marty Paich's strings singing My Ship from Night Mood...
And here's Harper, the child star, in the mid-'40s in a film short...