What did the vocal group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross contribute to music?

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Contributions of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross

The jazz vocalization group of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross changed the way jazz vocalization in the 1970s and 1980s was envisioned and performed. Eighties groups like Pointer Sisters and The Manhattan Transfer followed in the vocalese styling of the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross trio....

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Contributions of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross

The jazz vocalization group of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross changed the way jazz vocalization in the 1970s and 1980s was envisioned and performed. Eighties groups like Pointer Sisters and The Manhattan Transfer followed in the vocalese styling of the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross trio. Individual singing stars like Bette Middler [notable toward the end of this performance of "The Rose"] and Joni Mitchell [notable in her movement through vocal registers] have borrowed the structure of the trio's vocalese methods to lend new vocal textures to their songs. The trio took a new genre of vocalization and developed in a way that was unprecedented and so opened new horizons for other musicians to follow. Hendricks once said to Lloyd Sachs in an interview for Chicago Sun Times:

We were so new, so far ahead of our time. The entertainment world has not caught up to us yet.


While "vocalese" had been experimented with by other vocalists, the trio took the vocal art form to an unexplored level of complexity, which revolutionized jazz singing, according to Gerald Brennan in "Lambert, Hendricks and Ross." Vocalese is a form of jazz singing that combines qualities of scat vocalization, lyric parody, and instrument imitation vocalizings. Though going back at least early African American sound poetry traditions (some argue going back to African musical traditions), scat was first recorded in ragtime songs in 1911 by Gene Greene in the choruses of "King of the Bungaloos" and by Al Jolson in a few bars of "That Haunting Melody." Scat is the musical practice of employing musical sounds and/or nonsense syllables to accompany the instruments or to imitate the instruments. "Parody" is a witty or comic imitation of a poetic (e.g., song lyrics) or literary style. Instrument imitation of a more differentiated sort is best illustrated by the Mills Brothers early work in which one or more brothers plays the role of and produces the sound of a specific instrument.

Vocalese combines all these elements and does something more. Though a little difficult to understand, vocalese adds scat-quality lyrics and vocalizations to a "cover," i.e., remake, of an established song performed by another singer or group. The purpose is to write lyrics or sounds that reproduce the tonal qualities of the original song. To get an idea of vocalese compositions, compare this recording of the trio's of vocalesification of George Gershwin's "Summertime" to a performance of "Summertime" the way Gershwin composed and intended it.

Writing Vocalese Lyrics

Lambert, Hendricks and Ross all wrote lyrics for the trio but Hendricks wrote most. One example of a hit vocalesification was the trio's song "Cottontail" that covered and parodied Duke Ellington's rendition of the older song "Charleston Alley." As Hendricks once explained to Marc Fisher in an interview for The Washington Post:

[Writing vocalese is] like translating a novel. You listen to the notes again and again and find the words that make the closest sounds in English [to match the sound of the note]. 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.

While Ellington's version is not available at present online, you can compare "Cottontail" to two other completely instrumental versions to get a feel for Hendrick's form of vocalese and for how he superimposes the vocalese lyrics over the musical sounds: Charlie Barnet's "Charleston Alley" and Billy Strayhorn's earlier "Charleston Alley."

Forming Lambert, Hendricks and Ross

When Hendricks heard recordings of King Pleasure's "Moody's Mood for Love" and Buddy Stewart's recordings with Dave Lambert on Keynote Records, he drop his pursuit of writing rhythm and blues (R&B) lyrics--in the style of Louis Jordan--and took up writing vocalese, a fair untapped field of jazz lyric writing. His first lyrics were based on solos in clarinetist Woody Herman's song "Four Brothers." This led to recognition by Avalon Records which offered him a signing contract. When asked by Avalon who else he wanted recording with him, he lept at the chance to request Dave Lambert, who was the same Lambert who had inspired him.

One of their most ambitious projects was an early one and done for Creed Taylor at ABC-Paramount. Hendricks and Lambert wanted to write vocalese for four Count Bassie tunes. Hendricks wrote the lyrics and Lambert arranged the music for a sizable chorale of singers. Once in the recording studio, they realized the unforeseen problem confronting them. The chorale of singers could sing but they could not sing jazz; they had no swing. There was one contralto in the chorale though who could sing jazz and that was Annie Ross. After convincing Taylor to sneak the three of them--Hendricks, Lambert and Annie Ross--into the studio in the dead of night for one more try (since their scheduled recording session had been fruitless), Hendricks and Lambert with the help of jazzy Annie Ross, laid down track after track until the three of them had sung and recorded all the orchestrated chorale parts themselves in their album Sing A Song Of Basie. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross had been formed and a hit was born. Within months of the release of the album, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross were America's most popular jazz singing group. Hendricks told Bob Blumenthal in an interview for TheBoston Globe:

I couldn't believe anybody could be as quintessentially hip as Annie. 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.

Annie Ross

Annie was of Scottish descent and the niece of Ella Logan, born in Glasgow, Scotland, but, after immigrating to America, a New York Broadway and nightclub performer. Annie grew up in Los Angeles and sang and acted from an early age, having roles in the children's classic Our Gang and singing with Paul Whiteman's Orchestra. Later, Annie sang in xylophonist Lionel Hampton's band [Hampton started with Benny Goodman, as did trumpeter Harry James, then went on to form his own band (as did James)]. After singing with Hampton, Annie moved to Europe and sang with musicians like James Moody and Kenny Clarke who taught Annie to work tightly with chord changes within jazz compositions. As she explained to Don Heckman in an interview for Los Angeles Times:

They would play chords for me and say, 'OK, sing the chords down.' 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 1950s, Annie began writing her own vocalese lyrics and recorded her songs on the Prestige record label. One of her better known songs was "Twisted," a comical twist of fate song for a woman and her psychotherapist.

Dave Lambert

Dave Lambert was a native of Boston, Massachusetts, who did a variety of work, including working as a tree surgeon and a parachute jumper, before finding his career niche in music. In the mid-1940s Dave sang in the Gene Krupa Orchestra (Gene Krupa, who originally started out to be a priest, began with Benny Goodman along with Harry James and Lionel Hampton).Dave's first recording partner while singing with Krupa was Buddy Stewart, and they had a hit song with "What's This?" [while this tune is unavailable online, a sampling of their Krupa sound is "I Walked In With My Eyes Wide Open" though it is Buddy without Dave]. When Lambert met Hendricks, he was impressed with Hendricks vocalese lyrics to "Four Brothers" and the two men agreed to collaborate on the Decca label. Their first hit was not "Four Brothers" but its flip-side song "Cloudburst," the vocalese for which was based on a saxophone solo by Wardell Gray and which became a number one hit on the charts in England.

Jon Hendricks

Jon Hendricks, the son of a Toledo, Ohio, minister, was the inspiration behind the formation of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. At seven, he was singing in the choir his mother conducted and was meeting big band leaders and being exposed to cutting-edge jazz because, as though drawn to a magnet, they all stopped to visit Jon's mother on their way through Toledo. By the time Jon was fourteen, he was singing with pianist Art Tatum. As a result of these experiences, "modern harmony was no problem" for Jon, as he told Bob Blumenthal of the Globe. When, after World War II, Jon moved to New York to sing with Charlie "Bird" Parker after missing an opportunity to study law because his GI school loan benefits ran out, "Bird" asked him how he learned his "changes" ["changes": chord changes, which provide the harmonic map as a jazz musician navigates through changing chords during improvisations]: "When I first sat in with Bird, he said, 'Where'd you learn those changes?'"


After recording three songs from 1957 for small record labels, the trio was offered a contract to record on the Columbia label. It happens that their first Columbia recording is said to be their masterpiece and, in fact, was re-released untouched in the 1970s to an equally great reception. The Hottest New Group in Jazz (1959) included:

  • "Charleston Alley"
  • "Gimme That Wine"
  • "Everybody's Boppin'"
  • "Summertime"
  • "Cloudburst" (re-release)
  • "Twisted" (re-release)

They released two more albums on the Columbia label: Lambert, Hendricks and Ross Sing Ellington; High Flying with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

End of the Trio

Their glory days were short-lived because in 1962 Annie chose for personal and health reasons to leave the group. Annie was one of the talented musical artists of the 1950s who fell prey to the effects of heroine use and she was addicted by the end of the 1950s. On tour in London, England, in 1962, Annie chose to stay there and go into drug treatment. Lambert and Hendricks attempted to carry on since, after all, Carol Sloane had substituted for Annie on a regular basis for a while, but Annie's absence was felt too keenly. They tried replacing her with Annie Moss and Yolande Bavan but neither could measure up to Annie's mastery of and ease with jazz. Two years after Annie left, Hendricks himself left the struggling trio. As he told John S. Wilson in an interview for The New York Times:

I walked away because I became very disenchanted. 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.

In 1966 Dave Lambert died in a car accident. Described by Hendricks as "a compulsive do-gooder," Lambert stopped at night near Westport, Connecticut, to help motorist Richard Hillman change a tire, but they didn't move the cars completely off the roadway. The two men standing in the darkness, with the cars' headlights off, on the road's edge were hit by tractor-trailer driver Floyd Demby who was exonerated of all blame.


Jon Hendricks pursued a solo career. Annie Ross went back to acting, later returning to the U.S. from England. In 1985 Jon and Annie reunited for a while, adding Bruce Scott to take Dave's parts. After a time, both Jon and Annie felt it disrespectful of them to try to replace Dave with another singer so they disband the reunion. Fourteen years later, in 1999, they reunited again but as a duo this time, with Jon's guitarist Paul Meyers playing Dave's parts when Annie or Jon couldn't cover it themselves. As Gerald Brennan said, "the savoir faire and swing were in full measure, ready to influence a new generation of vocalists."

Source: Gerald E. Brennan. "Lambert, Hendricks and Ross." Contemporary Musicians. Vol. 28. Gale Cengage, 2006.

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