Sunday 14 November 2021

The Shoebox Files #7: Irene Kral


The very final mix in The Shoebox Selections series starts with the jazz singer Irene Kral and her revivifying 1965 recording of ‘Is it Over Baby?’.  It is one of those songs guaranteed to put a smile on my face and get these tired old feet doing stylish little sidesteps and spins. I have no idea if this song has ever been played at a Northern Soul event. I don’t know if it would fit in. I’m not even sure I care. It makes me dance, and it’s a song I want to share, for all sorts of therapeutic reasons.

Irene’s adorable ‘Is It Over Baby?’ comes from her atypical  LP for Mainstream, Wonderful Life. It is an unusual record for her in the sense that most of it is very much jazz, what you could call her own personal space, while the rest is an unexpected diversion into contemporary pop which one senses she was not that comfortable with. It doesn’t show, though, as you can hear with the glorious ‘Is It Over Baby?’. And the sheer wonder of the way she sings: “Come on! Come on!”. The world of meaning in those four little words.

She has such a pure way of singing, one which commands attention, without any hollering, without being strident or gimmicky. It’s something to do with pacing and phrasing. Maybe some people think of a jazz singer scatting and improvising madly, but that wasn’t her way. She played it straight, without frills, respected the stories the lyrics told, but goodness, she could really convey emotion. I remember reading somewhere she was a big Bill Evans fan, which makes perfect sense.

On Wonderful Life she is backed by a fairly small outfit, occasionally augmented by strings, and among the players are her husband Joe Burnette on flugelhorn, Hal Blaine on drums, and Al De Lory on piano, and I guess at times we are in similar territory to Al’s immortal ‘Right On’, a recording which I fell in love with in the early 1980s when I heard it on the cherished Capitol Soul Casino compilation. By the way, the LP cover of Wonderful Life features a Jack Lonshein portrait of Irene, which fits in with other treasured titles of the time, like Bobby Cole’s A Point of View and The Artistry of Helen Merrill.

Irene was a committed jazz singer, one who started to record in the late 1950s, so was rather overtaken and overshadowed by other forms of music, which was the premise of Bob Stanley’s Mid Century Minx set for Croydon Municipal, a CD Irene opens stylishly with ‘Lazy Afternoon’. Irene’s pop diversion may have been only momentary, but I have been trying to think of other jazz singers who did the pop end of the soul spectrum so well. The Lewis Sisters, yup, and there’s Nina, plus Nancy Wilson, who’d recorded with Cannonball Adderley, and so on, but also sang ‘The End of Our Love’ with H.B. Barnum which became a perennial Northern Soul favourite and also appears on the glorious Capitol Soul Casino. But others? You may be able to name plenty. I must mention Ernie Andrews who made an LP with Cannonball Adderley, and then with that record’s producer ,David Axelrod, and his partner H.B. Barnum he made a couple of fantastic soul 45s for Capitol in the mid-1960s, including ‘A Fine Young Girl’ which appears on one of the great Talcum Soul CDs.

I suppose one could include Mel Tormé and ‘Comin’ Home Baby’. This Ben Tucker and Bob Dorough song has, rightly, been a dancefloor favourite since its release in 1962, but you could argue that takes us into the realms of mod jazz as defined or invented by that fantastic series of Kent compilations, and so onto things like Mark Murphy’s ‘Why Don’t You Do Right?’. Generally, though, the jazz singers who were active in the mid-1960s would make contact with contemporary pop via The Beatles, Bacharach and bossa rather than out-and-out pop like ‘Is It Over Baby?’.

This may all be a bit misleading as, at heart, Wonderful Life is, as I mentioned, definitely a jazz LP. There are a handful of songs with Tommy Wolf credits, who was very much a favourite of Irene’s. She sang a couple of the songs he wrote with Fran Landesman on her debut The Band And I, recorded with Herb Pomeroy’s orchestra in 1958, though not ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most’ which her brother Roy had recorded so wonderfully as half of Jackie and Roy. Irene put a marker down early that she wanted to sing songs with witty, clever, offbeat lyrics, something that is very much in evidence on Wonderful Life, which includes the Fran Landesman and Bob Dorough track ‘Nothing Like You’, which is familiar from Miles’ Sorcerer. There is also the Fran Landesman, Tommy Wolf, and Nelson Algren number ‘This Life We’ve Led’ from the ill-fated musical adaptation of A Walk on the Wild Side which Bob Dorough appeared in. Incidentally Ernie Andrews recorded ‘I’m A Born World Shaker’ from that doomed show on his Live Session! with Cannonball Adderley.

Anyone who has come across the Gilles Peterson collection Gilles Digs America 2 will know Irene’s ‘Goin’ to California’, which is on Wonderful Life and was written by the team of Bill Loughborough and David ‘Buck’ Wheat. The only other song of theirs I know is the superb ‘Better Than Anything’ which was the title track of Irene Kral’s 1963 LP with the Junior Mance Trio, featuring the great Bob Cranshaw on bass and Mickey Roker on drums, with enthusiastic sleevenotes by Tommy Wolf.

‘Better Than Anything’ is, I guess, a list song, detailing all the things being in love beats, with lots of cultural references, including many jazz ones, like Bill Evans, which to a large extent echoes Mark Murphy’s extemporising on ‘My Favourite Things’ for Rah! with mentions of John Coltrane, Miles and Gil, Monk, the Hi-Los, Anita and Peggy, Cannonball Adderly, Ray Charles, and so on. Mark ran into trouble for this, and later editions of the record dropped this segment. He kind of reprised it later on ‘This Train’ for his Immediate pleasure Who Can I Turn To? where he has a bit of a dig at The Beatles, guitar twangers and Motown, for whom there is no room on Mark’s train, which is solely for the swingers rather than the phonies. Although I seem to recall Dave Godin used the term swingers frequently back then for members of the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society. For a list of who’s on someone else’s train there’s Jackie Paine’s great ‘Go-Go Train’ which has one hell of a passenger list.

I confess I have a fondness for list songs, and a list of which would include Ian Dury’s ‘England’s Glory’ and ‘Reasons to Be Cheerful Pt. 3’, even Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’, Dexys’ ‘Dance Stance’ (I still call it that), Denim’s ‘The Osmonds’ and the Ballistic Bros.’ ‘London Hooligan Soul’, Skids’ ‘TV Stars’, plus the Wild Swans’ ‘English Electric Lightning’. My favourite example has to be Dave Frishberg’s ‘Van Lingle Mungo’ which is made up entirely of the names of major league baseball players of yore, a trick he repeats on ‘Dodger Blue’ with a roll call of Los Angeles Dodgers players. And can we include his delightful ‘I’m Hip’, with music by his pal Bob Dorough? I think we can.

Incidentally, Irene’s ‘Is It Over Baby?’ was written by Virginia Fitting, which I believe was a pseudonym for Claude Demetruis whose credits include ‘Mean Woman Blues’ which Elvis et al sang, and similarly ‘Hard Headed Woman’, though nothing beats the wonder of Wanda. He also co-wrote ‘My Boy Elvis’ for rockabilly star Janis Martin who came from Virginia, fittingly. From around the same time as ‘Is It Over Baby?’ all I know of is a Tony Middleton b-side, ‘If I Could Write a Song’, which was arranged and produced by Johnny Pate. Coincidentally, or not, Johnny also arranged The Kittens’ 1966 recording of ‘Is It Over Baby?’.  Another cover of it was the David Axelrod production for Cindy Malone, again from 1966. There is a fantastic clip of Cindy singing it on a TV show if you can track it down. I like Irene’s version best though.

Wonderful Life closes with Irene’s cover of ‘Hold Your Head High’, the Jackie DeShannon and Randy Newman song. She sings it deeper at the start than Jackie did and that, combined with her very precise diction, makes it seem more like a solicitous older sister or some wise and kind advice from a sympathetic school teacher. It’s great, but it seems slightly incongruous hearing Irene belting it out, soaring operatically at the end, complete with femme backing singers, when intimacy was her strength. Still, it’s always good to step outside your comfort zone, and I can’t imagine Irene doing anything she really didn’t want to do. She seems to have been a tough lady.

After all that, it would be a long break for Irene in terms of recording; another ten years before a new LP came out. It was the wrong climate for jazz singers. But the LP she came back with, one which I am a huge fan of, is quite remarkable. She was adamant, in the face of corporate opposition, that it should be just her and the pianist Alan Broadbent, and that is what the small Choice label eventually released in 1975 as Where is Love? It is such a warm, rich, yet uncompromisingly naked LP. It predates the first of the Tony Bennett and Bill Evans sets, and I wonder if it was an influence on what they did.

Irene writes in her original sleevenotes for Where Is Love? that “it was meant to be heard only during that quiet time of the day, preferably with someone you love, when you can sink into your favourite chair, close your eyes, and let in no outside thoughts to detract.” That sounds rather like a piece of advice, or prescription, the lovely Frank would deal out to his troubled customers in Rachel Joyce’s wonderful novel The Music Shop which I recently read and loved so very much.

The Music Shop is a love story, but it’s really a celebration of the healing power of music. It really connected with something deep inside me. Maybe I just read it when I needed to. Some might say it’s sentimental tosh and naïve politically. I bet some people still say that about It’s a Wonderful Life and Amelie, but then I used to love Highway to Heaven on TV, and I’d happily defend Rachel’s book to the bitter end, not least because she mentions Bill Evans and Hildegard of Bingen in the same sentence.

There are also mentions of Postcard and Pérotin, Veedon Fleece and Vespers by Rachmaninov, Chopin and Shalamar, The Ruts and João Gilberto. I know, I know. Oh, don’t we love having our own taste reflected back at us? But then also it got me seeking out Icelandic choral music, for which I shall be forever grateful. And when a DJ plays Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Keep on Keeping On’ for a lost (in every sense) friend, oh boy I wept for so many reasons. Mind you, I think I sobbed nearly all the time reading it, except when I was spluttering with laughter or cheering like an idiot.

Irene and Alan recorded a follow-up set, The Gentle Rain, in August 1977, which is as beautiful and as moving as its predecessor. Sadly, Irene died a year later. We will never know where she would have gone next in terms of making music. I like the fact that she was making such stark and unsettlingly intimate records, though interestingly she shied away from the all too obvious torch ballads. Instead, she favoured the smart, eccentric songs, and yes, thankfully, she did get around to singing ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most’, so beautifully. My personal favourite, a real obsession, is the Leslie Bricuse song from Dr Dolittle, the beautiful ‘When I Look in Your Eyes’ which Irene and Alan take somewhere incredibly tender and spiritual. And for recordings that are notably non-demonstrative, there is such a great deal of emotion swirling around on these two LPs.

I mentioned the intimacy of these records. I am wary in case that suggests an after-hours jazz club, or even someone whispering in your ear, but it’s not really like that. I mean more the intimacy between them, and how when she sings and he plays they seem hermetically sealed off from everything else in the world. They are completely absorbed in what they are creating. The sense of apartness is quite extraordinary. It is heart-warming somehow. And it feels a privilege to be allowed to listen in.

Irene’s fondness for her contemporaries, the composers Dave Frishberg, Bob Dorough, Johnny Mandel, can also be heard wonderfully on the Audiophile CD You Are There which is probably the record of hers I play the most, which doesn’t mean it’s necessarily my favourite. It consists of Irene singing with Loonis McGlohon’s trio in 1977 for Alec Wilder’s National Public Radio series on American Popular Song. There’s a wonderful companion volume, Mark Murphy Sings Mostly Dorothy Fields and Cy Coleman, and both come with helpful James Gavin liner notes. The You Are There CD is made up of two shows Irene took part in. One features the songs of Michel Legrand and Noel Coward, while the other celebrates jazz songs of the 1960s and into the 1970s.

So, among some of the highlights for me are Irene singing Dave Frishberg’s gently subversive, quietly political songs ‘Wheelers and Dealers’ and ‘The Underdog’, with words which are eternally topical. Then there are the Bob Dorough and Fran Landesman songs, ‘The Winds of Heaven’ and ‘Unlit Room’. Irene’s version here of ‘Winds’ forms a holy trinity with those of Jackie & Roy and the 5th Dimension. ‘Unlit Room’ is another lovely song for all us ne’er-do-wells and losers who have fallen by the wayside.

Then there’re the Johnny Mandel songs. Irene was clearly a big fan of his compositions. And, yes, we get ‘The Shadow of Your Smile’. We also get the beautiful ‘Emily’, which was a big favourite of Bill Evans. I have just been watching an old clip of Bill’s trio from 1970 playing this tune in Ilkka Kuusisto's home, in Helsinki, and it is just about perfect in every way. And, so to Irene and the title track, ‘You Are There’, which also appears on The Gentle Rain. Well, what can I say? I should say Dave Frishberg wrote the words for Johnny Mandel’s melody. And I’m going to pretend I’m Frank in The Music Shop and I will suggest this is a song to help if you have, as Irene says, “ever missed someone very, very badly”.

That’s how she introduced the song at the wonderfully named Bach Dancing and Dynamite Club, at Half Moon Bay in California, one night in September 1977. We are now blessed by being able to watch Irene and Alan perform ‘You Are There’ from that show: “In the evening when the kettle’s on for tea / An old familiar feeling settles over me / And it’s your face I see and I believe that you are there”.






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