Back in August, I poked fun at vocalist Anne Phillips. Well, not at Anne, personally, but at the cover of her 1959 album for Roulette, Born to Be Blue. Having her pose down at the rat-infested Brooklyn piers made the LP cover a natural target for my weekly "Oddball Album Cover" feature. Well, it turns out Anne has thick skin and a fabulous sense of humor. After exchanging emails recently, she agreed to tell me—and you—the story behind her 1959 LP, which happens to be a positively gorgeous and sublime female vocal album with a top jazz rhythm section, trumpet, sax and strings. She also provides a glimpse of what being a top New York demo singer was like in the 1950s and '60, with songwriters competing feverishly for publishers and pop-rock artists.
But let me step aside and allow Anne to fill you in:
"I'm originally from Wyomissing, a suburb of Reading, Penn. I sang and played piano all through high school. During my senior year, I joined a very hip group of vocalists and musicians who modeled themselves after the Sklylarks [pictured], who were from nearby Reading.
"I attended Oberlin College, sang with the school's big band, had my own radio show and became a member of the campus Jazz Club. We were responsible for inviting Dave Brubeck to play there in 1953 with his quartet, where he was recorded by the college radio station. Fantasy used the station's tapes to release Jazz at Oberlin. I sang during the Brubeck concert backed by a trio. [Pictured from left in 2003: Jerry Ables, Anne Phillips, Iola and Dave Brubeck, and Jim Newman, who started the Oberlin Jazz Club and booked Dave for the original concert]
"When I came to New York in 1954, I started out singing and playing piano in clubs. I worked in some upscale places like Number One 5th Ave. I also worked in some sleazy dives like The Elbow Room in Wallingford, N.J.
"At some point I heard you could make decent money singing demos for songwriters. Back in the '50s, writers would compose songs and then take them to publishers. If a publisher liked a song, it would pay to have a demonstration recording made. Once it had the demo record, the publisher would submit it to a singer with hopes that the artist would record the song on his or her next session. Hot pop singers back then included Connie Francis, Perry Como, Steve Lawrence and Johnny Mathis. [Photo of Anne Phillips in the studio listening to a playback courtesy of Anne Phillips]
"I was a quick study. I found I could record a demo in an hour with piano, bass, drums, guitar and, if necessary, back-up voices, which actually meant one singer overdubbing his or her voice twice, from one mono machine to another. Back then, there were no separate tracks. You ran the tape and sang over it while another machine taped the result.
"There were three small studios in New York that were busy all day making these demos: Associated, Allegro and Dick Charles, which was on 7th Ave at about 50th St. Most of the demos I did were for people like Burt Bacharach and Rod McKuen and new young writers like Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.
"But one demo session turned out a little differently from the rest. In 1958, I was called in to sing demos for three songs by a composer named Vladimir Selinsky. He composed music for a weekly TV drama show called The Kraft Theater. Words were added to some of his themes by lyricist Walter Marks. The songs were beautiful and very unusual.
"Several months after the session, I got a call from Dick Charles, in whose studio we had recorded the demos. He told me to call Joe Reisman [pictured], who was one of Roulette Records' top pop producers. I learned later that Joe had called Dick Charles and said, 'I can’t use the songs you sent over—but who was that singer?'
"When I called Joe, he said he had a song in his files called Lonelyville and had been waiting for the right singer to come along. Then he told me he wanted me to record an entire pop album. He called in a magnificent arranger, Kermit Levinsky, to write for the session and let us pick the other tunes.
"We recorded the album in 1959 over three, three-hour sessions at Bell Sound Studio—four tunes on each session. I sang with the world’s greatest musicians: Doc Severinsen on trumpet, Kermit’s brother Walt Levinsky on alto, 10 strings and a magnificent rhythm section: Bernie Leighton on piano, George Duvivier or Milt Hinton on bass, Osie Johnson on drums, and Barry Galbraith or Mundell Lowe on guitar. [Photo of Anne Phillips and Kermit Levinsky reviewing an arrangement, courtesy of Anne Phillips]
"I was in the same room with the musicians, surrounded only by a gobo [an acoustic screen]. We recorded onto two-track stereo—no editing, no fixing in the mix, no Pro-Tools, no pitch correction, no nothing. It was all live.
"The first tune on the first session was For Heaven’s Sake. It started with me alone singing 'For heavens sake…' followed by those luscious strings. What they heard next in the booth from me after was hilarious—a croaking second line '… let's fall in love…' I could hardly get a sound out I was so excited. After I got over the initial thrilling shock, we did another take and the session went smoothly. [Publicity photo of Anne Phillips, courtesy of Anne Phillips]
"At the end of the song's first run-through, a beautiful thing happened. Every musician in the room put his instrument down and applauded—not for me but for Kermit. Some years later I learned that Kermit had been 'ghosting' for many arrangers for some time. I think this was his first session with his name on the work, and the musicians were overjoyed for him.
"The album was pressed but not yet packaged when Joe discovered that someone else had recorded Lonelyville as a title song. So he had Lonleyville flipped to the B-side of the single and Born to Be Blue became the A-side. I was much happier with that. Many years later I met Bob Wells, the song's lyricist who composed extensively with Mel Torme. He told me that my recording of the song was his favorite. That gave me chills.
"Born to Be Blue received great reviews when it came out later that year. This was from Billboard:
'Miss Phillips has a willowy, wistful sound that is used to listenable effect on an attractive group of tunes. Sparked by Kermit Levinsky’s fine arrangements she registers well on the album title tune, You Don’t Know What Love Is, There Will Never Be Another You, etc. Her phrasing is good and her approach to a song doesn’t invite comparison. A talent to watch.'
"Curiously, when I re-released the album a few years ago, it again received glowing reviews, even in People:
'Imagine: Britney and the Backstreet boys wake up tomorrow to find that a brand new genre of music has swept them from the pop charts, rendering them overnight has-beens. Impossible … or wishful thinking? Well, that’s precisely what happened to a generation of breathy balladeers whose dominance of the 1950’s hit parade ended abruptly with the coming of rock and roll. Despite a few worshipful reviews, this album was shelved along with Anne Phillips’ pop dream shortly after its release. Although it lacks the essential ingredient that made rock and roll … this reissue is a lovely reminder of how dreamy pop once was. Bottom Line: Sublime. —Steve Dougherty'
"With the rise of rock, my album days were over. But I continued to be in demand for record demos and background singing on pop singles throughout the '60s. For instance, I sang all the other voices on Carole King's It Might as Well Rain Until September in 1962. Carole was about seven months pregnant at the time, and I was eight months along. [Photo, from left, of Noel Sherman, Anne Phillips and Barry Mann]
"The session was supposed to last from 7 to 10 p.m. but went until 3 a.m. When the session finally ended, I went into what turned out to be false labor. My son Alec likes to say he was almost born on a Carole King recording date. [Photo of Anne Phillips in Ladies' Home Journal]
"Some years later when I took my kids to see Leader of the Pack on Broadway with songwriter Ellie Greenwich, Ellie said to them, 'I'm your pre-natal influence.' She wasn't too far off!
JazzWax tracks: Fortunately, Anne Phillips' Born to Be Blue from 1959 is available as download at iTunes and here. Trust me, this tasty album will quickly become one of the finest and warmest female vocal albums in your collection. It's particularly perfect for an autumn evening.
JazzWax note: For more on Anne Phillips, visit her site here and click on "My History in Photos" (here). Be sure to click on the blue links that will take you to rare video clips of the Four Tops and Turtles singing Pepsi ads with Anne singing backup. Anne wrote and arranged the Pepsi jingle, Taste That Beats The Others Cold.” There’s also a medley of the radio spots with Wilson Pickett, Linda Ronstadt, and others at her site. Also, look for the link to the Ringo clip. It's priceless.
JazzWax clip: Here's Anne Phillips singing I've Got to Pass Your House...