Back in December, I wrote about an exceptional album that teamed an up and coming vocalist with a well-known pianist. The album is Toni Harper Sings, with the Oscar Peterson Trio. Recorded in December 1955, the Verve album was a rare example of Peterson accompanying a singer relatively new to jazz at the time. Questions naturally came to mind: Who was Toni Harper? How did she manage to wind up on such a session? Why did she stop recording in 1960? And where is she now?
In yet another example of the Internet performing miracles, Toni reached out to me a few weeks ago by email. During the exchanges that followed, I asked her if she would reflect on the Oscar Peterson session and her subsequent recording dates with Marty Paich.
Toni graciously obliged, sending along this touching email:
"When I recorded Toni Harper Sings with the Oscar Peterson Trio for Verve Records, I had known Verve’s owner and producer Norman Granz [pictured] from earlier years. I had appeared as a singer on the radio in Los Angeles since 1945 and had performed at many benefit shows Norman had put together.
"So when Norman approached my agent to record with Oscar, I was overjoyed. I already knew bassist Ray Brown from singing around town, and Norman’s suggestion to record seemed like a natural next step for my career. The point of the session was to show that I had grown up, that I was no longer a little kid singing Cinderella Baby and could now sing more jazzy, adult material.
"For years, whenever I thought back on that 1955 recording session, I thought I was just 16 years old at the time. I probably had that memory because during the session, Oscar and Ray playfully teased me by saying, 'Sixteen and never been kissed.' In truth, I guess I was 17 years then, not 16, which is still pretty young. They were kidding me because they knew I had had a very sheltered existence musically up until that point.
"Having been singing and performing professionally since age eight, I had plenty of confidence. But recording Toni Harper Sings was quite a departure for me. I had started my career singing songs like Candy Store Blues and Dolly’s Lullaby. Then in 1955, there I was singing songs like Love for Sale with the great Oscar Peterson Trio. And yet some members of my family weren’t too happy about that. They wondered what I could possibly know about such things. And to sing about it? [Photo of Oscar Peterson by Herman Leonard/CTSImages.com]
"For me and for Oscar, Ray and Herb Ellis, the session was about the music. The tunes, the melodies, the notes—all just about the music. Norman selected the songs, as I recall. I remember I had sheet music, since nearly all of his choices were unknown to me—even though most were standards. That's how sheltered I was. But in those days, my mind could instantly photograph the music I looked over.
"To start, Oscar played a song through while I listened to the melody and read over the lyrics. Then we found a key that was comfortable, and I sang down the song to become familiar with it. Next we picked a tempo and just recorded. It was that simple. I recall Oscar was helpful and encouraging but firm. He had a very gentle way of moving things along. But I never felt hurried. I never had a sense of being pressed or pressured by anyone. It was a relaxed, fun time.
"In some cases, all we needed was one take on songs. That’s the way Norman wanted it. In other cases, like with I Could Write a Book, we needed multiple takes to get a master, probably because I had never heard the tune before in my life. Also, the tempo on that song was slow, and I had to learn the song and make sense of what I was saying as I read the lyrics.
"It was a meeting of music-making minds. Oscar was the kindest, most gentle, soft-spoken, fun person. I sat on the piano bench beside him as we went over the tunes and ran them down so I could become familiar with the feel we chose.
"All of the guys were impressed that I could keep up with them. Once I heard that, everything was pure enjoyment going forward. I had to feel that they really liked working with me to relax completely. As a singer, I was never intimidated by anything. Even singing before huge audiences, like at Carnegie Hall, didn’t rattle me. I also wasn’t awestruck by anyone. I viewed the session matter of factly, as a job that had to be done.
"I had had the luxury of starting young, which always gives you confidence and an edge. When I was four years old, I worked in movies as an extra. I remember in one film, there was an actor who played the villain. At one point, he bent down in my face and tried to frighten me. He got slapped in his face for his trouble and howled with laughter. I just looked at him. So it’s not in my nature to be intimidated.
"But I was also a perfectionist, which meant that I didn’t fully favor the process at Verve. It seemed too dashed off. All my life I was taught to practice, practice, practice. But I couldn't do that there. Goodness, I didn't even know most of the songs and had to learn them fast.
"As a consequence, for more than 40 years, I refused to listen to Toni Harper Sings. I could hear all kinds of mistakes that made me cringe. My husband couldn’t understand why I left the room or house when it was on. Whatever I may have thought about my performance, it was a beautiful experience. I trusted the Oscar Peterson Trio to carry me, and they did.
"The next albums I recorded were Lady Lonely in 1959 and Night Mood in 1960. They were arranged by Marty Paich, who was a dream. When I recorded those albums, I was in complete heaven. The albums were recorded at RCA’s studio in Hollywood, and there was a sea of musicians before me as I sang.
"One tune I remember distinctly was He Was a Man, a tune from the Lady Lonely album. The entire studio was lit gray, as though I was the only one there. But in truth I was surrounded by this beautiful music. I know this may sound strange but nevertheless it's true—I had an out-of-body experience.
"Even though the Marty Paich albums were recorded more than 50 years ago, my memories of being in the recording studio are quite vivid. Marty was relaxed, professional and always kind and patient.
"You could just tell how much the musicians adored and respected him. I remember on so many tunes, after the playbacks, the musicians applauded. I don't think that is something that happens often. They applauded me and Marty, which made me feel great. I know the musicians loved those sessions. That's why they are among my fondest career memories. I think back and realize that some of the finest of musicians on the West Coast were there, including Jack Sheldon and Art Pepper [pictured] and engineer Al Schmitt.
"For me, the Marty Paich [pictured] sessions represent my very best singing. I listen to those albums today and I am pleased. Before Marty passed away in 1995, he called me out of the blue. He had found me after 34 years to say that the music we made together was 'as fresh as the day we recorded it.' I shall never forget that. I loved him for the joy he gave me with his music, the joy I experience today.
"Just recently, maybe in the last four or five years I began listening again to the music I recorded back then and have a much finer appreciation for the results. All three of the albums I’ve mentioned are now favorites. I listen now and think, 'Toni, you really sounded good.' I love it. Now, of course, I wish I had recorded more.
"Which probably makes you wonder why I quit the music business at age 29. From age 4 to 29, I constantly was told where to be and what to do. When I turned 29, I thought, 'I don't have to do what anybody says anymore. I am tired of traveling the world alone. No one helps me, and they take all of the money. I don't want to do this anymore.' So I stopped. [Photo of Toni Harper in 1948 by John Florea for Life]
"When I made my decision, everyone flipped—my agent, manager, parents and friends. But it was just too bad. I had made my decision and, as life unfolded going forward, my decision was a great one.
"Do I sound a bit proud of my recordings? Well, I am—at least now. You have to understand, it has taken me many years to feel this way. By the time I quit, I was just tired of it all. I wonder now if I ever really loved it enough. My folks said I had to sing professionally, so I did. As a result of leaving, I have no knowledge of how good I might have been. Singing was just something I could do and had done as a child and continued into adulthood.
"But at 29, I knew I was tired of it. I will say there is difficulty transitioning from a child to an adult. But I weathered that just fine. At the time, there also was the race issue, which was much more prevalent and oppressive than it is now. I suppose many things in my head brought me to my decision over time. So when I said I was done, I was done. It was a lovely career, and I am so glad to have experienced it.
"I have no regrets. I married a wonderful person who saw to it that I had and have a beautiful and happy life. He's gone now, too, but I still have a wonderful family: My son, my daughter-in-law (who is like my own daughter), my two granddaughters and my three great-grandchildren.
"Sometimes now, I wake up in the middle of the night in thedark and sing, sing, sing. I sing every song that pops into my head. When I have sung myself out, I go back to sleep. I have fond memories of singing with the Oscar Peterson Trio in 1955. And now that I’m willing to listen to the recording, I understand now why so many kind people enjoy it." [Toni with her late husband Ronald]
JazzWax tracks: Toni Harper Sings with the Oscar Peterson Trio can be found at iTunes and here. Toni Harper's albums with Marty Paich are harder to come by. Lady Lonely was issued on CD but is out of print. It can be found here. Night Mood offers brilliant arranging by Paich and is available here and at download sites.
A JazzWax thanks to Toni Harper for being so warm and candid in our correspondence and for allowing me to reprint her comments here. Also, a special thanks to reader Jeff Helgesen.
JazzWax clip: Here's Toni Harper in 1959 with Marty Paich's arrangement of Lady Lonely (with Art Pepper) from Toni's album of the same name...