In the summer of 1958, Johnny Richards took his orchestra into a Warner Bros. studio in New York to record the soundtrack for a low-budget film that was being shot in Cuba. The movie was Kiss Her Goodbye, starring Elaine Stritch as a young woman who loses her sanity. Richards asked David Allyn to sing the title theme. More with David in a minute. [Photo of Johnny Richards in 1947 by William P. Gottlieb]
But when Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in January 1959, he confiscated the film, which was still in production, as property of the revolution. The film was never released, and Warner Bros. promptly bagged the LP project. But as Todd Selbert writes in his liner notes to the newly issued Johnny Richards: Kiss her Goodbye (Uptown), Warner Bros. gave Richards a pre-pressing of the LP. I assume this is what was used for this new CD. Unfortunately, details about the source material and how Uptown came into its possession aren't included in the notes.
Richards is one of the finest high-concept orchestral composers and arrangers of the 1950s. His best known original, Young at Heart, was written for a Frank Sinatra film of the same name in 1954. As an arranger for Stan Kenton, he was responsible for Cuban Fire (1956), Back to Balboa (1958) and West Side Story (1961). His work as a leader was even more striking and bombastic. Two prime examples are Something Else (1956) and Wide Range (1957), which are easily among the finest band albums of the decade.
What makes Richards' style so special are his exotic instrumental textures and moody resolutions. A typical Richards song opens with cinematic drama—French horns or trombones with a ticklish piccolo or crystalline celeste. Then the bass might kick off the beat, with the trumpets, trombones, saxes and other orchestra instruments tearing off to the races. Instead of a blues base, Richards relied on a neo-classical approach that owed a debt to Impressionists like Ravel and modernists like Stravinsky.
Kiss Her Goodbye has all of these elements. Though the sonic quality of this CD isn't sterling due to the source material, it's still exciting music that has not been heard by the public. Here, Richards showcases his entire bag of tricks—the Latinesque sighing and swaying blended with knowing compassion and cigar-chomping aggressiveness.
In addition to the movie score, the new CD includes a track Richards is believed to have arranged from an album by Luis Tiramani's Orchestra called a Touch of Cuba, as well as nine tracks from broadcasts from New York's Birdland in 1959.
After listening to this CD yesterday, I gave David Allyn a call:
"Oh sure I remember recording Kiss Her Goodbye. I have the chart in my big band book. Johnny led a terrific band. His scores were always pretty wild, very heavy and very Kentonized. I enjoyed singing Kiss Her Goodbye and received a big applause from the band afterward. They dug it. [Pictured: David Allyn with Jack Teagarden]
"If I recall, Johnny had the brass playing in the upper register. My notes were half a step different from the brass parts. It was a hard song to sing, but great just the same. The song was written by Johnny, but I don't know who wrote the lyric. It could have been Johnny's wife, Blanca Webb.
"You really had to sing that chart. There was no fooling around there."
JazzWax tracks: Johnny Richards: Kiss Her Goodbye (Uptown) is available here. This is a highly worthwhile album. It should be noted that the Birdland tracks have never before been issued and should not be confused with the tracks released on CD years ago on Live in Hi-Fi by the Canadian Jazz Hour label. Those Birdland broadcasts were from 1957 and 1958.
Something Else, Wide Range and several other Johnny Richards albums are now available at iTunes.
JazzWax clip: There are no video clips from the new album on YouTube but I did find Long Ago and Far Away here, from Richards' Something Else. All of Richards' arrangements tended to be extremely difficult, and he typically brought in only the finest players and readers. For example, the trumpets here were Pete Candoli, Buddy Childers and Maynard Ferguson. The flugelhorn? Shorty Rogers...