Friday, April 11, 2014

The other Ella

Hang onto your hats, kids; this one's huge.

Guaraldi backed a number of female singers during the early stages of his career. He memorably accompanied Faith Winthrop when both were house musicians during 1954 and '55 at the hungry i. Several years later, after fresh stints with Cal Tjader and Woody Herman, Guaraldi once again commanded his own trio and became the house band at Palo Alto's new club, Outside at the Inside. From the spring of 1960 through early '61, Guaraldi and his trio would play their own sets and also back headlining singers such as Helen Humes, Toni Harper and his former hungry i colleague, Faith Winthrop. 

For two weeks during the summer of 1960, Guaraldi flew to New York and backed June Christie at the famed Basin Street East.

None of these sessions was recorded, nor did Guaraldi hit the studio with any of these singers. Indeed, until just a few weeks ago, I would have said — with confidence — that Guaraldi never had been recorded while backing a female vocalist.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Imagine my surprise, boys and girls, when a recent eBay auction featured an item that rocked my world: a Galaxy Records 45 starring vocalist Ella Jamerson, back by none other than the Vince Guaraldi Trio.

The single — Galaxy Records #724 — features Buddy Johnson's blues ballad "Since I Fell for You" on the A-side, and is backed by Victor Young and Edward Heyman's "When I Fall in Love" on the flip side. (Doris Day made the latter a pop hit in 1952.)

Okay ... so who's Ella Jamerson? How did she encounter Guaraldi, and where has this disc been all my life?

She was born November 13, 1931, in Rome, Georgia; she and her family moved to San Francisco's Daly City district when she was 9. She grew up singing in gospel choirs and choruses; as a young adult, she joined groups such as the Angelairs and the Inspirational Tones. The latter ensemble split up in 1961, at which point Ella put together her own group, with an eye toward performing in San Francisco-area nightclubs. This new group — The Apollos (note the final vowel) — became a fixture at the Sugar Hill, on Broadway; later, and quite notably, they shared billing and sang back-up for young Barbra Streisand, during a gig at the hungry i.

Considerable more detail about Jamerson and The Apollo(a)s can be found in this 2005 essay by Opal Louis Nations.

For our purposes, however, I'll note that Fantasy Records' Sol Weiss caught The Apollos during their hungry i appearance, and clearly was captivated by what he heard. At that point, the group was a quartet: Jamerson, Joanna Bosley, Hiram Walker and Ron Brown. As of the early 1960s, Fantasy's subsidiary Galaxy label had been moribund for a bit, having stalled after putting our four singles featuring Cal Tjader, and one featuring Vido Musso (Galaxy 701-705). As reported in Billboard on July 21, 1962, Weiss "reactivated its Galaxy subsid to showcase pop, folk, R&B and gospel talent." Artists signed included Saunders King, Johnny Lewis, the Holidays, the Playgirls and, yes, The Apollos. The latter were first out of the gate, cutting two singles: Galaxy 707, featuring "I Can't Believe It" and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child"; and Galaxy 708, with "Say a Prayer" and "Lord, Lord, Lord." Sadly, despite a live stage delivery that was known to be electrifying, those 45s didn't do a thing for Fantasy/Galaxy or The Apollos.

But they eventually came to Guaraldi's attention, and he clearly liked what he heard. As for what came next ... well, let's allow Jamerson to continue the story, in her own words. Because yes; she's still with us, and I was overjoyed to chat with her on the phone a week ago.

"I was at Fantasy one day, and Sol told me that Vince was interested in me," she began, in a sparkling voice that remains crystal-clear, all these years later. "Sol said, 'You understand that this won't be a group thing, right? It's just you he's interested in.' That was so surprising, but what the heck? I didn't know Vince from Adam, and I'd never recorded as a soloist. But I said okay. So Sol introduced me to Vince, and I went to his home and met his mom, his wife and his two children. They were all very nice.

"Vince and I rehearsed for a couple of days, and went over a few little things. I didn't live that far from him, so he'd drive over and pick me up, and we'd go back to his house. He told me, 'You're the only woman I've ever heard that I want to do something with. So let's just put something down, and see what it sounds like.' And I said, 'But you have to show me what you want,' and he said, 'No, no; I don't. Just do what you do. Don't worry; just do it.

"So that's what we did."

They soon booked a morning recording session at the Fantasy studio; the result was the aforementioned Galaxy 724, released in early 1963. (I know what you're about to ask, and no; we don't know who played bass and drums during this session.)

No other woman had recorded with Guaraldi. "I was the first," Jamerson verifies, the pride and pleasure quite evident in her tone. "He just liked my voice. I don't know what he liked about it, because it was raw; I was green and didn't know anything. But Vince told me my voice was 'pure,' and he made me feel so special. He'd say, 'You just sing, and I'm gonna play.' "

To this day, Jamerson remembers him as a particularly caring accompanist. "I loved his playing. I wasn't really into jazz, but I loved listening to him. I loved his chord progressions, and the way he put a song together, and how concerned he was with me just being me. 'Don't worry about me,' he'd say, 'just sing your song. I'll do me, and you do you, and we'll match it up.' He made me feel so relaxed.

"He was a wonderful guy, warm and welcoming. I really liked him; he was so patient."

Ah, but that Galaxy single doesn't tell quite the entire story ... because Jamerson and Guaraldi's trio laid down three songs that day. The third cut — wait for it — was "Cast Your Fate to the Wind."

"Vince gave me the words to 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,' and we went over it a couple of times, and that was it; we put it down," Jamerson recalls.

Unfortunately, that recording was to remain in the vault. Guaraldi and Fantasy knew that Mel Torme had just recorded a vocal version of "Fate" that was due to be released that spring, on the Atlantic label; they didn't want to compete with a cover by such a well-known singer. As it happened, Torme's "Fate" didn't amount to much in the States, although it hit No. 4 on Australia's pop chart, on May 25, 1963.

After which, for whatever reason, the Jamerson/Guaraldi version of the song remained unreleased. To this day, if the recording still exists at all, it's buried somewhere in Fantasy's archives.

Jamerson and Guaraldi didn't see each other again, after their studio session, although they did occasionally chat by phone ... at least, for awhile. 

"When I went out on the road, I kept in touch with him at first, on the phone, when I wasn't too busy," Ella recalls. "But then we did get busy, and I lost track of him."

Playbill for a 1965 gig in Southern California. Ah, for the days
when one could attend an autograph party after every show!
(Note the spelling fluff in the title of their hit song. Tsk-tsk!)
Jamerson's group underwent several personnel changes through the mid-'60s. For a time, she and Leola Jiles performed and recorded as a duet dubbed The Love Joys; a little later, the re-formed Apollas (note the final vowel) featured Jamerson, Jiles, Billie Barnum and Connie Wye. The latter moved on, and the vocal quartet became a trio.

As The Apollas became more popular, Jamerson spent more time in Los Angeles; the group recorded several singles for Warner Bros. and one of its subsidiaries, Loma Records. They made the rounds of various music-oriented TV shows, such as Shindig, The Dinah Shore Show and a November 13, 1965, appearance on the syndicated series Hollywood A Go-Go. I mention the latter in particular, because both of that episode's performances by The Apollas can be seen on the Web: "You're Absolutely Right" and "Lock Me in Your Heart."

Their biggest hit came in 1967, with a single of "All Sold Out" backed by "Mister Creator."

All told, then, a decade and change passed.

"When I decided to quit singing, years later, I came home to South San Francisco," Ella continues, her tone turning sober. "I wanted to hobnob with Vince again, connect with him; I knew I could. You know, just to be doing something, after I left the group. I was older then, and more seasoned, and I wanted to see what Vince and I could do together.

"So I came home that weekend, and visited my mom, who lived in South Palo Alto. It was a Sunday, and I knew Vince was working at a place nearby. I told my mom that I wanted to see him. So I tried to reach him the next day, and then I heard that he'd had a heart attack and died ... so I didn't get to see him.

"And I just had a fit, because I was hoping to surprise him. That was tragic."

It's hard to believe that Fate could have been so cruel, and Jamerson hasn't forgotten the impact, all these years later.

"I had his home number in my book, and I called it, but nobody ever answered.

"And that's the end of the story."

Well ... not quite. Learning of Jamerson's recording experience with Guaraldi is a stunner: an important part of his career — and hers — that obviously deserves wider exposure. While it would appear that their Galaxy single has become pretty scarce, its existence is by no means a secret. A Google search on the terms "Ella Jamerson"/"Vince Guaraldi" immediately returns a descriptive entry at Discogs, which gives all the relevant information about that little disc. But that's the irony: Once you know what you're looking for, it's easy to find!
The Apollas, back in the day: from left, Ella Jamerson,
Leola Jiles and Billie Barnum.

So ... what of the music itself?

Jamerson's cover of "Since I Fell for You" is bluesy and soulful, displaying a sultry passion guaranteed to make couples fall into each other's arms. Guaraldi plays gentle melodic counterpoint behind her, the bass and drums maintaining a slow, swaying beat. At 1:55, the trio takes an instrumental bridge, the tempo accelerating to a medium-fast 4/4 and Guaraldi delivering a sparkling keyboard melody that wouldn't have been out of place as underscore for a certain world-famous beagle, in his Joe Cool persona. This interlude runs about 30 seconds, after which the tempo slows again and Jamerson returns, her voice entering with the clarity of a sustained trumpet note. Guaraldi's comping becomes more energetic as the song builds to its climax, the bass and drums similarly ramping up to bring the tune home. As the final note fades, one can't help feeling breathless.

"When I Fall in Love" is calmer, opening with a sweet instrumental vamp in gentle waltz time. Guaraldi's comping, while still not intrusive, is much more ambitious and harmonically rich; he's all over the keyboard with chords and delicate little filigrees, supported energetically by the bass and drums. Jamerson sings throughout this short arrangement — just shy of 2 minutes, to the A-side's 3:09 — so there's no room for an instrumental solo. But Guaraldi shadows her quite nicely as the tune enters its final verse, demonstrating his savvy awareness of a good accompanist's role: to support the vocalist, and make her sound even better (as opposed to bad accompanists, who call too much attention to their own efforts).

Jamerson echoed that sentiment.

"He was lovely. After I'd gone on the road and done lots of things, I could tell the difference between the musician he was, when he worked with me, and the musicians I'd had later. He was just so different: warm, kind and patient.

"I loved that about him, and I've never forgotten it."


Doug Anderson said...

Okay, this is FANTASTIC. She sounds like a gem, and her warm reminiscences about Vince and what he was like to work with are golden, and add a dimension that will *have* to be added to the eventual second edition of the biography. :-)

The most delightfully frustrating part is the unreleased recording of "Cast Your Fate to the Wind", which would be the ONLY recorded vocal performance of that song featuring Vince himself! That would have made a monstrously interesting bonus track on, for example, Fantasy/Concord's remastered "Black Orpheus" disc a couple years back.

Did you happen to ask her if she could recall which set of lyrics she sang -- the Carel Werber lyrics, or Vince's original set (forgotten until they were recently unearthed in the original deposit filed with the U.S. Copyright office)? Given that it sounds like it was nearly contemporaneous with the Mel Torme recording, I presume it was the former, just as he used. But that would be doubly amazing Ms. Jamerson had recorded a version with Vince's own lyrics.

Derrick Bang said...

I did ask, just as I asked about the identities of the sidemen. Alas, half a century later, her memory wasn't up to that sort of fine detail. More questions that await answers...

The Possum said...

I suppose the obvious question is : Where can these sides be heard . . . or am I missing a link on the page?

Keep up the great work. Love the book!

Derrick Bang said...

Unfortunately, the tracks aren't available for listening online -- at least, not that I've found -- but copies of the single apparently are out there, so fans may want to keep an eye for auctions or sales of the disc.

Thanks for the kind words ... and I appreciate the shout-out for my book. :-)

Doug Anderson said...

The original eBay auction had a link to this sample, which still appears to be live, at the moment:

The Possum said...

Holy crap, Doug . . . . Thanks! This is GREAT . . . the complete take of "Since I Fell For You". What a shame Vince and Ella never made an entire album. Vince had the greatest 'comping skills behind a horn or singer ! His 1958 session with Getz & Tjader swings like mad as does the 1960 session w/ the Conte Candoli All-Stars: "Little Band, Big Jazz", a rather obscure (yet beautifully recorded) album which perfectly captures its era in sound as few others can.