I wasn't around in Los Angeles in the '50s and early '60s, but from what I hear, it was quite a place. Actually, you kind of sense that the city was overflowing with musical talent. Anyone who loves rare jazz albums by little-known singers knows that there were a lot of superb vocalists on the scene there whose names today have been largely forgotten. Two examples are Thelma Gracen and Mavis Rivers.
Thelma Gracen [pictured] was a big band singer who never remained long with one orchestra in the 1940s. There were the bands of Gay Claridge, Shep Fields, Tommy Dorsey, Jan Garber and Jimmy Palmer. Then in 1955, she was singing at a Hollywood club when Maynard Ferguson walked in and was so impressed he lugged Mercury's Bob Shad along for a listen. Gracen was signed and sang as a guest vocalist with Freddie Slack's band. Then she recorded two 10-inch albums for Mercury's Wing label, which were combined a year later in 1956 as Night and Day for EmArcy at the dawn of the 12-inch LP era.
It's hard to know why these were her only record dates. The album is superb. Her voice is firm and swinging. And her intonation is loaded with a jazz feel. Gracen was sort of a mix between June Christy and Dinah Washington. On the date, she was backed by Quentin Anderson (tb) Georgie Auld (ts) Lou Levy (p) Barney Kessel (g) Joe Comfort (b) and Sid Bulkin (d). Gracen died in 1994.
Mavis Rivers [pictured] was a much bigger deal. Born in Samoa, Rivers had 12 brothers and sisters. The family was musical, and they performed in American Samoa and then New Zealand in 1947, where Rivers recorded her first record.
Rivers then spent a year in the U.S. in 1953 and '54 on a scholarship to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Once her visa expired, Rivers returned to American Samoa and worked as a radio DJ. A year later, she returned to the U.S., to Los Angeles.
Rivers worked as a guest singer in local clubs with a Hawaiian quartet, where she met Glicerio Reyes Catingub (known as David), a Filipino bass player and singer in the group whom she eventually married in October 1955.
In 1958, Rivers signed with Capitol and recorded three albums with Nelson Riddle. Frank Sinatra caught Rivers' club act and signed her in 1961 to his newly formed Reprise label. Think Lena Horne meets Ella Fitzgerald.
Which brings us to trumpeter and flugelhornist Shorty Rogers. Rogers recorded only a handful of albums with singers on which he had a major playing role. The short list includes June Christy, Mike Trenier, Betty Bennett, Eartha Kitt, Jeri Southern, and Mel Torme. His little-known album with Rivers—Mavis Meets Shorty—was recorded in 1962 for Reprise. Chuck Sagle arranged.
It's a wailing band date typical of Rogers [pictured] of the period. Punchy charts, bongos in places, trigger-happy horns, Red Callender's tuba and Rogers' gorgeous flugelhorn and cool lines. Not an easy session for any singer, and yet Rivers surfs it effortlessly with a pure tone and loose feel.
Rivers continued to record in the decades that followed, but as the music scene changed, dividing into pop-rock and soul, Rivers, like many pure jazz singers, was caught in the middle. Rivers died in 1992.
And that's the beauty of jazz. You sort through lots of pop silt and faux jazz, and eventually you hit pay dirt with truly great albums by artists who flirted with greatness. Thelma Gracen and Mavis Rivers are just two examples of hidden genius.
JazzWax note: Mavis Rivers' son is saxophonist Matt Catingub, who played Ben Webster-style tenor sax on the soundtrack of Good Night and Good Luck. Thanks to JazzWax reader Don Brown for alerting.
JazzWax tracks: Thelma Gracen on EmArcy is available at iTunes and Amazon as Night and Day. I'm sorry to say that Mavis Meets Shorty is available only on LP. There are copies at eBay and one here. No pushing and shoving, now.
JazzWax clips: Here's Mavis Rivers in the 1980s singing Teach Me Tonight with Red Norvo, Tal Farlow, Norman Simmons, Steve Novosel and Mike Sheppard. As you can hear, Rivers had superb control and is quite a big deal as jazz vocalists go...