What makes vocalist Sue Raney special? First and foremost, she uses her intonation like a fine net that renders you immobile. As Sue sings, she has this way of commanding attention by wrapping a lyric around her finger without ever becoming possessive about the story. What's more, she lays back in just the right places, adding a breathiness to her voice and feathering her delivery. This enables her to seem attached to a song without smothering it—as though holding its arm. It's a studied coolness that seduces you little by little without ever being clingy or cloy.
The second factor is Sue's technique, which is remarkable. She has a mighty passing gear but never abuses it. Instead, she knows how to surge without ever breaking a sweat, making those extra efforts seem like a snap. And she doesn't wander into the upper register to flirt with risk but instead purposefully soars there, pulling off leaps from one note to the next without wavering. Today's singers could learn a great deal from Sue Raney's recordings.
The third factor—which is unknown to most people—is her incredibly sweet and gracious conversational style. Sue comes from an age when people voiced appreciation sincerely and wrote letters of thanks. And I have to say, if you love Sue's singing voice, her phone voice will knock you out. It's warm and velvety and saturated with kindness.
In Part 2 of my two-part conversation with Sue, she talks about her struggle to break through in the '60s and her new album with Alan Broadbent...
JazzWax: In 1960, you recorded two singles—four sides—with Bill Holman. What was the goal?
Sue Raney: Bill was amazing. We hoped to create a hit with Biology and One-Finger Symphony. Biology came close and wound up on Billboard’s “Bubbling Under the Hot 100” chart. Capitol promoted it nationally, but the record never gained enough steam. If I had had one hit record, my future might have been different.
JW: How so?
SR: So many great young singers were recording all at the same time. Vikki Carr and Jack Jones had hits, which took them to that next plateau. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that hit.
JW: And yet your pop records hold up well, especially your sessions with Page Cavanaugh in 1960 and ‘61.
SR: We worked steadily at clubs in Los Angeles. I recorded Angel Eyes and I’m in Love with the Honorable Mr. So and So with The Page 7—which was the Page Cavanaugh Septet. He arranged three horns and a four-piece rhythm section, and the results were great. Page had a little edge to him, but never to me. He was a sweet guy.
JW: What about those recordings with Buddy DeFranco and Tommy Gumina around the same time?
SR: Those were for the Armed Forces Radio’s "Navy Swings" programs. They were incredible.
JW: How did the rock scene change your world?
SR: There was less and less appreciation for what I was doing. Without a hit, I slipped to the outskirts of pop. Many other singers had already gotten over that hump. At the time, I didn’t consider myself a jazz singer. I was sort of in the middle, but I did a lot of TV—The Red Skelton Show, The Tonight Show and others.
JW: You were on The Dean Martin Show, too.
SR: Yes, I did a duet with Dean. I had brought this lovely Michel Legrand medley. But Greg Garrison, the show’s director, said, “You can’t do that. We don’t want girl singers to do that kind of stuff.” Whatever his vision was, he didn’t want female vocalists to go into an artsy-craftsy thing. Instead, I did an opener called Like to Get to Know You, by Spanky & Our Gang.
JW: Were you comfortable with it?
SR: My favorite songs are jazz-pop ballads, which let me get involved with the lyrics. But you just couldn’t do those in the ‘60s—unless you were Ella Fitzgerald. I wish I could have been on those Songbook shows with Frank Sinatra and all the rest. But I just didn’t have a hit.
JW: Do you wish you had come up earlier?
SR: Someone once said I was born too late. Had I been recording earlier, I would have been established. I didn’t come up during the big band era. And if I were just starting out today, things also might be different. Look at Diana Krall and how terrific she is. Also holding me back was my reluctance to do a ton of traveling, which I guess wasn’t good. I didn’t like touring so much.
JW: What did you do in the ‘70s?
SR: I went into the jingle business with my former husband. I sang ad jingles for so many companies, I’ve lost track. We started a jingle company called EYE—Ed Yellen Enterprises. We wrote a lot of the jingles, I sang them, and it became a good business for us.
JW: Your album Dreamsville in 1988 is a lovely tribute to Henry Mancini.
SR: Henry kind of looked out for me. When he scored the movie Wait Until Dark in 1967, he hired me to sing the closing theme.
JW: How did your involvement with Supersax come about?
SR: During the ‘70s, when I was recording jingles, I knew saxophonist Med Flory. We were on the Ray Anthony Show together in the early ‘60s. One day at a restaurant, Med came up to me and said he had a great idea. He wanted to add voices to the saxes in his group and asked me to sing lead. He said he'd sing bass.
JW: How did the group come together?
SR: I got Melissa Mackay and John Bahler, and we rehearsed at my home up on Mulholland Drive. Gene Merlino was on the Ray Anthony Show and Med sang bass.
JW: Who scored the voices?
SR: That was Med’s wonderful writing. There’s nothing more rewarding than to be part of a vocal ensemble. I sang lead because I don’t read music well. The saxes were recorded first. Then we stacked the voices twice—overdubbed. There were five of us, so the vocals were tricky.
JW: How so?
SR: For example, we recorded Star Eyes but found that with five of us, there were too many hissing s's at the end. So we sang “Star Eye”—without the last "s." If you record one layer of voices, that’s fine. But when you overdub twice, the result gets tricky.
JW: You clearly have an affinity for Doris Day, yes? Your 2007 album was dedicated to her.
SR: Yes, very much. I grew up loving her voice. I hadn’t recorded with a string orchestra for a long time. But for that album, we went into Studio A at Capitol, where I had recorded 50 years earlier with Nelson Riddle.
JW: Did you ever meet her?
SR: I met her one time, for a second. Around the time my mother took me to Marty Melcher’s office, I went up there to hear my first record, The Careless Years. In she walked. I didn’t recognize her at first. It was so fleeting. She was in and then gone. But after my CD came out in 2007, I sent it to her and she wrote me such a wonderful letter.
JW: What does it say?
SR: Part of it says, “Dear Sue. I’m very late in saying thank you and I’m so sorry and embarrassed. I’m sorry that you’re paying tribute to me when I should be paying tribute to you.” She was so sweet and all class.
JW: Why was Doris Day so important to you?
SR: When I was growing up in the ‘50s, I wanted to be like her, and I tried to sing like her. I loved her voice. Her movies made me cry, she was such a good actress. She loomed large in my life. Just watching her made you feel good. All those Technicolor movies with Gordon MacRae. I grew up on them.
JW: On your current release, Listen Here, you're accompanied only by pianist Alan Broadbent, a gorgeous player.
SR: I always loved those albums Alan did with Irene Kral. I always wanted to do something with him like that. I always loved Irene’s sound. She and Alan melded together so well. I hope this new album comes close.
JazzWax note: If you're in New York this week, Sue will be appearing with the Alan Broadbent Trio at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency .
JazzWax tracks: Sue's latest album, Listen Here (Rhombus), is a collection of ballads. She's accompanied on the album by pianist Alan Broadbent. You'll find it here.
JazzWax clips: Here a clip of The Bad and the Beautiful from Sue Raney's latest album ...
And here's one from Ridin' High (1984), arranged by Bob Florence...