Lambert, Hendricks and Ross (Contemporary Musicians)
Lambert, Hendricks and Ross were one of the most respected, popular, and innovative vocal groups of the jazz era. They developed a singing style, known as "vocalese," to a level of complexity previously unknown and revolutionized jazz singing in the process. They influenced a wide range of vocalists from vocal groups of the seventies and eighties, such as Manhattan Transfer and the Pointer Sisters, to individual singers like Joni Mitchell and Bette Midler. No one, however, has matched their brilliance or imagination. Almost 40 years after the group broke up, Jon Hendricks commented to Lloyd Sachs of the Chicago Sun Times, "We were so new, so far ahead of our time. The entertainment world has not caught up to us yet."
Born a minister's son in Toledo, Ohio, Jon Hendricks started singing when he was seven years old in the church choir run by his mother. By the time he was a teenager, he was singing professionally underthe name Little Johnny Hendricks, and was exposed to cutting-edge jazz at an early age. The big bands called on his parents whenever they came through Toledo. More significantly, when he was 14, Hendricks began singing regularly with another resident of Toledo, piano great Art Tatum. Because of that experience, "modern harmony was no problem for me...," Hendricks told Bob Blumenthal of the Boston Globe. "When I first sat in with Bird, he said, 'Where'd you learn those changes?' "
Hendricks began writing his own lyrics early on, mostly R&B songs in the style of Louis Jordan. He experienced two epiphanies after World War II: the first was hearing the recordings of Buddy Stewart and Dave Lambert on Keynote Records, work that took scat singing into the bebop era. The second ear-opener was hearing King Pleasure's recording of "Moody's Mood for Love." The song was an early example of vocalese, in which words were written for an instrumental solo recorded by another artist. King Pleasure's song, for example, put words to a solo previously recorded by James Moody. So impressed was Hendricks, he stopped writing R&B and tookto writing his own vocalese numbers, beginning with the solos from Woody Herman's "Four Brothers." When Avalon Records offered him a contract and asked who he wanted to record with, Hendricks never hesitated: Dave Lambert.
Dave Lambert was a Boston native, who did a bewildering variety of jobs before becoming a professional singer, including tree surgeon and parachute jumper. In the mid-1940s, he sang with Gene Krupa's band where he met his first recording partner Buddy Stewart. The two had a hit with "What's This?" one of the first bop vocal records. Hendricks' lyrics impressed Lambert, and they decided to work together right away. Their recording of "Four Brothers" for Avalon was not a hit, but it got them noticed by Decca Records, one of the majors labels of the day. They re-recorded the song, and again it seemed to flop. But the flip side, "Cloudburst," based on a saxophone solo by Wardell Gray, became a number one hit in England. Creed Taylor, a producer at ABC-Paramount was interested in the project, the group's vocalese versions of Count Basie tunes. Hendricks wrote lyrics to four songs and Lambert arranged them for a large group of singers. When they got the singers into the studio, Lambert and Hendricks discovered they had a problem: the singers could sing but they couldn't swing; they couldn't reproduce the special feel of Basie's band. Only one singer seemed to have it, a Scottish singer-actress named Annie Ross.
Ross had lived in Los Angeles since she was four, had performed in some early Our Gang comedies, and had sung on occasion with Paul Whiteman's Orchestra. She knew her jazz as well. 'The first record I was given was Ella Fitzgerald's 'A-Tisket, A-Tasket,' " Ross told Blumenthal, "and the rhythm was just so incredible. I didn't know what the style was called; I just knew that was the way I wanted to sing. My aunt was Ella Logan, a vocalist who veered toward modern jazz, so it didn't seem that complicated to me." As an adult, she sang in Lionel Hampton's band, and in the fifties moved to Europe where she worked with musicians like James Moody and Kenny Clarke. 'They would play chords for me and say, 'OK, sing the chords down.'" she told Don Heckmanof the Los Angeles Times. "I always had a good ear, but they introduced me to different chord changes that were going on at the time that just opened up a whole new world for me." In the early 1950s she began writing her own vocalese lyrics and recording the results for Prestige. One of them was 'Twisted," the story of a self-minded crazy woman sane enough to outfox her psychiatrist, which was based on a Wardell Gray solo.
Lambert and Hendricks had found Ross, but it looked like their Basie project was in big trouble. They had spent $1,250 on a chorale group that couldn't sing jazz, were in the studio with nothing to show for it, and were convinced they had gotten their producer fired. At the last minute, Lambert came up with what then sounded like a crazy idea. The three of them used overdubbing to sing all the vocal parts themselves. Taylor thought the plan was insane, but agreed to sneak them into the studio late in the evening when no one was around. In one session, between midnight and six in the morning, they recorded all the tracks for the album Sing A Song Of Basie. From the first playback of the record they knew they pulled off something remarkable. The record was an instant hit, and within months Lambert, Hendricks and Ross were the most popular singing group in jazz. There was a magical chemistry between the three singers: "I couldn't believe anybody could be as quintessentially hip as Annie," Hendricks told Blumenthal. "I'd give her a solo, she'd go off in a corner and learn it within 30 minutes. And Dave could arrange faster than anyone I've ever met. We were all like-minded.... I'm convinced that we were not put together by man. We were ordained."
All three wrote lyrics for the group, but most were done by Hendricks. He explained the process of composing vocalese to Marc Fisher of the Washington Post: "It's like translating a novel. You listen to the notes again and again and find the words that make the closest sounds in English. And then you find a story to link the words. The title of the song gives you the subject matter and then each horn becomes a character, commenting on his place in the drama." Brilliant songs like "Cottontail"he Peter Rabbit story set to a Duke Ellington arrangementnd "Charleston Alley" show how preternaturally gifted Hendricks was as a vocalese writer.
They recorded three LPs for smaller labels in the latter half of the 1950s. In 1959, they were signed by Columbia, and their first Columbia record was their masterpiece. It was so good that when Columbia re-released it, unchanged, in the 1970s, they called it simply Lambert, Hendricks and Ross' Greatest Hits. It includes showstoppers like "Charleston Alley," "Gimme That Wine," "Everybody's Boppin'," and "Summertime," along with re-recorded versions of their pre-Lamber, Hendricks and Ross hits "Cloudburst" and "Twisted."They recorded two more albums for Columbia, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross Sing Ellington, and High Flying.
In 1962, Annie Ross left the group because of health and personal problems. Lambert and Hendricks attempted to carry on with other singers, first with Annie Moss, then with Yolande Bavan. But the reconstituted group didn't click, at least not for Hendricks. In 1964, he left. "I walked away because I became very disenchanted," Hendricks told John S. Wilson of the New York Times. "I had been with Dave and Annie when they were at their peak. When you work with someone like Annie and you write a part for her and she sings it right back to you and it's tremendous, you didn't have to worry about how it was going to sound. It was just extraordinary. But after Annie left, I found it was hard to get the sound that I wanted. I guess everybody got tired. There wasn't the fire that I felt ought to be in it."
Dave Lambert died in an automobile accident in 1966. Jon Hendricks pursued a solo career and Annie Ross went back to acting. They reunited for a short time in 1985, with Bruce Scott singing Dave Lambert's parts. Critics liked the group, but Hendricks and Ross didn't. They both felt it was disrespectful to Lambert's memory to have another singer singing for him. When they reunited again in 1999, it was as a duo, with Hendricks' guitarist Paul Meyers playing the third part when Hendricks or Ross couldn't cover it themselves. Age had affected both voices, reducing their range and slowing down the old rapid fire performance style. But the savoir faire and swing was there in full measure, ready to influence a new generation of vocalists.
Sing A Song Of Basie, ABC, 1957.
Sing Along With Basie, Roulette, 1958.
The Swingers, Pacific Jazz, 1959.
The Hottest New Group in Jazz, Columbia, 1959.
Lambert, Hendricks and Ross Sing Ellington, Columbia.
High Flying with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Columbia.
Twisted: The Best Of, Sony/Rhino.
The Hottest New Group In Jazz, Columbia, 1996 (includes all three Columbia LPs).
Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Giants of Jazz, 1998.
Boston Globe, January 8, 1999.
Chicago Sun-Times, February 3, 1999.
Christian Science Monitor, September 9, 1985.
Los Angeles Times, July 23, 1998; November 4, 1999.
New York Times, April 2, 1982.
Washington Post, January 14, 2000.
Gerald E. Brennan