Johnny Mathis (Easy) Listening party! An appreciation in three parts (Part 3)

1986-present: Repertory singer

 Mathis has focused on songbook style albums for the last 30 years with rare exception. From movie songs to Duke Ellington to 2010 era hits by Pharrell Williams, he continues to mine the riches of multiple eras and styles.

 **=Highly recommended albums!

Mathis has dedicated the majority of his albums from the late 1980's-present to exploring genres including doo-wop, jazz, country music, and contemporary pop.

Mathis has dedicated the majority of his albums from the late 1980's-present to exploring genres including doo-wop, jazz, country music, and contemporary pop.

**#51: The Hollywood Musicals (with Henry Mancini)(1986): Though it is easy to frame Mathis as the king of ‘50s “makeout” music and dismiss his romantic crooning, the reality is that no one does dreamy, ethereal classic pop with the same flair and enthusiasm. Though rock critics rarely take this kind of music (e.g., film songs) seriously, the kinds of ballads composers like Vernon Duke, Rogers and Hammerstein, and Jerome Kern authored are a major touchstone in American popular music that continues to resonate. Partnering with the simpatico arrangements of Henry Mancini, with occasional choral backing, Mathis is completely in his element. His incredible vocal range combined with his interpretive persona as an eternally wide-eyed romantic gives new life to tunes like “When You wish Upon a Star,” and “It Might As Well Be Spring.” Mancini’s lush arrangements are surefooted, framing Mathis’s voice with the ideal level of cushioning for his voice to soar. A real triumph of taste and imagination.

 **#53: Once in a While: (1988): Once you get past the very ‘80’s glossy keyboards, you will emerge impressed. Mathis sounds fabulous on an impressively varied group of songs from the Great American Songbook (“Once in a While”), ‘50’s pop (“I’m on the Outside Looking In”), Motown (“Ain’t No Woman [Like the One I’ve Got]”), and singer-songwriters Todd Rundgren (“It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference”) and Lauren Wood (“Fallen”) set to more contemporary rhythms. Astute at delivering the melodies and lyrics, Mathis sounds comfortably contemporary. 

**#54: In The Still of the Night (1989): ‘50s nostalgia was big in the 1980’s so it seems obvious for Mathis to take a stab at it on this sweet and smooth tribute to '50's doo-wop, pre-rock pop, and early ‘60s pop. Because Mathis was at his vocal prime when many of these songs became hits, his approach feels informed by genuine enthusiasm for the songs and the artists rather than nostalgia.  His producers blend acoustic instruments with '80's electronics to contemporize songs made famous by Jo Stafford (“You Belong to Me”), Brenda Lee (“All Alone I Am”), The Skyliners (“Since I Don’t Have You”), Ed Townsend (“For Your Love”), and even Buddy Holly (“True Love Ways”[!]). The result is a delightful confection, including two songs recorded with the vocal group Take 6.

**#56: In a Sentimental Mood: Mathis Sings Ellington (1990): One of Mathis’s most impressive vocal performances finds him focusing on the compositions of Duke Ellington, including songs by Billy Strayhorn (“Lush Life”) and Juan Tizol (“Perdido”) that were associated with his band. Though there are jazz soloists including pianist Fred Hersch, this is a ballad focused set with a few mid-tempo songs. Mathis’s voice is rich and clear throughout, and his performances are elegant and emotionally astute. This album was among the first nominated for the Grammy in the new Traditional Pop Vocal Performance category in 1991.

 **#57: Better Together: The Duet Album (1991): Mathis is great on his own, but he definitely plays well with others. This unique compilation features eight duets from his various albums plus new duets with Patti Austin and Regina Belle, and a duet with Dionne Warwick on a song from the then unreleased album The Island.

#58: How Do You Keep the Music Playing? The Songs of Michel Legrand and Alan & Marilyn Bergman (1993): Mathis, the romantic ballads of the Bergman-Legrands, and soaring strings are a logical match. Mathis actually recorded several of these songs in the late 60’s/early 70’s when they were new including, “What are you doing the rest of your life?” and “The Windmills of Your Mind.” That may be why it feels a bit anticlimactic. Most of the songs are well-worn, and aside from some jazzy piano playing and solid solos, trumpet and saxophone, nothing here is truly surprising musically. A lovely set of performances, but the familiarity of the material diminishes its impact.

#59: All About Love (1996): The one divergence from the repertory approach is this stab at mid-1990’s adult contemporary pop/soul. Aside from Stephen Bishop’s “One More Night” none of these songs are especially well-known. The production is smooth and Mathis is poised but nothing stands out.

#60: Because You Loved Me: Songs of Diane Warren (1998): In a return to his 1970’s approach, Mathis goes for covers of new-ish tunes here. Diane Warren’s sentimental ballads (“Look Away,” “Because You Loved Me,” “Un-break My Heart”) and peppy up-tempo songs (“Rhythm of the Night” Live for Loving You”) made her a staple of pop radio from the mid-1980’s through the late 1990s. Her songs are highly melodic, and feature undeniable hooks; but many music critics find her lyrics generic and dismiss her songs as L.A. pop hackwork. Undoubtedly, the commercial success of Michael Bolton, Toni Braxton, Peabo Bryson, Taylor Dayne, Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan, and others, drew Mathis to one of the songs of one of last bastions of sentimental romantic pop. Mathis is in great voice, but the songs vary in quality, and there’s a generic quality to the slick arrangements and repetitive background vocals that makes it blend into the background rather than standout.

**#61: Mathis on Broadway (2000): 40 years after releasing two sets of songs from the Great White Way, not to mention an enduring penchant for Broadway fare, Mathis focuses on 10 songs from musicals of the late 1980's-mid 1990's including Into the Woods, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, and Rent. He, and duet partners Betty Buckley and Nell Carter each featured on one cut apiece, sound glorious.  

**#63: Isn’t It Romantic: The Standards Album (2005): Released during a resurgence of “standards” albums by rock singers such as Rod Stewart, Cyndi Lauper and Boz Scaggs, Mathis outshines them all. He is at his best here, soaring on a jaunty on “Day By Day” and delivering lovely renditions of classics like “Our Love is Here to Stay.” “Rainbow Connection” and “There’s a Kind of a Hush” are debatable “classics” but Mathis delivers warm, assured performances. 

 **#64: A Night to Remember (2008): This is a highly enjoyable cover album of “soft soul” material from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80's ranging from Bacharach and David’s “Walk On By” to DeBarge’s “All This Love.”  Though hardly an advance of Mathis’s firmly cemented style, it reminds listeners of his ability to apply his core sound to a range of contemporary ballads across multiple decades, which he previously proved on several ‘70's “soft-soul” albums. Mathis is nearly unrivaled among singers of his generation for maintaining his vocal chops and bridging stylistic and generational gaps in his choice of material. Unlike slightly older peers, such as Tony Bennett and the late Rosemary Clooney, Mathis often sounds very comfortable singing post-60's pop/R&B material. In this sense, the album is an entertaining confection featuring a few high profile duets and in sleek, state-of-the art adult contemporary arrangements. It reiterates Mathis’s endurance as one of pop’s most pliable voices.

**#65: Let It Be Me: Mathis in Nashville (2010): Despite the rural cover art and the song selection, this is more of a country flavored pop set—strings with pedal steel accents--than a true country album. Regardless, the listener is struck by the consistency and strength of Mathis’s singing, especially since the set was recorded live in the studio. He begins with a wistful “What a Wonderful World”—which never really sounds countrypolitan—and then delves into more predictable material including pop-country standards like “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Crazy,” and “Let it Be Me.” His performances are uniformly warm, and he projects a palpable yearning in “Crazy,” “Lovin’ Arms” (with Vince Gill’s harmonies), and “Let It Be Me” (recorded with Allison Krauss). His most surprising performances include an impassioned “Please Help Me I’m Falling” and a tender rendition of the folk standard “Shenandoah.” 

#68:  Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook (2017): Always one to keep his ear open to new sounds, Mathis sifts through the catalogs of contemporary performers, including Adele, Bruno Mars, and Pharrell Williams (“Happy”) for his latest interpretive adventure. He also visits tunes made famous by some pop, soul and country stalwarts such as Whitney Houston (“Run to You”), R. Kelly (“I Believe I Can Fly”), Leonard Cohen (“Hallelujah”), and Alan Jackson (“Remember When”), among others. The results vary, in part because of the intrusive use of pitch correction on several tracks. He is at his best on Peter Allen’s classic “Once Before I Go” and country singer Keith Urban’s charming 2016 hit “Blue Ain’t Your Color” where he can sing the story without competing with the original versions or production effects.

The boxed set includes four special albums, three of which were never released. 1983's  Unforgettable  and 1989's  The Island  are two of the vocalist's finest recordings.

The boxed set includes four special albums, three of which were never released. 1983's Unforgettable and 1989's The Island are two of the vocalist's finest recordings.

1980’s Rarities: Unreleased albums

#46: I Love My Lady (1981): I know—the idea of someone with Mathis’s genteel, almost florid approach might seem like a misfit for the guitar-based funk of Chic, but the singer and group coalesce unexpectedly here. More in the vein of Luther Vandross’s “Never Too Much” funk-ish balladry than disco, Mathis, who is openly gay, sometimes sounds a bit distant singing the very straight lyrics. However, the rhythms perk along in a way very familiar to people who listened to black radio circa 1980-82. A dated, but intriguing set of songs and performances.

 **#48: Unforgettable: A Musical Tribute to Nat King Cole (1983): Mathis understandably idolized Cole, and like his idol, he has a warm tone, thoughtful phrasing, and a natural, emotionally restrained way with a lyric on this mix of live and studio performances. Though he and Cole have very different timbres, Mathis is in his element here imbuing some of Cole’s signatures with his own style. Mathis leans more toward ballads and mid-tempo songs than the swing songs in Cole’s repertoire, but he is as skillful an interpreter of this material as anyone. Natalie Cole sounds lovely and in command here, though she shows even greater aplomb on her 1991 blockbuster tribute.

 **#55: The Island (1989): Contemporary listeners may find the sleek keyboard laden production a bit retro, but the vocal performances on these mostly Brazilian classics are some of Mathis’s best. The lithe nature of his voice is well suited to the gentle melodies and slinking rhythms. He also makes true lyric poetry out of the best lyrics here. In terms of the quality of the material, especially on wistful songs like “Photograph,” “Your Smile,” and “Flower of Bahia,” and the passion in his voice, this is easily one of his most cohesive and enjoyable recordings.

#66: Odds & Ends: That’s What Keeps the Music Playing (2017): This 17-track compilation is exclusive to the boxed set. Interesting, if not essential, it features alternate takes of the Mathis hits “Teacher, Teacher” and “Wild is the Wind.” There are also five previously released tracks including his 1993 Westside Story duet with Barbra Streisand (“I Have A Love/One Hand, One Heart”), a 2007 version of “The Shadow of Your Smile” (recorded with saxophonist Dave Koz), and three Spanish tracks released previously on a 1993 Mathis boxed set Johnny Mathis: A Personal Collection. The key tracks are 10 songs recorded from 1960-76. Most fall within the conventions of ‘60s pop yearning, such as the Anglicized French ballad, “Now That You’ve Gone” or ‘70s soft rock, most notably his take on jazz composers Johnny Mandel and Dave Frishberg’s “You Are There.”


Johnny Mathis has recorded five Christmas albums for Columbia and one for Mercury. He is the undisputed King of Christmas among popular vocalists.

Johnny Mathis has recorded five Christmas albums for Columbia and one for Mercury. He is the undisputed King of Christmas among popular vocalists.

1958-2013: ‘Tis the Season: Johnny Mathis does Christmas!

In the rock era, roughly beginning in 1955, the vocalist most associated with Christmas music is Johnny Mathis. Mathis, whom I have described previously in a 2010 essay (“Shaking the Closet,” Popular Music & Society, December 2010, pages 597-623) as an exemplar of the Rock Era Crooner (REC) genre, has released six Christmas albums since 1958 including five on Columbia Records and one during his Mercury Records tenure. These include Merry Christmas (1958), Sounds of Christmas (Mercury, 1963), Give Me Your Love for Christmas (1969), Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis (1986), The Christmas Album (2002), and Sending You a Little Christmas (2013). Over the course of these solo albums, he has sung 67 songs (!). Aside from Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby,” Darlene Love’s “Christmas, Baby Please Come Home” and novelty songs (e.g., “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”) there are few major songs associated with Christmas that he has not recorded.

            I have listened to all of his Columbia sets in their entirety. Their appeal depends on your mood. 1958’s Merry Christmas (#6) set has an innocent, lighthearted ‘50s feel. He mixes the giddy (“Sleigh Ride”), the sacred (“O Holy Night”) and the torchy (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas”) in a lush, echo-laden production. Give Me Your Love for Christmas (#23) is a bit brassier and more up-tempo, including the selections “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” In between are lovely ballads such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The key cut is a stellar rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer” that displays the impressive power of his formidable pipes. By 1986, synthesizers and keyboards were a cheaper way to record than full orchestras so he goes for a sleeker, more streamlined approach on Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis (#52). Singing in a lower range than his ‘50s and ‘60s era albums, he sounds as elegant as ever on a program mixing new holiday songs with standard fare such as “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “The Christmas Waltz.”

My personal favorite is 2002’s #62 The Christmas Album. Mathis covers some songs he has surprisingly never sung including “Joy to the World,” “Frosty the Snowman” and “We Need a Little Christmas.” It is a very jovial album full of pleasant atmospheric production choices. No Mathis holiday album is complete without good ballads and his “Snowfall/Christmas Time is Here” fulfills this need. On 2013’s Grammy nominated Sending You a Little Christmas (#66), his voice is slightly less limber; he recorded it when he was 78 (!) and he still sings beautifully. He also shares the microphone on several selections including duets with Susan Boyle, Natalie Cole, Gloria Estefan, Vince Gill and Amy Grant, and Billy Joel. Highlights include his version of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” Karen Carpenter’s “Merry Christmas Darling,” and an “I’ll Be Home For Christmas/White Christmas” medley sung with Gill and Grant.  

If you are truly hardcore about it, try 2014’s The Classic Christmas Album a compilation album of unreleased performances, including several cuts from his Columbia holiday albums and a duet with Bette Midler from her 2006 Christmas album Cool Yule. In 2015, Real Gone Music released five seasonal sets from 1958-2010 on the three disc boxed set The Complete Christmas Collection 1958–2010 which features four relevant bonus cuts from his catalog.

Listening to his earnest style over the course of 65 years, Mathis is one of the most talented and least self-conscious singers I have experienced. If he is sometimes overly earnest and reverent to his material, there is no trace of pretentiousness in his work. There is a fascinating integrity of style in his oeuvre, something intangibly artful and distinctive about his singing.

Check out Part 1 and Part 2 on the Riffs, Beats & Codas blog for discussions of his 1956-69 and 1970-85 recordings.


Johnny Mathis (Easy) Listening party! An appreciation in three parts (Part 2)

“Cover” Albums (mostly): 1970-1977

Mathis is the rare singer of his generation who relied almost entirely on cover albums of contemporary popular radio hits for the 1970s and survived. In the ‘70s he was able to author some new songs that made an impact, such as “I’m Coming Home,” and “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” (with Deniece Williams), and transitioned into the '80s as a contemporary singer. Few of his ‘70s cover albums have been in print so the boxed set is a coup for Mathis fans. Sony/Legacy will release several with bonus tracks as CD's and digital downloads. Most of the albums recorded from 1970-77 are uneven, but there are some exceptions. Keep reading…

 **=Highly recommended album!

The 1970's was a prolific decade for Mathis who released 20+ albums during the decade!

The 1970's was a prolific decade for Mathis who released 20+ albums during the decade!

#24: Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head (1970): The artistic potential and the expressive limitations of the covers formula are readily apparent here. On romantic ballads such as “Watch What Happens” and “A Man and a Woman,” Mathis’s interpretations exemplify why such '60s era pop songs are regarded as standards today. Some of the material is either silly, such as Jimmy Webb’s “Honey Come Back,” or inappropriate. The quasi-existential almost solipsistic lyrics of “Midnight Cowboy” (Mathis’s producer added words to the Midnight Cowboy instrumental theme) and Nilsson’s hit from the film, “Everybody’s Talkin’” are not the kind of songs that made Mathis famous.

 #25: Close to You (1970): A very mixed bag of logical covers such as the nostalgic “Yellow Days” and “Pieces of Dreams” and material either too bombastic (“The Long and Winding Road”) or too below standard (Ray Stevens’s icky “Everything is Beautiful”) for a singer with Mathis’s voice.

 #26: Love Story (1970): Every singer alive had their turn at the theme from Love Story in 1970/71 so why not Mathis?  To his credit “Where Do I Begin?” and other late 60's/early 70's ballad fare, especially, “It’s Impossible” and “What are you doing the Rest of Your Life” are well suited to Mathis’s voice and sensibility. A true crooner, he makes these melodies melt. A few songs, like “Rose Garden” and “My Sweet Lord” are too poppy to cohere with the ballads.

 #27: Today’s Great Hits You’ve Got a Friend (1971): Despite the cheesy title (it literally screams for an obnoxious TV announcer proclaiming “Todays Great Hits!”) this set of high quality pop songs from everyone from Carole King to Kris Kristofferson is surprisingly amenable. Easy melodies, slick arrangements, and poised vocals—most of it slips on by, true easy listening. Mathis sings his heart out on Jacque Brel’s “If We Only Have Love” and he sounds absolutely at ease on a bonus cut of The Beatles’ classic “Golden Slumbers.”

 **#28: In Person (1971): Mathis’s approach to Vegas-style entertainment is very different from Elvis, Engelbert Humperdinck, or Wayne Newton—and that is a good thing. Taking sum of his ‘50's classics and his new role as a conduit for ‘70's soft pop, he represents the past and present quite strikingly on this live set. Mathis’s self-effacing style runs counter to the Vegas schlock aesthetic and allows the songs to shine. If the “Close to You/We’ve Only Just Begun” medley plays to the hit status of these songs in the early 70’s (hence the immediate applause), his medley of Errol Garner’s “Misty”/”Dreamy” and several signatures is for the ages. He also showcases a refreshing sense of humor on Ivor Novello’s “And Her Mother Came Too,” some soulful grit on “Come Runnin,’ ” and showcases his robust vocal mettle on Brel’s “If We Only Have Love.” If you want a quick summary of what he is capable of as a vocalist, entertainer, and artist, this is an excellent start.

**#29: The First Time Ever (I Saw Your Face) (1972): One of Mathis’s best early ‘70's albums hues to the covers formula and yet, succeeds. He sounds like himself on contemporary fare like the title track and “Betcha By Golly Wow,” and renders a fine rendition of the standard “Since I Fell for You.” There are several movie themes including the ubiquitous “Brian’s Song,” “Theme from “‘Summer of 42,’” and “Speak Softly Love” from The Godfather. As sappy as these songs are, his renditions are appropriately lush and respectable. There are a few redundant covers (“Without You,” “Last Night I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All”), and some forgettable tunes, but as lush romantic pop this works.

 #30: Song Sung Blue (1972): Some songs reflect the personae of their authors so strongly that covering (or even interpreting) them is borderline absurd. Neil Diamond’s imprint is all over the title song and “Play Me” making Mathis’s versions seem truly rote. A more general note is how morose songs were in the ‘70s.  In the right context songs like “Where is the Love” and “Along Again (Naturally)” are listenable enough, but listening to such songs in a steady state is enervating. Relief is here in the form of a Nat King Cole oldie, “Too Young,” and a deliciously lovelorn version of the doo-wop classic “I’m on the Outside Looking In.”

 #31: Me & Mrs. Jones (1972): The idea of Mathis sneaking around with the infamous secret mistress in the title track is beyond ridiculous. More enjoyable are his takes on softer, and less scandalous, songs from Bread (“Sweet Surrender”) and James Taylor (“Don’t Let Me Be lonely Tonight”) that place him on a continuum between crooning and a more polished version of folk singing.

 #32: Killing Me Softly with her Song (1973): The redundancy theme reaches an apex here. Overly familiar hits like the title song seem to drag onward with little deviation or surprise. Interestingly Mathis, not Al Wilson, debuted “Show and Tell,” though Wilson made it a #1 hit.

 **#33: I’m Coming Home (1973): Thom Bell and Linda Creed were two of the most creative songwriters of the period and their collaboration with Mathis bridges crooning and “soft” Philly Soul very comfortably. The backstory is that they interviewed Mathis to craft songs around his experiences and point of view. Whether this “story song” concept comes through is less important than Mathis’s subdued yet involving approach. There is a yearning quality to “Coming Home,” a measurable calm to the melodious “And I Think That’s What I’ll Do,” and a grandeur to “Life is a Song worth Singing” that offer signs of life that Mathis was not ready to surrender to covers completely.

 #34: Heart of a Woman (1974): On the cover Mathis is wearing all denim with his shirt fully unbuttoned, holding a microphone and standing in various poses ranging from the buoyant to the crouched over. Is this supposed to be sexy? Is this him singing in the studio? Are these physical manifestations of discomfort? Who knows, but the songs here, mostly originals, cast Mathis in a kind of “lover man” role that never quite works. Most of the songs and the production is more pop-soul than anything, but it’s an awkward, unfocused affair.

 **#35: When Will I See You Again (1975): Maybe it was Bell and Creed having Mathis sing in his lower range, or just a desire to mix things up, but When is among the more enjoyable of his cover projects. Once again, fit is everything. Mathis sounds just as comfortable singing “Nice to Be Around,” “You’re Right as Rain,” and “You and Me Against the World” as he does on many of his signatures. Frankly, he makes many of the songs here sound better than they are. That’s a gift.

 #36: Feelings (1975): Mathis continued When’s winning ways bringing out the best in good radio fare like “Midnight Blue”  and “99 Miles from L.A.” and showing how smart arranging can work on a contemporary rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” From this point forward more pre-rock standards start to show up on his albums, which is usually a good thing.

 #37: I Only Have Eyes for You (1976): The title track is modernized quite skillfully here and is the standout performance. There are two lightweight originals, “Do Me Wrong But do Me” and “Ooh What We Do,” and cover songs ranging from interesting schlock (“Theme from Mahogany”) to pretentious irredeemable schlock (“I Write the Songs”).

 **#38: Mathis Is (1976):  Re-teaming with Thom Bell, this sequel to I’m Coming Home is lush, delicate, and modern. While no one song necessarily stands out, the songs sound like they were written for his voice, and there are some appealing instrumental touches throughout especially the interplay of strings, vibes, and percussion. Easily one of his most appealing and listenable sets.

 #39: Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me (1977): Mathis fuses a little bit of this and little bit of that from various eras and genres resulting in an eclectic and mostly entertaining set. The title is appropriately bubbly and romantic, and he navigates the very tricky modulations of “All the Things You Are” seamlessly.  Both make you long for a full album of standards…but alas. Mathis turns to Broadway on fine versions of “One,” from A Chorus Line and “Tomorrow” from Annie. Chorus has aged well, whereas Annie dated itself instantly, but he was trying to be progressive. On the pop side, Boz Scagg’s “We’re All Alone” and Streisand’s “Evergreen” showcase Mathis the torch singer and the romantic. Less pressing is his stab at “When I Need You” and the dreadful TV them song-ish “Don’t Give Up on Us.” The reissue is rescued toward the end by two excellent finds. One is a dynamic disco tune called “Experiment” (no composer is listed) that gels quite well with Mathis’s natural exuberance.  The other is a splendid version of Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic.” The idea that they put something this good aside so Mathis could cover David Soul and Leo Sayer boggles the mind, but we should be grateful it has now surfaced.

#40: You Light Up My Life (1977): Mathis’s most commercially successful album of the ‘70s replicates the covers formula with everything from Debby Boone to Bee Gees to “If You Believe” from The Wiz.  The main draw here is his hit duet with Deniece Williams on “Too Much Too Little Too Late” a frothy song that topped the pop, R&B and easy listening charts. Their duet version of the Bee Gees’s’ “Emotion” is very fun as is his modernized solo version of Rodgers & Hart’s “Where or When.”


Mathis pursued adult contemporary/soft rock, and adult R&B/soft soul in the 1980's.

Mathis pursued adult contemporary/soft rock, and adult R&B/soft soul in the 1980's.

1978-88: Mathis gets (adult) contemporary

At the tail end of the decade, Mathis began shifting gears from overt covers toward more original material. Mathis’s 1980s recordings are surprisingly varied. Though he consciously pursued the adult contemporary and adult soul markets, many of his better recordings found him experimenting with new material, such as the Brazilian pop on The Island (unreleased), or revisiting songs from previous eras including a Nat “King” Cole tribute, interpretations of classic Hollywood musicals, and a nod to 50s and 60s pop, R&B, and doo-wop.

**#41: That’s What Friends Are For (1978): Mathis and Deniece Williams built from “Too Much Too Little To Late’s” success by recording a whole album of pop-soul duets. They harmonize beautifully together and complement each other emotionally.  They revisit Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By” and reimagine songs associated with Aretha Franklin and Billy Joel. There are some frothy originals that showcase their chemistry plus an interesting reprise of the Williams penned title song which she recorded only 2 years earlier solo. The boxed set also features other Mathis-Williams pairings including the theme from Family Ties “Without Us.” Understandably popular, this is a delightful confection for the ears.

#42: The Best Days of My Life (1979): Other than discofied versions of “As Time Goes by” and “Begin the Beguine” and Mathis and Jane Olivor’s duet on the film theme “The Last Time I Felt Like This” (from Same Time Next Year) there’s not much here. Mostly disco and forgettable ballads.

 #43: Mathis Magic (1979): An uneasy mix of schmaltzy ballads (“She Believes in Me”), forgettable disco (“My Body Keeps Changing My Mind”), and oddball experiments. The disco versions of the standards “Night and Day,” “That Old Black Magic” and “To the Ends of the Earth” work better than they should, but are ultimately timepieces. The highlight is easily his warm, straight-ahead version of “New York State of Mind.”

 #44: Different Kinda Different (1980): A combo of soft balladry, disco, and a few numbers with a Latin tinge.  This set is more ambitious than the typical cover outing Mathis was recording at the time.  There are more original songs on the album, but none of them became staples of his performing repertoire.  Highlights include a fine version of “Deep Purple” set as a waltz, and a gentle version of “With You I’m Born Again.” Not an embarrassment, but not especially memorable.

#45: Friends in Love (1982): This album is notable for spawning Mathis’s last top 40 pop hit single in his duet with Dionne Warwick on the title track. A glossy adult contemporary pop album, it is most notable for a) not being a cover album and b) good renditions of some pop semi-classics including a pop version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memory,”  a sleek version of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately,” and one of the first versions of “Warm” a ballad many singers, such as Jane Olivor, have covered. The bonus features a weird '50s semi-waltz version of “We Kiss in a Shadow.”

 **#47: A Special Part of Me (1984): This is one of Mathis’s best contemporary pop-soul sets circa the 1980's. Highlights include two of Mathis’s strongest duets, including a hit cover of “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” with Deniece Williams and “You’re a Special Part of Me” with Angela Bofill, and believably perky pop songs, “Simple” and “Love Never Felt So Good.” Few of these songs became Mathis classics a la “Misty,” but he is in great voice throughout and the material fits his ‘80's persona well.

** #49: Johnny Mathis Live (1984): Recorded in London in 1983 this is a tight focused concert. He mixes some contemporary songs of the late 70's/early 80's variety such as Kenny Loggins’s “I Believe in Love” and Albert Hammond’s “99 Miles from L.A.” with Mathis signatures (“A Certain Smile,” “The Twelfth of Never”) and a few surprises like “Orange Colored Sky,” the Nat King Cole hit. Mathis is flawless vocally, and his audience is with him every step of the way, especially on his signatures. A few of the songs, such as “Try to Win a Friend,” are mundane, but Mathis is poised, spirited, and highly listenable. 

 #50: Right From the Heart (1985): The sleek, anonymous sound of the DX-7 keyboard and the hook-driven nature of '80's “adult contemporary” music pervade this 10 song 45 minute pop-soul set. Instead of covers or standards, these are new but generic, anonymous songs vaguely reminiscent of George Benson and Al Jarreau’s early ‘80's radio hits. Mathis sounds good, but the generic production sheen washes over the eccentricities that make him unique.

Part 3 examines Mathis's recordings from 1986-present + Rarities & Christmas albums!


Johnny Mathis (Easy) Listening party! An appreciation in three parts (Part 1)

For the last 30 years or so, we have been celebrating the third act of the luminous Tony Bennett’s career. His re-signing with Columba Records in 1986 brought him back to the mainstream, but his early 1990s tributes to Sinatra and Astaire, as well as a generation transcending performance in MTV Unplugged made him everybody’s favorite hip classic crooner. Few pop singers have their first number one album when they are 85, but Bennett has expanded our understanding of hip.

A singer of similar vintage who has never quire registered as hip is the enduring crooner Johnny Mathis. Mathis signed with Columbia only five years after Bennett in 1956, and like Bennett, he eventually came under the tutelage of producer Mitch Miller. Whereas Bennett rebelled against Miller’s questionable tastes and hungered for jazz credibility, Mathis and his manager trusted Miller’s commercial instincts and he quickly transitioned from a fledgling pop-jazz singer (his debut album is tentative) to a skillful pop crooner whose appeal transcended age and generation. Despite the common rock-ist narrative that Elvis, Chuck, Buddy, and Little Richard knocked all the crooners off the charts, Mathis was popular on the radio and the album charts. He currently stands among the top five most popular albums sellers of all-time. Mathis was one of the first black singers to have a chart-topping album in the mid-1950s, he was the first artists to ever release a Greatest Hits album, and his name is virtually synonymous with Christmas.

Unlike Bennett, he has rarely had jazz pretentions and is quite comfortable being pop and not being hip. For 62 years (!) he has soldiered forth, stolidly applying his delectable tenor to a staggeringly broad range of popular, and occasionally semi-popular, songs. He has sung torch songs, ballads, disco tunes, Brazilian pop, soft soul, folk-rock, gospel hymns, holiday material, showtunes, Jewish sacred music, country, soft rock, movie themes, and pretty much everything else. He has sung solo, in duets, and with choirs. He has sang in English, Hebrew, Portuguese, and Spanish. This versatility is not part of a specific aesthetic strategy other than the old-fashioned notion, among his generation, that a popular singer is an entertainer who builds’ an audience by interpreting the songs of the day in their own vocal style.

I listened to all 68 albums featured in the 2017 Johnny Mathis boxed set  The Voice of Romance:   The Columbia Original Album Collection  (Sony/Legacy).

I listened to all 68 albums featured in the 2017 Johnny Mathis boxed set The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Original Album Collection (Sony/Legacy).

After releasing over 75 albums (excluding compilations!) albums, 65 on Columbia and 10 at Mercury Records during his 1963-66 stint, Sony/Legacy is honoring his legacy with The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Albums Collection. Within the pink box, a thick square book of liner notes, and 68 CD's in sleeves reproducing his album covers. One could easily track key trends in American male fashion and African-American hairstyles over the last 60 years gawking at the album covers (!), but the music is the most important stuff and there is a lot of it. In order to digest these recordings I decided to listen to them out or order.   Mathis’s Columbia recordings can be divided into a few phases including the following:

·         1957-63: Signature sound: These are the albums where he established his core vocal sound and repertoire. In addition, these albums first cemented his defining songs. At this time established composers such as New York cabaret favorite Bart Howard, and up and comers like Burt Bacharach regularly wrote new material for pop singers like Mathis to premiere.

·         1967-77: The “covers” era: Former Columbia Records executive Clive Davis is usually maligned for his baldly commercial strategy of directing Columbia veterans like Mathis and Andy Williams to cover the biggest hits of any given year rather than record new untested material. Though Mathis did not adhere strictly to this, for example Thom Bell and Linda creed wrote new songs for him on 1973’s Coming Home and 1975’s Mathis Is, this is the era of albums mostly titled after number one hits for other singers including like Song Sung Blue, Killing Me Softly with Her Song, You Light Up My Life, etc. Theoretically, these should represent the nadir of his career, but because most are being released on CD for the first time, and because he actually worked with arrangers to tweak them, they may be one of the biggest finds of the set. Toward the mid-to-late 1970s he began sprinkling pre-rock standards in with more contemporary hits, but updating them for the slick pop-soul lushness of the era.

·         1978-86: Mathis gets (adult) contemporary era: After having a #1 pop, R&B and adult contemporary hit with “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” with Deniece Williams, Mathis began recording more new songs and having hits with original material. His work with Williams was among his most popular material of the decade and he began the 1980s strongly, making appearances on the pop, adult contemporary and R&B charts.

·         1986-present: Repertory singer: Having recorded most of the major new pop songs of the '60s and '70s, and scored with contemporary lite FM and quiet storm type material, Mathis recorded mostly songbooks dedicated to composers ranging from Duke Ellington to Alan and Marilyn Bergman to Diane Warren (now that’s a leap!), as well as sets devoted to Broadway, countrypolitan classics, and of course Christmas music.    

·         1980’s Rarities: One of the intriguing aspects for a singer as recorded as Mathis is the relative abundance of unreleased material. Several albums, especially from the '70s and '80s, have the occasional bonus cut. Beyond these are three sets of particular interest to Mathis fans. One is 1982’s I Love My Lady a funk-pop recorded with Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers of Chic but never released. Second is 1983’s Unforgettable: A Musical Tribute to Nat King Cole, a recording from a live BBC performance featuring a medley by Natalie Cole. Third, is 1989’s unreleased Brazilian pop set The Island, produced by Sergio Mendes. Stray tracks have appeared on previous compilations, but this is the full set featuring versions of songs by Ivan Lins, Dori Caymmi, and Mendes, among others.

·         1958-2013: ‘Tis the Season: Johnny Mathis does Christmas! Since 1958, Mathis has recorded six holiday albums including five at Columbia and one for Mercury Records. He is probably the signer most associated with Christmas, alongside Perry Como and Bing Crosby. He has recorded a holiday album in nearly every decade since the 1950s warranting special critical attention.

Below in Part 1 I trace Mathis’s discography chronologically, from 1956 through his including his 1963-67 Mercury Records tenure. Part 2 explores his career from the 1967 covers era through the 1980's. Part 3 addresses his career from the late 1980's-present when he focused more interpreting music thematically. I also explore the three unreleased albums featured in the box set, and his signature affinity for Christmas albums. The (#) refers to the numbering of CD’s featured in The Voice of Romance boxed set. Albums highlighted are albums I recommend as essential Mathis recordings.

**=Highly recommended album!


Johnny Mathis established his distinctive sound from 1956-59 during his first few years recording for Columbia Records.

Johnny Mathis established his distinctive sound from 1956-59 during his first few years recording for Columbia Records.

1950’s “Signature Sound” Albums

Mathis established himself as one of the premier new voices of the 1950s by carving out unmined territory that sandwiched him between generations. His crooning style, which blended crooning with his classical training and technique, drew on the ballad repertoire of his idols, such as Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, was framed successfully by arrangers such as Ray Conniff, Percy Faith, and others whose lush, romantic approach resonated with his generation in parallel to rock and roll and other emerging forms.


#1: Johnny Mathis (1956) was an attempt to present Mathis as a jazz-oriented singer, but it is really a pop album, which for the 1950s meant pop standards with minimum vocal improvisation, featuring jazz musicians. Nothing here really distinguished Mathis. By 1957, when he released **#2:Wonderful Wonderful, (1957) arranged by Percy Faith, Mathis as we know him was emerging. Wonderful is a luscious and highly listenable album of ballads with a few uptempo songs for balance. The lush approach is predictably lush and sentimental; an approach that complements his voice and sensibility perfectly. #3:Warm (1957) continues the Mathis sound; it too is lush, orchestral balladry. There is probably a bit more reverb and echo than is necessary but it makes for very moody, enveloping listen. Besides, this was a production style of the ‘50’s. Mathis’s rendition of “Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” was selected for The Smithsonian’s seminal  1984 five disc American Popular Song collection as an exemplary interpretation of the standard. Aside from Christmas music (see Part 3!) Mathis is not generally associated with sacred music. But he, arranger Percy Faith and Columbia apparently thought his voice was well-suited to classic religious songs from multiple faith traditions on **#4 Good Night, Dear Lord and…they were right. Though people associate Mathis with a high, refined tenor sound he sings in a slightly lower range and he sounds gorgeous and in control. On selections like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” for example, he does not cover other singers’ approaches. He instead sings in a key and tempo well suited to his distinctive voice and interpretive approach. “Where Will I Go,” is among the standouts, and two refreshingly varied versions of “Ave Maria” round out the set. A genuinely unexpected and moving performance.  **#5: Swing Softly (1958) is my favorite Mathis album. Though Mathis prefers to sing melodies as written, and does little improvising, he has a great feel for light swing and mid-tempo material and gives one of his most energetic and endearing performances here. Highlights include wonderful versions of “Like Someone in Love,” “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” and “Love Walked In.” After recording albums with orchestras and big bands Mathis approached things more intimately on **#7: Open Fire Two Guitars (1959) featuring just his voice supported by two guitars and bass. He is at his most sensuous on Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night” and at his romantic best on “You’ll Never Know.” A surprising approach in his vast catalog. Mathis’s legendary performance of Errol Garner’s “Misty” is featured on **#8: Heavenly (1959). Surrounding this classic performance are warm, relaxed renditions of gorgeous ballads such as “That’s All” and “More Than You Know.” In the span of three years, Mathis went from a new voice pitched awkwardly between vocal jazz and pop to a distinct new sound of late 1950’s pop.


1960-63 @ Columbia

1959’s Faithfully (#9) and 1960’s Johnny’s Mood (#12) reiterated the style of moody ballads bathed in strings and echo. Slightly more interesting conceptually, was 1960’s #10: Ballads of Broadway, packaged with #11: Rhythms of Broadway, which were sold separately and as a combined “deluxe edition” album.  Broadway had always informed Mathis’s repertoire. He was especially fond of songs from Westside Story, for example. But, these two sets brought together some of pop music’s most distinguished songs drawn from the theatrical stage. Mathis is at his best on ballads, such as “Isn’t it a Pity.” He sounds less sure of himself on some of the more uptempo songs where he vacillates between awkwardness, strangeness, and bombast. Mathis’s pairings with the renowned arranger for Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, and Frank Sinatra, Nelson Riddle, on 1961’s I’ll Buy You a Star (#13) (1961) and Live It Up (#14) are also uneven. His ethereal tenor seems designed for dreamy songs such as “Magic Garden,” but is a mismatch for the lustier “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street.”  A year later, however, he and arranger Don Costa recorded a Mathis masterpiece with sensuous and appropriately titled **Rapture (#15) (1962). The Costa connection persists well on 1963’s Johnny (#16), and **Romantically (#17) (1963).


In the 1960's Mathis recorded a broad range of themes with a variety of arrangers.

In the 1960's Mathis recorded a broad range of themes with a variety of arrangers.

1963-67: Mathis @ Mercury

From 1963-67, Mathis left Columbia for Mercury Records. He recorded 10 albums including sets dedicated to Broadway, Christmas, Latin American music, and established and contemporary standards, such as The Beatles’ “Michelle” and “Yesterday.” He also continued with contemporary fare ranging from new showtunes such as “The Impossible Dream,” (from The Man from La Mancha) to bossa nova songs such as “So Nice,” and recent movie themes, including “More,” and “Somewhere My Love.” Sonny/Legacy compiled all of these recordings on 2014’s The Complete Global Albums Collection.

In 2012, the record label Real Gone Music reissued several Mercury era Mathis albums in their entirety. These sets include 1964’s **The Wonderful World of Make Believe and Tender is the Night, 1965’s Love is Everything (featuring an unreleased album Broadway), 1965’s This is Love and Olé, 1965’s Sweetheart Tree and The Shadow of Your Smile and 1966’s So Nice and Johnny Mathis Sings. Hopefully, these will shed additional light on Mathis’s prolific career and inspire more critical assessments of his work. **Love is Everything is an appealingly lush and romantic set. He lives up to the title of Everything giving his all emotionally and vocally. He belts out the opener “Never Let Me Go” with tenacious vigor; “Young and Foolish” has an intense, meditative quality as does “This is All I Ask.” Pop songs were usually about three minutes in 1965 but at 3:40 (“Young”) and 4:04 (“This”) the arrangements provide room for him to stretch out. Broadway finds Mathis in his element, show tunes, but it has a very eclectic feel atypical of Mathis’s albums. He delivers some of his funkiest phrasing on a horn-laden version of “Ain’t It De Truth” (a Lena Horne number from Jamaica). “Manhattan” has a charmingly naïve romanticism via his vocal coloration choices. He chews through “Don’t Rain on my Parade” enthusiastically and delivers on fresh tunes like Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s “Once in a Lifetime.” It is puzzling why this album was not released.

**Wonderful World focuses on the dreamy ballads like “Beyond the Sea” and “When You Wish upon the Star”; Tender features more familiar ‘50s and ‘60s fare like “Call Me Irresponsible” and “Somewhere.”  As a whole, these recordings refute the sometimes-hysterical assertions that the mid-50s rise of rock ‘n’ roll “killed” romantic American pop. Most the songs featured on these albums are proof that many excellent songs of high melodic, harmonic and lyric qualities emerged throughout the 1960s; and Mathis recorded many of the most credible and enjoyable renditions.

1997’s double-disc compilation Global Masters was the only place to go until Collector’s Choice’s 2009 reissues. In 1969, Columbia allowed Mathis to repackage some of his best Mercury recordings on the compilations **The Impossible Dream and People. Dream is one of the finest crooner “cover” albums of ‘60s pop. Granted, “Strangers in the Night” and “Eleanor Rigby” are not exactly “Roll Over Beethoven”—which is to say not a great stretch for an experienced balladeer. However, this suite coheres amazingly well. Mathis’s performances are rich, impassioned and confident and the material is a strong match. 1960s era movie themes (“I Will Wait for You,” “Strangers,” “Somewhere My Love,” “Moment to Moment”) and showtunes ( “On a Clear Day,” the title track) balance tradition and modernity in their musical and lyrical style in a manner perfectly suitable to a singer who followed the decline of traditional pop and preceded the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. His covers of “Rigby,” “Go Away Little Girl,” and the standard “The Very Thought of You” are also satisfying.

People feels more forced and less coherent. He transforms Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” into an impressively emotional orchestral epic, gently soars on “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (sang in Portuguese), and gives a sprightly performance of “A Wonderful Day Like Today.” However, his robust voice and overripe arrangements almost overwhelm seemingly appropriate material like “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “People.” Other performances such as “What the World Needs Now” are routine retreads.


Listeners interested in Mathis's four-year stint at Mercury Records can purchase or download  The Complete Global Albums Collection .

Listeners interested in Mathis's four-year stint at Mercury Records can purchase or download The Complete Global Albums Collection.

Closing out the 1960’s

Albums #18-#22, recorded from 1967-69 find Mathis wavering between the tried and true and newer fare. Whereas some crooners departed major labels altogether but the end of the 1960's Mathis transitioned into a successful career in soft rock. 1967’s **#18 Up, Up and Away is a delightful collection rife with delicate textures, subtle choral backing, and naturalist vocal performances of mellow pop. Among its highlights are a laid-back rendition of the title track, the languorous “Drifting” and the surprisingly agreeable country and folk-flavored songs “Misty Roses” and “Far Above Cayuga’s Waters.” He also turns in fine renditions of the standard “The More I See You” and the Dr. Doolittle theme “When I Look in Your Eyes.” Though hardly a monumental recording, it is a tasteful and accomplished set of modern crooner pop. 1968’s Love is Blue (#19) is a similar suite of light pop. He sings four Bacharach-David songs well, gently croons on Lennon-McCartney’s “Here, There, and Everywhere” and delivers a fine “Moon River.” The rest is lighthearted; the only misstep is an awkward cover of Frankie Avalon’s “Venus” which feels out of place.

Mathis concluded the 1960's with  1968’sThose Were the Days (#20),  1968’s Johnny Mathis Sings the Music of Bert Kaempfert (#21), and 1969’s Love Theme from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (#22). Days rises and falls based purely on the material. The hokey title song, the umpteenth cover of the silly pseudo-homily “Little Green Apples” and a reprise of Skeeter Davis’s “End of the World” seem like wastes of Mathis’s vocal resources. Jim Morrison, Paul Simon, and Rod McKuen are not compatible composers for Mathis’s sensibilities even if he turns in technically competent renderings of their material. Kaempfert is best known for MOR classics such as “Spanish Eyes,” “”L-O-V-E,” and “Strangers in the Night.” Mathis performs these, and other Kaempfert tunes, competently, but it is a pretty stock easy listening pop and does not make the case for the composer as a first-tier songwriter.  Love Theme is far more satisfying. Some of the more notable torch ballads from the era featured include fine versions of the Bergmans’ “The Windmills of Your Mind,” Charles Aznavour’s “Yesterday When I Was Young,” and Jimmy Webb’s “Didn’t We.” He is also quite appealing on “Live for Life” and his hit rendition of Bacharach and David’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” Whereas his renditions of film and musical theater tunes are generally reliable, the title track is epically schmaltzy and his version of the Fifth Dimension’s medley from Hair, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” feels forced. The remainder is agreeable pop material.

Part 2 examines Mathis's recordings from 1970-85!


A Gay Old (and New) Time: What do “gay music” and “women’s music” mean now?

Several years ago I made a playlist called A Gay Old Time—a tongue-in-cheek reference to its mix of jubilant pop tunes from openly gay (e.g. k.d. lang, Pet Shop Boys, George Michael) and iconically gay (e.g. Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand) artists. It’s the kind of CD I wanted to play in the car or the office, or at home that might lead a casual listener to say “Those songs are so gay!” in a jocular appreciative manner. I made the playlist as a celebration and nod to the resonance of singers as disparate as Judy Garland and ‘80s British pop group The Communards to multiple generations of LGBTQ listeners.

An old mix CD still resonates today.

An old mix CD still resonates today.

In the early 2000s when I was working on my dissertation on gay and lesbian musicians I read Christopher Nealon’s fantastic book Foundlings which explores gay and lesbian cultural identity before Stonewall and the politicization of LGBTQ identity. A central thread of his argument is the role culture played in bonding queer people before there was a formal movement. In other words the way a man dressed, the language he used, the neighborhoods he socialized in and, most centrally, the culture he consumed signified to other man that he was “family” before people formally “came out” and identified using terms like gay, lesbian, transgender, etc.

Though I was born seven years after Stonewall this relates to my own story in many ways. When I was in kindergarten I knew I was gay, though at the time people used euphemisms that suggested was an identity necessitating discretion. Looking back this moment of personal awareness was less a point of pride or shame than a moment of recognition. Like many kids I suffered the indignities of bullying and teasing for being “different” for part of my childhood and adolescence from peers, and tacitly from the mainstream society. Rather than consulting with friends and family, who did not relate and would not have been helpful, or seeing a therapist I went to college. There, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by a critical mass of people who were open in their intimate identities and secure in themselves and best of all, accepted. One of the ways I bonded with my queer peers was via taste. At the time thumping club music suing by exuberant divas was “gay” as was music from previous generations including disco, cabaret, and torch songs by classic divas like Judy, Bette, Lena, and Liza, among others. Alongside these female icons who were lionized by generations of gay men previously, there were male performers like Elton John, George Michael, Pet Shop Boys, whose were gay and whose music resonated on a variety of levels for the mainstream and for queer men. Erasure, Jimmy Somerville, Freddy Mercury and Queen, and Sylvester were among the other men who fit this even if I didn’t listen to them a great deal.

The notion of “gay music” is limiting in many respects and overlooks the broad appeal of these artists, but it would be a mistake to discount the ways the music referenced above resonated and still resonates for many queer people for reasons beyond identity politics. For me some of the appeal of the great divas and some of the more expressive male vocalist like Mercury is their willingness to break through the box of male emotional suppression. Their art gives listeners permission to experience their emotional lives in an expressive form uninhibited by social limitations.  Through them your sense of being disrupts gender norms by offering different expressive possibilities. I believe gender is very much a social construct of how to be (as do many gender theorists!) and even the most conventional gender normative straight man desires to transcend expectations and delve into more vulnerable and communications forms of expression than they are allowed. Music is a distinct texture that permits these performances. Many men are scared by the idea of admitting they like music marked as “gay” (e.g. dance music, torchy songs) but secretly find immense freedom and pleasure in it because they get to inhabit themselves differently.

Williamson's 1975 album is a classic in "women's music."

Williamson's 1975 album is a classic in "women's music."

When I was writing my dissertation, which addresses gay and lesbian musicians who began their career prior to gay liberation I explored that life and careers of female musicians like Laura Nyro and Dusty Springfield, and the history of performers associated with the “women’s music circuit like Margie Adams, Cris Williamson, and Holly Near, among others. This also involved exploring the complex relationship younger generations of female musicians have to lesbian feminist politics and the gender politics of the genre which was self-contained, independent and aspired to employ female identified musicians, engineers, promoters, distributors, record label heads, and other personnel.

Many younger women found the music lacking in fun and the politics too rigid and separatist, especially the exclusion of men from the recording process and transwomen from women’s music festivals. These are understandable critiques though we must always look back contextually. Concepts of safety from patriarchy and violence have evolved for many women, and many women who identified with second wave and lesbian feminism have grown more comfortable with the idea that male identified people can be supportive allies. Few social movements endure without evolving and the women of the circuit deserve this critical consideration. Minimally we should appreciate the women’s music circuit as a pioneer of the Do-it-Yourself (DIY) aesthetic and appreciate the space they were trying to create—one that valued women as musical artists before this was fashionable in the mainstream, as well as recognized their unique social struggles.

I remember purchasing Williamson’s beautiful 1975 singer-songwriter album The Changer and the Changed, a classic of women’s music, and thinking it if weren’t for sexism and homophobia she would have been as big commercially as many of her singer-songwriter peers in the ‘70s. Regardless she is “ours” in the sense that she spoke to who many women of the era, and even as a queer man I relate easily to her words and melodies.

Of course queer people listen to more than disco, folk music, torch songs, or showtunes. The world is a big place that belongs to queer people as much as anyone and queer taste is eclectic. It’s only slightly surprising that there are openly gay country singers like Brandi Carlile, Billy Gilman, Steve Grand, Ty Hendon and Chely Wright.  Mainstream culture informs queer lives and the mainstream has been queered. You don’t have to be queer to hear Williamson just open. As a culture we have inched forward in recognizing the fluidity of gender and gradually made may core social institutions more welcoming and inclusive. Though homophobia and genderphobia sadly manifest themselves in many forms on a regular basis for many people they have become less socially acceptable in unexpected places like the military, professional athletics and civil society. Like many of my sistren and brethren I worry that some of the intracultural touchstones that made queerness a poignant open secret for many of us have lost their luster. Rather than relegating them to some less enlightened past I prefer we think of them as part of a cultural continuum. Even though the world changed after Stonewall there was a lot of possibility, but public and clandestine, that occurred before the birth of a formal “named” movement and the threat of exclusion still looms. Though singers like Tyler Glenn, Frank Ocean, Sam Smith, and Chely Wright are “out” now they were not at the beginning of their careers. This is important because it’s a sign that we are not in a post-gay world. Identity still matters, and fears of not being accepted or even of being pigeonholed and narrowcast are surely part of their process and that of other public queer figures. Not to mention the pressure of being viewed as an icon or role model, even if they do not feel confident in their identities or conversant about LGBTQ history and politics.

Johnnie Ray's 1951 LP set a high watermark for emotive male singing at the time. Ray was bisexual and his sexuality was a source of constant media speculation. 

Johnnie Ray's 1951 LP set a high watermark for emotive male singing at the time. Ray was bisexual and his sexuality was a source of constant media speculation. 

This summer I put the finishing touches on my forthcoming book Rocking the Closet: Queer Male Musicians and the Power of the Closet. I conclude the study, which focuses on men from the ‘50s, including Liberace, Johnnie Ray, Little Richard and Johnny Mathis, by interrogating the contemporary assumption that they were closet cases who had to be ambiguous and that today’s musicians are more liberated. The times change but the pressures to confirm to others’ ideas about who and how we’re supposed to behave endures. Their journeys differ than those of Glenn or Ocean, but each case raises questions about how being different can be a source of both intrigue for audiences and frustration for musicians.

Frank Ocean's 2016 album  Blond  is part of recent discussions about 21st century queer music.

Frank Ocean's 2016 album Blond is part of recent discussions about 21st century queer music.

My A Gay Old Time playlist still makes me smile (and dance!) because it’s an inside joke and a public statement, not to mention a really fun listening experience. What I also enjoy about it is that it, and what it represents, feels as alive today as it did many years ago. When these songs play queer people recognize themselves, many straight people relate to the joy within, and maybe everybody dances in parallel or together. No one is giving up who they are but understanding themselves more complexly.



“Contagious in his enthusiasms”: A personal list of essential music (Part 1)

One of my weekly highlights is reading Frank Bruni’s columns in the New York Times. Perceptive, compassionate, and good-humored he is a remarkable writer with a great ear for language and a sensible lens on social issues, especially education, religion, and politics. Recently I completed his 2009 memoir Born Round: A Story of Family, Food and a Ferocious Appetite, a memoir I purchased at Pomfret Street Books, a fabulous used bookstore in the south west quadrant of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. 

Bruni's memoir inspired some musical memories. (Copyright   ©   Penguin Books, 2010)

Bruni's memoir inspired some musical memories. (Copyright © Penguin Books, 2010)

 As someone who loves food and food memoirs, à la Ruth Reichl, I was really taken by Bruni’s ruminations on his lifelong struggle with food. Growing up in an Italian-American family where an abundance of lovingly prepared food was a sign of love, and hosting large family gatherings was a prestigious annual tradition fostered a love for food that haunted Bruni’s self-image and esteem. Toward the book’s end Bruni recalls how in his early 40s his family began to see him differently once he took control of his life including balancing diet and exercise more discreetly. In an especially lovely passage he describes his brother Harry’s impressive growth into an erudite, culturally engaged, sartorially refined person “contagious in his enthusiasms” (335).

 I love this phrase; it stirred me to think about the ways we translate personal passions into something useful for other people. Music is just one of my many “enthusiasms,” but it figures quite heavily into my everyday life as a source of entertainment and as a structure of meaning. Despite several kind requests I have resisted writing about Prince’s life and death, and Beyonce’s Lemonade album recently because a lot has already been written, and I have other things on my mind. For many people summer is a more optimal time to explore and bore deeper into our passions. There’s something about a gleaming sun and warm breeze that stimulates us more: We read, we listen, we play, we experiment, we discover. This led me to think about sharing personal thoughts on music I deem “essential,” particularly to understanding popular music of our time as well as aspects of our natural culture and character. Bruni’s memoir led me to trace some steps in my musical (as opposed to culinary) past to think through music that helped me to better understand certain eras and genres. I combed through my personal collection and came up with some cool finds. Happy summer listening!........

 Though this is a fairly large list and listening to these recordings will provides a great understanding and feel for the style of music these are personal favorites. Notably, these are albums I listen to constantly that have personal resonance; it’s not meant to be a comprehensive list of every great artist in a particular period or genre.


Vocal jazz is the genre I listen to most commonly. Though people tend to associate jazz with pop music’s glorious past jazz is alive in the 21st century. Folks who have perceived jazz as dated or intimidating in the past should check out some of the recordings offered by contemporary jazz singers below like Rene Marie, Gregory Porter and Tierney Sutton. Many singers are singing original material using the language of jazz, while others are reinventing the jazz repertoire by approaching classic songs with a fresh lens and/or integrating more contemporary songs. Jazz remains fun, inspiring and relevant music. Some of my favorite vocal jazz albums from the last 25 years or so:

 1989: Short Stories (Janis Siegel): Siegel takes a break from Manhattan Transfer and creates a solo masterpiece with the elegant pianist Fred Hersch. The result is an enthralling program of classic ballad performances including songs by Judy Collins, Julia Fordham, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.

1993: Blame it on My Youth (Holly Cole): A progressive blend of Broadway and pre-rock pop with songs by Lyle Lovett, Tom Waits, etc. that gels into a thrilling whole. A benchmark of ‘90s cabaret-jazz.

1993: From Bessie to Brazil (Susannah McCorkle): Cabaret-jazz singer McCorkle surveys some of pop music’s most enduring songs from Bessie Smith, Paul Simon, and Johnny Mercer; includes the definitive English language version of“Waters of March.”

1994: Café Blue (Patricia Barber): Pianist-composer Barber found her stride here mixing her moody compositions with everything from a haunted take on Bobbi Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” to a Virginia Woolf poem.

1994: The Lady Wants to Know (Laura Fygi): A sumptuous suite of classic and neo-classic tunes rendered as bossa novas by the enchanting vocals of Dutch jazz singer Fygi and luscious orchestral arrangements.

1995: Love and Peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver (Dee Dee Bridgewater): The vocal album of Horace Silver’s signature bop tunes is a funky, bluesy, swinging affair with tender ballads and sizzling swingers by vocal jazz’s top vocal improviser.

2003: A Little Moonlight (Dianne Reeves): A lovely and buoyant 21st century jazz approach to popular standards highlighted by “Loads of Love,” “I’m All Smiles” and “What a little Moonlight Can Do.”

2003: Serene Renegade (René Marie): A soulful tour-de-force, -Marie takes you inside herself. She’s lusty on “Red Leather Shoes”; defiant on “The South is Mine”; and funky and swinging on “A Hard Day’s Night.”

2010: Blow Away (Janis Mann): Mann has a beautifully textured voice and well-honed jazz sensibilities; her hushed phrasing and lean sense of swing wrings out the nuances of her songs.

2011: American Road (Tierney Sutton Band): A daring feat of interpretation that stretches the boundaries of a uniquely American repertoire drawn from the folk, gospel, musical theater, and classic pop traditions.

2011: The Gathering (Diane Schuur): Only a boundary breaker like Schuur could transform a program of country classics into a soulful fusion of jazz improvisation and gospel passion. Like Ray Charles’s country recordings and Willie Nelson’s standards albums this is a genreless classic.

2012: Be Good (Gregory Porter): A near perfect synthesis of the soul and jazz aesthetics Porter reveals himself in a layered and eloquent fashion most notably on his brilliant original anthem “Painted on Canvas.”

Another listener’s dozen: These 12 recommendations provide a great sampler of some of the diverse and accomplished work happening in contemporary vocal jazz. Some other top-tier jazz singers doing exciting work include the following: Cyrille Aimee, Karrin Allyson, Dena De Rose, Kurt Elling, Roberta Gambarini, Kevin Mahogany, Karen Marguth, Catherine Russell, Jackie Ryan, Ian Shaw, Roseanna Vitro, and Cassandra Wilson.


I love eclectic pop singers because they embody the potential for different musical styles and cultures to intersect I have been exposed to a broad range of composers and styles listening to the artists listed below: Before pop music became overly balkanized artists had more opportunities to experiment and explore the music that interested them regardless of commercial expectations. Artists like Nina Simone, Aaron Neville, Maria Muldaur, and Eva Cassidy represent the aesthetic of artists who defy category and make great music without regard to genre. Below I highlight some key artists and the best albums to explore their styles: 

 Eva Cassidy: Born and raised in the D.C. area Cassidy was a regional star who died of melanoma in 1996. Posthumously national and international audiences discovered her far reaching talents. A great place to start is to listen to Live at Blues Alley (1996). She kicks off with a swinging soul drenched “Cheek to Cheek” and never lets up maintaining a similar level of poise and momentum throughout. One can only marvel at her versatility: She cooks on “Stormy Monday”; her “Autumn Leaves” will leave you in tears; and she takes you to church on “People Get Ready,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Oh Had I a Golden Thread.”

k.d. lang: lang is best known for her soaring pop ballad “Constant Craving” which became a Grammy winning pop hit in 1992, but it represents one dimension of her art. Born in Edmonton, Alberta lang began her professional career performing in country and country-punk groups. 1988’s Shadowland showcased her powerful voice and established her as contemporary student of the countrypolitan style perfected by Patsy Cline. 1989’s Grammy winner Absolute Torch and Twang was a progressive country album that revealed considerable songwriting prowess. lang took a stylistic turn toward what she termed “nouveau easy listening” music on her 1992 breakthrough Ingénue (1992) an eclectic suite of yearning songs unified by a mosaic-like quality that gives it an unusual integrity; it’s like block of melancholia rendered in the most sensuous of shades. In addition to “Craving” songs like “Miss Chatelaine” and “The Mind of Love” showcase her range and her luscious voice. lang followed up Ingénue with several albums of original material and made her mark as an interpreter of classic and modern pop songs.

Ronnie Milsap: If you only know Milsap for country hits like “Pure Love” “It was Almost Like a Song,” and “Stranger in My House” his first album Ronnie Milsap (1971) recorded on Warner Brothers will blow you away. The influence of R&B singers like Ray Charles and Bobby “Blue” Bland and fellow eclectic Charlie Rich is apparent. He blazes through the torchy “Dedicate the Blues to Me,” and “Not for the Love of a Woman.” He also tackles gospel (“Sanctified”),  rock‘n’ roll (a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Rock and Roller”), conceptual pop (“That Cat was a Junkie”), as well as country (Kris Kristofferson’s “Please Don’t Tell Me How the story Ends”) masterfully. He found his commercial niche in country but his debut, and the compilation Plain & Simple (1975) tell a fuller story.

Ella Mae Morse: Morse is an overlooked bridge figure whose style brought together country, jump blues, and swing. She is best thought of as a proto-rock ‘n’ roll singer. Morse was a popular singles artist throughout the 1940s recording hits like “Cow Cow Boogie” and “Mr. Five by Five.” Whoever thinks pop was chaste before rock ‘n’ roll needs to hear songs like “Rockin’ and Rollin,’” “Have Mercy Baby” and “Rock Me All Night Long” all featured on the wonderful collection Best of the Rockabilly Years (2013).

Maria Muldaur: Born in New York as Maria D’Amato, Muldaur enchanted by blues, jazz, and folk music. She began her career as a fiddler and singer in the Even Dozen Jug Band, then joined the Jim Kweskin & the Jug band, and recorded two albums with her husband Geoff Muldaur, before divorcing and going solo. Her 1973 debut single “Midnight at the Oasis” featured on her acclaimed solo debut Maria Muldaur put her on the map. She’s recorded over 30 albums. I highlight three albums to introduce you to her art:  Waitress in a Donut Shop (1974) finds Muldaur recording swing jazz under the direction of jazz arranger Benny Carter, interpreting (then) contemporary songs by Kate McGarrigle, Allen Toussaint and Wendy Waldman, and exploring bluegrass and gospel tunes.  By the early 1990s Muldaur focused more on roots music and southern music styles. Louisiana Love Call (1992) is a spirited love letter to the music of New Orleans, featuring NOLA legends Dr. John and Aaron Neville. Muldaur’s performances of the title track, “Creole Eyes,” “Best of Me” “Dem Dat Know” and “Southern Music” will make you want to dance, swoon, laugh and bask. Muldaur’s first full-fledged exploration of the blues comes on the Meet Me Where they Play the Blues (1999). Working with a quintet on most cuts, and a brass band, she brings out the blue in a mix of ballads, swingers, and gospel. In the 2000s she recorded the brilliant blues trilogy, Richland Woman Blues (2001), Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul (2005), and Naughty, Bawdy & Blue (2007).

Aaron Neville: Neville’s mellifluous tenor is one of the defining sounds of modern New Orleans music. Influenced by doo-wop and ‘50s R&B Neville was a regional favorite in the ‘60s who made his mark with 1966’s anthemic “Tell It Like It Is.” In the ‘70s Neville and his brothers performed together as the Neville Brothers and reignited his solo career in the 1980s. After recording two Grammy winning hit duets with Linda Ronstadt he released 1991’s Warm Your Heart. Neville summons a wide range of his influences including spiritual material like “Ave Maria” and the Caribbean gospel song “I Bid You Goodnight,” nods to idols like The Drifters (“Don’t Go, Please Stay”),  material by New Orleans writers Allen Toussaint and Randy Newman, and contemporary pop and soul songs. He continued this eclectic approach on three follow-up albums in the 1990s, and has recorded albums focused on gospel, jazz standards, and classic soul and R&B.

Charlie Rich: Rich scored multiple hits in the early ‘60s at Sun Records, but gained his greatest fame singing polished country ballads like “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl” in the 1970s. Before he became a star he played in a jazz band and was shaped by blues and gospel music. Feel Like Going Home: Essential Charlie Rich (1997) comes closest to capturing his range. Soul singer, country singer, rock ‘n’ roller, swinger and gospel singer it showcases the breadth of his talents.

Linda Ronstadt: Ronstadt became the most popular singer of the 1970s by virtue of her powerful voice and mastery of song styles. Her fusion of classic pop, country, rock, and folk with contemporary songs reached an early peak on Heart Like a Wheel (1975) a classic and highly influential album featuring her renditions of songs popularized by The every Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Betty Everett, as well as newer songs by The McGarrigle Sisters, James Taylor and Little Feat. She successfully explored this approach for the remainder of the decade before exploring new wave, pre-rock pop, rancheras, and country. Winter Light (1993) which features covers ‘50s doo-wop and ‘60s pop-soul, as well as country, folk, and new age pop, is one of her finer mid-career efforts.

Nina Simone: The “High Priestess of Soul” was one of popular music’s fiercest talents. An accomplished classical pianist who fell into singing Simone initially began recording jazz-oriented music material but quickly expanded her repertoire to include bluegrass classics, Yiddish folk ballads, rock songs, gospel, and other forms. Her debut Little Girl Blue (1959) is a great introduction to her early years, as is Anthology: The Colpix Years (1996). But full Simone immersion requires purchasing Four Women: Nina Simone Philips Recordings (2003) a boxed set featuring all of her albums for Phillips. You get a dazzling array of tunes recorded during some of her most politically active years including signatures like “I Put a Spell on You,”  “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Feeling Good,” “Four Women,” “Go Limp” plus songs from composers as varied as Chuck Berry and Duke Ellington.  

Phoebe Snow: Snow’s voice had a fluid ethereal sound and quirky sensibility that made her stand out from her singer-songwriters in the mid-1970s thanks to originals like “Poetry Man” and “Harpo’s Blues,” and fresh interpretations of songs like “Teach Me Tonight” and “Don’t Let Me Down.” Her second and third albums Second Childhood (1975) and It Looks Like Snow (1976) are her most varied albums. For a fuller overview start with Very Best of Phoebe Snow (2001) which features some of her later work and some sizzling rare live cuts.

Jennifer Warnes: Warnes’s honeyed sound is best known to soundtrack fans for duets like “Up Where We Belong” and “I’ve Had the Time of my Life.” Warnes, whose sound has elements of Judy Collins and Linda Ronstadt is an exceptional interpretive singer with impeccable taste, solid musicianship and a broad range. She has had pop, country, and soft rock hits but her most acclaimed work is 1986’s Famous Blue Raincoat a Leonard Cohen songbook. The broadest showcase of her talents, however, is The Hunter (1992) where her gifts as a composer shine alongside her interpretations. There’s jazzy pop, rock ballads, and light R&B as well as a beautiful Acadian style waltz, a neo classical ballad, and other surprises.


Throughout adulthood I’ve developed an appreciation of popular music that preceded rock ‘n’ roll by listening to singers rooted in swing, bebop, big band and cabaret singing traditions. I was intimidated at first, but the more I listened the more I loved much of it and felt compelled to learn about the history of this era of pop music. Understanding 20th century popular music requires close listening to some of the titans, like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Frank Sinatra, who redefined how singers approach music and the way we listen. Below are some of my favorite albums from some of the greats. Most are from cabaret, pre-rock pop or genres of vocal jazz including bop, swing, and the cool school. Since singers are often only as good as their material I also include an anthology that was pivotal to my growth as a listener, featuring a wide cross-section of classic vocalists that focuses on the evolution of American popular song. (I’ve arranged the 31 singers by the order in which they began recording).

 Louis Armstrong (1925): Jazz’s Ur text is arguably the work of the Louis Armstrong. Armstrong mastered the cornet and trumpet, authored and perfected the jazz solo, pioneered scat singing, and was most responsible for translating jazz’s instrumental technique—swing rhythm, blues feeling, improvisation—into a vocal style defined by his distinctive gravelly timbre and personalized approach to lyrics. By applying jazz technique vocally and daring to personalize music, especially in his approach to lyrics, he revolutionized popular music. To understand his instrumental innovations, and hear a few vocal selections, I refer you to The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (Sony 2000), recorded from 1925-29, which is regarded as the most important recordings of early jazz.

 The Essential Louis Armstrong (Sony Legacy, 2004) tells his story as a vocalist beautifully and thoroughly. Armstrong’s 1945-69 recordings are summarized nicely on the three disc box set Louis Armstrong: An American Icon (Hip-O Records, 1998). You get a cross-section of vocal selections, instrumentals, live performances, a sample of his delightful duets with Ella Fitzgerald, and selections from his latter career including “Hello Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World.” Individual albums deserving your attention include Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy (recorded 1954; Sony, 2008), Satch Plays Fats (recorded 1955; Sony 2008) and The Great Summit: The Master Takes featuring Armstrong and Duke Ellington (recorded 1961; 2001), and Best of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong (Verve, 1997).

 Helen Humes (1927): A delightful singer who began singing blues as a teenager in 1927 before graduating to singing with the Basie Orchestra in the 1940s. She has a light voice and an exuberant style. She is excellent at swing tunes, ballads and blues. Her best album, Songs I Like to Sing! (1960) includes some of her finest performances including her clever signature “Million Dollar Secret.”

 Mildred Bailey (1928): The first female singer to tour with a big band. Trained as a pianist Bailey had a high, sweet voice and a very natural swinging sound. Adept at ballads, blues, and swing her prime material is on Complete Columbia Recordings Volumes 1 and Volumes 2 (Definitive Records, 2000).

 Billie Holiday (1933): Holiday’s legacy as a musician’s singer and as a tragic figure looms large in American history across generational and genre boundaries. Holiday infused jazz singing with advanced rhythmic and melodic abilities, an adult interpretive sensibility, and keen emotional intelligence. Influenced by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, and certainly aware of singers like Ethel Waters she moved vocal jazz and popular music forward. The best way to explore Holiday is to listen to her at different phases.

 Columbia’s Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles (2007) explores her earliest work singing novelties and rhythm numbers and growing into a solo leader, as well as her chemistry with musicians like Teddy Wilson and Lester Young. The Commodore Master Takes (2000) capture her in 1939 and 1944 sessions when she recorded signatures like “Strange Fruit,” “Fine and Mellow,” and “I Cover the Waterfront.” Her recordings for Decca (1944-50), focused more on ballads and lusher pop settings, and included “Lover Man (Oh Where Can you Be?),” “Crazy He Calls Me,” and “Don’t Explain.” Among the flood of Holiday compilations either Billie Holiday’s Greatest Hits (Decca Jazz, 1995) or Priceless Jazz Collection: Billie Holiday (1997) provides a good single-disc overview. The Complete Commodore & Decca Masters (2009) also captures her middle period in three discs. Her last significant recordings were recorded on Verve from 1954-59. The label which has reissued the cream of the crop on Lady in Autumn: The Best of the Verve Years (1991) Completists will enjoy the six-CD The Complete Verve Studio Master Takes (2005).

 Ella Fitzgerald (1936): Fitzgerald recorded her first sides with the Chick Webb orchestra in 1936. Fitzgerald was originally interested in dancing but she successfully performed a version of “Judy,” inspired by Connee Boswell and won over the audience at the Apollo Theatre amateur night jumpstarting a most distinguished career in jazz. Known for her silken voice, unfailing swing, legendary scat solos, and impeccable musicianship Fitzgerald was the definitive popular jazz singer. Her balanced interpretations made her a composer’s dream, and her warm persona appeal to generations of listeners.  Fitzgerald’s career can be divided into phases: She was the band singer for the Webb Orchestra, taking the lead when he passed in 1939. Fitzgerald recorded prolifically for Decca Records from 1943-1954. She also absorbed the vocabulary of bebop showcased on virtuosic performances on 1945’s “Flying Home” and 1947’s “Oh Lady Be Good.” The Best of Ella Fitzgerald (GRP Records, 1995) provides a 20 song overview of the era. More detailed is 75th Birthday Celebration: The Original Decca Recordings (1993). During her time at Decca she perfected the mellow tone and flawless intonation that defined her later career in the 1950s. Two albums, a 1950 Gershwin set and a set of standards recorded in 1954, showcased her promise as a mature interpreter of standards. They are compiled together on Pure Ella (GRP Records, 1994).

 Her manager Norman Granz helped Fitzgerald become an international star at Verve Records by encouraging her to record high quality material, which she did famously on a series of songbooks recorded from 1956-64 dedicated to the finest American popular composers (e.g. Duke Ellington, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, etc.). Each can be purchased individually or as part of the 16 CD boxed set. Each is a fine album; my favorites: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook (1956) is the most jazz-oriented songbook; Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George & Ira Gershwin Songbook (1959) is the best introduction to Gershwin’s’ superb melodies. She also recorded duet albums with Louis Armstrong, various albums with Nelson Riddle, live sets like 1960’s Ella in Berlin (featuring her hilarious improvised take on “Mack the Knife”), and collaborations with Count Basie and Duke Ellington among others. Among her non-songbook sets I recommend The Intimate Ella a beautiful voice and piano set; for a taste of Ella live I recommend Ella in Rome, Mack the Knife: The Complete Ella in Berlin, and Ella in Japan; some of her more satisfying eclectic sets include Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie!Ella Swings Gently with Nelson; and Whisper Not. After her stint at Verve she recorded middling country, pop, and holiday material at Capitol Records, and recorded various albums and concert sets for multiple labels to before recording prolifically for Granz’s independent jazz label Pablo Records in the 1970s and 1980s. Her finest showcase of this period is Ella and Oscar, recorded in 1975 with Oscar Peterson and bassist Ray Brown, and the four disc live set issued on Pablo called The Concert Years (Pablo, 1994), featuring her in her element, live settings, from the 1950s through early 1980s.

 Maxine Sullivan (1937): Sullivan began her career in the mid-1930s and scored a hit with a swing version of the Scottish song “Loch Lomond.” After recording for about 20 years she took a hiatus from music and returned in the late 1960s. She thrived as a recording artist and performer until her death in 1987. Sullivan is a master swinger who interprets lyrics with understated emotion. She had a deft touch that has influenced generations of singers including Peggy Lee and Rebecca Kilgore. Two of her finest sets include the Harry Warren (“I Only have Eyes for You” “You’re Getting to Be A Habit With Me”) songbook, Spring Isn’t Everything (1986) and Together: Maxine Sullivan Sings the Music of Jule Styne (1987).

 Lee Wiley (1939): Known as “Southern Comfort” Wiley perfected a sultry, understated style you can hear in singers like Peggy Lee, Barbara Lea, and Julie London. She also composed several classics including “Time On My Hands.” Wiley is best known for being the first vocalist to record songbook albums dedicated to top composers, Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers & Hart and Arlen, from 1939-43. Follow Your Heart (2005) (double-disc) is an excellent collection of her songbook recordings and other signature tunes. Wiley also recorded three albums for Columbia Records, and two fine standards albums for RCA in the 1950s, whose highlights are collected on As Time Goes By (/1991). 

 Frank Sinatra (1939): The quintessential saloon singer and consummate swinger, Sinatra’s discography spans from 1939-95. I find his Tommy Dorsey Orchestra recordings a bit dull; his Columbia recordings in the mid-1940s-early 1950s are more enchanting and Portrait of Sinatra is an excellent summation of this era. But his Capitol recordings are where he finds his voice as an albums artist. He excels at dour torch albums and spirited swing sets. Three albums capture him at his best: In the Wee Small Hours (1955): Recorded after a breakup with actress Ava Gardner Sinatra is at his most vulnerable and musical on this legendary suite of torch songs. Songs for Swinging Lovers (1956) is one of the most accomplished and influential swing albums ever. Many a singer has attempted to emulate Sinatra’s swinging versions of “I’ve Got You under My Skin,” “Anything Goes,” “Makin’ Whoopee,” and “You Make Me Feel So Young.” He repeated the torch and swing approach at Reprise Records, but one album that stands out is Frances Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim (1967) where he and the Brazilian composer record standards and bossa novas in a spare hushed setting that results in one of Sinatra’s most tender and enjoyable performances.

 Kay Starr (1939): Starr was a regional big band singer with a hearty voice and bluesy sound who became a popular singer in the late 1940s at Capitol records where she scored hits like Bonaparte’s Retreat Side by Side and Wheel of Fortune. Though these got her on the radio her gifts were showcased more fully on a series of albums recorded at Capitol from 1959-62. Movin’/Movin’ on Broadway (packaged together on CD downloadable separately) find are brassy swing sets. Movin’ (1959) has movement theme, and features a strong Count Basie flair especially on songs like “Goin’ to Chicago” and her take on “Sentimental Journey.” She applies this sultry Basie approach to musical theater classics on Broadway (1960) with jazz takes on songs like “On the street Where You Live” and “I Love Paris.” Jazz Singer (1960) is a fun mix of swing songs and ballads; I Cry By Night (1962) is a deliciously melancholic torch album with definitive versions of “More Than You Know” and superb versions of “Lover Man” and “Baby Won’t You please Come Home.”

 Nat “King” Cole (1942): Cole was a pioneer who excelled as a bandleader and pianist in the Nat King Cole Trio, as a popular solo singer, and as a personality on TV and film. His recorded output is readily available. The best distillation of his years leading the Trio and a solo is the 1992 boxed set Nat King Cole. You get the full breadth of his talents as a bandleader, balladeer, and swing singer. As far as individual albums: You can sample his Trio work on The Best of the Nat King Cole Trio: Vocal Classics (1942-46) (1996); His best ballads album is The Very Thought of You (1958); Cole swings mightily on the small group jazz set After Midnight (1957), as well as the big band sets Just One of Those Things (1957), Welcome to the Club (1959), Tell Me All About Yourself (1960), and Let’s Face the Music and Dance (1964).

 Dinah Washington (1943): Washington earned the title Queen of the Blues for inflecting all of her work with a blues sensibility. Sassy, funny, and dynamic she had a full life with seven husbands and a legendary reputation for being a no-nonsense performer. Washington’s recordings for Mercury Records and EmArcy are collected on a seven volume boxed set compiled in the 1980s, however a more direct route is the excellent First Issue: The Dinah Washington Story a double-disc compilation featuring ballads, blues, R&B and pop performances in a variety of arrangements. There are also several live cuts.  Her entire recorded output for Roulette Records is also available for download. The single disc The Best of the Roulette Years (1993) is a great introduction to her 1961-63 output. Among her individual albums Dinah Jams (1954), recorded with drummer Max Roach and trumpeter Clifford Brown is her most jazz-oriented performance; For Those in Love (1955) is full of gorgeously rendered ballads; her Roulette recordings are generally weaker but on Back to the Blues The Queen reminded everyone of her deep blues roots on this soulful, haunting, and sexy journey including her epic “Nobody Knows the Way I feel This Morning.”

 Sarah Vaughan (1944): A few years before Fitzgerald began learning bebop from musicians in her band in the mid-1940s Sarah Vaughan had been introduced to the style, and by 1944 she was steeped in the innovative approach which emphasized harmonic improvisation, rapid tempos, and showcased a virtuosity based more in listening than dancing, which was more emphasized by swing. Vaughan was trained in piano and organ as a child, and after winning amateur night at the Apollo was recruited to play piano in Earl Hines’s band. Billy Eckstine recruited her to sing in his band where she perfected her mastery of the style.  Interlude Early Recordings 1944-1947 (2000) and Complete Musicraft Master Takes (The Jazz Factory) introduces her earliest recordings. Interlude emphasizes jazz and features some of her work with Eckstine’s band, including players like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker; the Musicraft material is lusher and more pop-oriented.  Vaughan’s stint at Columbia Records is well summarized on The Divine Sarah: The Columbia Years 1949-1953 (1990). Here her transition to a popular singer is complete as she bathes ballads like “Deep Purple,” “Black Coffee,” and “You’re Mine You” in her luscious vibrato atop soaring strings.  Some relief is provided by the inclusion of selections from 1949-1950 sessions with jazz musicians.

 Vaughan’s association with Mercury Records, which focused on pop and the jazz subsidiary EmArcy captures her peak. Sarah Vaughan, In the Land of Hi-Fi and Swingin’ Easy are three of the best vocal jazz albums ever recorded, and each showcases Vaughan’s talents as a balladeer, swinger and improviser flawlessly. They have been packed together with two live albums from the’50s as Sarah Vaughan: Divine: The Jazz Albums 1954-1958 (2013). For a sample of her pop side The George Gershwin Songbook (1957)and Sings Broadway: Great Songs from Hit Shows (1958) display her voice to full effect. Vaughan switched to Roulette Records in 1960. She recorded everything from lush mood albums to a set of light classical fare. Her best includes two voice-and-guitar albums, After Hours and Sarah + 2; a Benny Carter conducted swing set The Explosive Side of Sarah Vaughan; a Carter conducted torch set The Lonely Hours; and a moody jazz organ set Sarah Sings Soulfully.

 Vaughan’s triumphant return to Mercury was the dynamic live set Sassy Swings the Tivoli. Mercury made various attempts to modernize Vaughan by having her record ‘60s pop songs with mixed results. She could sing anything and make it sound great but her best recording from this period was her last Mercury album, 1967’s Sassy Swings Again, a swinging big band set showing her as skillful and passionate as ever. Vaughan took a break from recording and then returned on Mainstream Records. Her best is Live in Japan a double-disc concert featuring her in total command. In the 1970s she signed with Norman Granz’s independent jazz label Pablo Records. Highlights were 1977’s I Love Brazil!, and the brilliant small group sets 1978’s How Long Has This Been Going On? And 1982’s Crazy & Mixed Up.  After her death her estate released Soft & Sassy recorded for radio and showcasing her brilliance circa 1961. One cannot state how exciting Vaughan was live. Five live albums showcasing her in all her glory include Sassy at Ronnie’s; Live at the 1971 Monterey Jazz Festival; the Grammy winning Gershwin Live!; In the City of Lights; and Live at Rosy’s released in 2016.

 Mel Tormé (1944): Tormé is a major vocalist, as well as a skilled arranger and composer,  and occasional actor, who never gained the fame of peers like Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, but musically his accomplishments are comparable to the most elite voices in the jazz pantheon. Possessing a clear full voice, that seemed to grow in flexibility and range as he aged, a broad repertoire and a gift for epic improvisation he is best experienced on The Mel Tormé Collection 1944-1985 is a lovingly assembled boxed set featuring his early work in the Mel-Tones, and highlights from his solo singer at Bethlehem, Verve, Atlantic, Columbia, and Capitol Records. The set gives you a taste of him singing ballads, showtunes, swing, and bop; there are also great live performances and a highly informative book.  His range and virtuosity are pretty stunning. The Best of the Concord Years captures some of his finest live and studio performances from 1983-96 and is worth hearing. But the boxed set is the place to start. Some of his best individual albums include Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley (1956) and Lulu’s Back in Town (1956), which rank among the best vocal albums of the 1950s and the 1990 live sets packaged together as Two Darn Hot that showcase him in his element.

 Rosemary Clooney (1947): People associated Clooney with ephemeral ‘50s pop hits like “Come on a My House” and “Mambo Italiano” for decades until she released a string of jazz oriented albums for Concord Jazz from 1977-2002 that demonstrated her stunning maturity and rock solid musicality. Prior to Concord she recorded a classic album with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (Blue Rose) and recorded one of the finest ballad albums ever. 1963’s Love arranged by Nelson Riddle, with whom Clooney had an affair, is the height of rapturous orchestral pop. Riddle’s dramatic arrangements illuminate the lyrics of yearning ballads like “Invitation” and “Someone to watch Over Me” in grand fashion and Clooney’s singing is equally entrancing.  Her Concord output is consistently strong and The Best of the Concord Years is an excellent survey of these recordings. Among her Concord recordings Rosemary Clooney Sings the Lyrics of Johnny Mercer (1987) and Do You Miss New York? (1993) are my favorites.

 Johnny Hartman (1947): Hartman is an expert balladeer who sings in a sumptuous baritone. He recorded from 1947-83 and is well-respected by musicians and singers. His most famous album is John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1963) the only collaboration between Coltrane and a vocalist. Though its only six songs it is a superb master class in the art of ballad singing. Hartman’s renditions of “Lush Life,” “They Say It’s Wonderful” and “My One and Only Love” have never been surpassed. 1980’s Once in Every Life is nearly in the same class. On this masterful set of intimate ballads, including “I Could Write a Book” and “Wave,” Hartman sings with disarming ease. Though its never been issued on CD you can re-create the album digitally by combining the Hartman selections are featured on the Bridges of Madison County soundtrack and the companion collection Remember Madison County into one.

 Tony Bennett (1950): Since his early recordings at Columbia circa 1951 Bennett has had a national fame as popular singer. His endurance is a testament to robust talent, good management, and his commitment to his aesthetic. The best introductory survey to his career is the 1991 boxed set Forty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett, which was supplanted in 2004 by Fifty Years of Bennett. Bennett signatures like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “I Wanna Be Around,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” are featured as are collaborations with Count Basie, Bill Evans and other jazz luminaries. Once you’ve mastered the basics of Bennett’s first three decades you’ll continue to be impressed by his growth as an interpreter. He experienced a major commercial and cultural resurgence in the 1990s. Almost every album he’s released since the 1990s is worthwhile, and he continues to thrive in the 2010s. On The Art of Romance (2004) his finest album Bennett, at the age of 78, masterfully interprets a repertoire of top tier songs (by composers like Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, and Stephen Sondheim) with a signature passion and precision. 2015’s The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern, recorded at 89, is also one of his finest. He applies his still mighty voice and interpretive prowess to a suite of some of the most harmonically rich and challenging songs in the canon with aplomb. 

 Cleo Laine (1950): Laine established herself as a big band singer in the 1950s and a stage actress in England before making a U.S. impact with 1973’s Cleo Live at Carnegie Hall concert set. Laine is renowned for her ability to wield her multi-octave voice with absolute control and precision, especially in unison scats with her musical director and husband John Dankworth. Some of the best displays of her prowess include the superb songbook albums Cleo Laine Sings Sondheim (1988) and Solitude, recorded with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (1995), and the dynamic Jazz (1991). Her two best all-around albums are more low-key displays that showcase her range with tenderness. These include the is a lovely voice and piano album That Old Feeling (1984) featuring sumptuous interpretations of classic ballads including the title track, “Tenderly,” and “Once in a While” and Blue and Sentimental (1994) an eclectic triumph with standards, classic blues, duets and contemporary ballads (“Afterglow,” “The Lies of Handsome Men”) that have become new standards.

 Freddy Cole (1952): Nat King Cole’s gifted brother Freddy debuted in 1952 but didn’t find his stride as a recording artist until the early 1990s. He possesses a similar voice to Nat but with a huskier timbre and is also a skilled pianist. In the early 1990s Cole’s association with producer Todd Barkan led to an on ongoing series of excellent jazz albums. Cole is particularly charming live. The most well-rounded and representative sample of his style is The Dreamer in Me: Live at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola (2009). He is a romantic who takes his time with ballads; he swings mightily on mid and up-tempo songs; and he is an excellent blues singer. My favorite track is his spirited hometown homage “On the Southside of Chicago.” 

 Carmen McRae (1954): As an interpreter of music and lyrics vocalist, pianist and composer McRae ranks in the top tier of jazz vocalists. Though she was trained classically she pursued her interest in jazz beginning as a pianist and becoming a singer. McRae idolized Billie Holiday, who recorded her song “Dream of Life” in 1939. McRae herself recorded prolifically at Decca Records in the 1950s and the cream of these is featured on the boxed set I’ll Be Seeing You: A Tribute to Carmen McRae (1995). Two excellent single disc overviews are Carmen McRae Sings Great American Songwriters (1993) and Here to Stay (1992). Each showcases McRae’s voice at its peak and is a marvel of sensible, subtle interpretation. From the 1960s-1980s she bounced around labels recording for Kapp, Columbia, Mainstream Atlantic, Concord Jazz and various independent labels. Her voice has a huskier tone and her interpretations take on a wry edge. The highlight of this period is the concert album The Great American Songbook (Atlantic, 1972) though almost all of her albums feature excellent performances. In her final years she recorded a set of lyricized Thelonious Monk songs and a Sarah Vaughan Tribute album at Novus Records. In 1993 Novus released two lively concert tributes to Billie Holiday, recorded in 1983 at the Blue Note and broadcast on WBGO, as For Lady Day Volumes 1 & 2. McRae is in good voice and she showcases her personality vividly getting bluesy on “Fine and Mellow,” interjecting hilarious asides in “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” and conveying the range of Holiday’s repertoire balancing well known tunes with obscurities.

 Chis Connor (1954): Connor is associated with the cool jazz vocal style a minimalist approach emphasizing understated emotion associated with Anita O’ Day June Christy and Connor. Connor recorded with the Stan Kenton Orchestra before recording solo several sides for Bethlehem Records and switching to Atlantic from the mid-1950s-early 1960s. Some of her tirumphs included a Gerhswin songbook album and albums of torch songs. Like a lot of jazz oriented singers she struggled in the late 1960s and 1970s but had a bit more success in the 1980s-2000s recording for various labels including Highnote Records. 1963’s At the Village Gate is a thrilling live set in which the normally “cool” Connor, backed by a jazz band, sizzles. “A Lot of Livin to Do” and “Something’s Coming” have never been more exciting. The London Connection (1994) is an excellent compilation of live performances recorded in London in 1990 that finds her swinging hard and approaching ballads as tenderly as ever.

 Etta James (1955): Though James was one of the most successful R&B singers of the 1950s and 1960s, thanks to classics like “All I Could Do is Cry,” “Tell Mama” and “At Last,”  she was influenced by jazz and has always included standard material in her repertoire. In the 1990s James began periodically releasing jazz oriented albums that showcased her still powerful voice in more intimate settings. The best of these is Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday (1994). James delivers poignant renditions of Holiday’s signature ballads in her own style. She infuses torch songs like “Don’t Explain,” “Body and Soul” and “These Foolish Things” with the kinds of nuances that come from a lifetime of hard living and lessons learned.

 Bobby Short (1955): Short was the most accomplished and influential male cabaret singer ever. As a recording artist and the headliner at Café Carlyle for 35 years he developed an international following for his vast song knowledge and vibrant interpretive style. Among the many albums he recorded over 46 years 1987’s Guess Who’s in Town: Bobby Short Performs the Songs of Andy Razaf is his finest. Short is a perfect interpreter of the overlooked composer of classics like “Ain’t Misbehavin,” “Black and Blue,” “S’posin,” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” Short also sings some of his lesser known material and showcases his comfort with jazz and blues on numbers like “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town.”

 Johnny Mathis (1956): Mathis pulled off a hat trick when he began his career in the mid-1950s by appealing to youngsters with his buoyant singles like “Wonderful, Wonderful” and “It’s Not for Me to Say” and drawing in adults with his lush moody albums, and distinctive tenor. Of all of his albums (he’s recorded over 70!) 1962’s Rapture and 1963’s Romantically, (which are packaged together on CD) are orchestral suites of ballads that provide the full Mathis experience. 1958’s Swing Softly (packaged with the 1958 ballads album Warm) is one of his most appealing sets. The balladeer lets loose and gently swings on several classics including “Love Walked In” and “Like Someone in Love.”

 Ernie Andrews (1957): Andrews is probably jazz’s most underrated male singer. Soulful, funky and swinging he debuted in the mid-1940s as a teenager with a few singles, but his jazz career took off in 1957. Andrew is a legend of Los Angeles’s Central Avenue jazz scene thanks to his warm, personable approach. Though he has recorded for six decades his albums are hard to find. His 1965 concert with Cannonball Adderley, Live Session! (available digitally) is a masterful performance of funky jazz. It comes closer than any of his records to exposing his full range as an artist. Andrews has an excellent rapport with his audience and sings quite personably. His performance of “I’m a Born World Shaker” is sandwiched perfectly between boastfulness and confidence without sounding abrasively cocky. He mines “I’m Always Drunk in San Francisco” subtly which maximizes its ironic emotional impact.  “Since I Fell for You” and “Work Song” receive gritty, confident performances, and he shows his lighter side swinging easily on “Big City.”  This album gave Andrews anthems and established his combination of soul, funk, wit and swing. The intimacy and energy captured here makes this one of the finest small group jazz sessions of its day.

 Antonio Carlos Jobim (1959): Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim composed sounds that became the bedrock of the bossa nova sound including “The Girl From Ipanema,”  “So Danço Samba,” “Wave” and “The Waters of March” to name a few classic standards. Influenced by classical music, jazz and Brazilian musical traditions Jobim created songs with beautiful melodies, complex harmonies and poetic lyrics that were provided a second wave of songs for interpretive singers. The boxed set The Man from Ipanema is a lovingly assembled history of Brazil’s most influential composer featuring vocal and instrumental exemplars of saudade

 Shirley Horn (1960): A vocalist and pianist known for her cool measured approach to interpreting material, Horn had two distinct career phases. After performing in the Washington D.C. area, and gaining the respect of performers like Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, Horn gained enough national attention to release several fine swing and ballad sets in the early to mid-1960s.  She then spent almost two decades focusing on her family. Though she recorded for Steeplechase and Audiophile Records in the 1980s, beginning in 1987 her Verve recordings made her a jazz superstar earning her acclaim, Grammy Award recognition, and a new audience. Arguably one of the most influential singers of the last few decades her albums are uniformly accomplished. 1987’s Close Enough for Love is particularly appealing. Songs like “I Got Lost in his Arms” and the title song have rarely been sung with such intimacy, and she swings like mad on “Get Out of Town” and “Come Fly with Me.”

 Andy Bey (1961): Pianist and vocalist Bey debuted with two classic bop-oriented albums recorded with his siblings The Bey Sisters before going solo. After recording and performing only sporadically in the ‘70s Bey made a comeback in the mid-1990s and continues releasing albums every few years.  A master of space and time, he is a sensualist and on American Song (2004) he luxuriates in the melodic and harmonic contours, taking his time redefining classics like “Lush Life” and “Prelude to a Kiss” into spacious arias.

 Carol Sloane (1962): Sloane made a splash in the jazz world in the early 1960s substituting in Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and recording her acclaimed debut Out of the Blue. A superb singer with a lovely vocal tone, advanced rhythmic and improvisational skill, and a savvy understanding of lyrics she struggled to follow-up her initial success. Though she recorded some solid independent sets in the 1970s and early 1980s it was not until she released 1989’s Love you Madly and 1990’s The Real Thing on Contemporary Records that the mainstream jazz world took full notice of her gifts. On both she gives perfect performances of ballads, swings, and bebop tunes in a warm, swinging style. She followed these with several excellent albums recorded for Concord Jazz, DRG Records, Highnote and Arbors Records.

 Sheila Jordan (1962): A longtime student of bebop’s masters, especially Charlie Parker, Jordan paid her dues as a singer learning her craft in the 1940s and 1950s and debuting with the influential 1962 vocal bop classic Portrait of Sheila. An improvisational risk taker, she pioneered the voice and bass format and became an in-demand jazz educators at jazz clinics. She is a thrilling live performer and fearless improviser who has dedicated her career to jazz. I’ve Grown Accustomed to the Bass (2000) a 1997 concert recorded with bassist Cameron Brown is a great distillation of her essence. She sings signatures, like her the “Bird/Tribute/Embraceable You” medley and her original “Sheila’s Blues.” More than a concert his is a beautiful extension of her storied life.

 Lou Rawls (1962): Before Rawls burned up the R&B charts in the late ‘60s with songs like “Love is a Hurtin Thing” and “Dead End Street,” and crossed over in the ‘70s with sleek disco-soul songs like “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” and “Groovy People” he recorded albums in the swinging blues sound perfected by singers like Joe Williams.  Black & Blue/Tobacco Road, recorded in 1962 and 1963 respectively, and packed together, are superb displays of how the blues transcends decades. Black is a very blues-oriented set with Rawls’s modernized renditions of blues standards like “Everyday I Have the Blues” and “Kansas City” sung confidently.  Tobacco Road is even bolder and more accomplished with contemporized versions of songs form the black song canon, like “Ol’ Man River” and “When it’s Sleepy Time Down South,” sung with a modern sensibility. He delivers wholly original versions of Southern themed material like Georgia on My mind, “Summertime” and “Tobacco Road” that are stunningly brilliant. Rawls went on to record pop and R&B for Capitol and Epic Records, before returning to more jazz oriented material at Blue Note in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

 Barbra Streisand (1963): Since beginning her recording career in 1963 Streisand has stood out for her big beautiful voice and fresh interpretive sensibility. She established herself with classic pop and showtunes in the ‘60s and integrated more contemporary singer-songwriter pop and film themes into her repertoire in the1970s. Three sets that showcase he talents best include her superb return to musical theater on The Broadway Album (1985) with distinctive contemporary performances of songs from the finest Broadway shows including Porgy & Bess, Showboat, Carousel, Westside Story, The King and I, Company and Sunday in the Park with George. 1987’s One Voice found Streisand returning to live performing with confidence and precision; a great career overview. Her best album is 2009’s Love is the Answer which can be purchased as a single discs with an orchestra or as a deluxe set with a quartet. The quartet is my favorite.  47 years into her recording career the legendary Streisand delivers her most subtle and intimate recording yet featuring lovely renditions of top tier ballads including bossa novas, chansons, pop ballads and classic theater songs.

 American Popular Song: Six Decades of Songwriters and Singers: (CBS Special Products/Smithsonian 1984 (boxed set): A stunning, comprehensive five-CD set, focused on popular songs composed from 1910-55 performed by various singers from 1918-80 is one of the most ambitious collections of “The Great American Songbook.”  The music is accompanied by a superb book, featuring profiles of most of the major voices in American pre-rock style popular singing including jazz influenced singers, cabaret singers, singing actors/actresses, etc. The songs, including major works by composers like George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, are among the finest popular songs ever written and are represented by versions that emphasize their original melodies and lyrics. A partial list of the stellar featured artists includes the following: Louis Armstrong, Mildred Bailey, Tony Bennett, Connee Boswell, Rosemary Clooney, Nat “King” Cole, Barbra Cook, Bing Crosby, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Johnny Mathis, Carmen McRae, Mabel Mercer, Bobby Short, Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Kay Starr, Barbra Streisand, Sophie Tucker, Sarah Vaughan, and Ethel Waters.

 Other exemplary “classic” jazz/jazz-oriented voices: Lorez Alexandria, Ivie Anderson, Betty Carter, Jon Hendricks, Lambert Hendricks & Ross, Peggy Lee, Mabel Mercer, Mark Murphy, Anita O’Day, Ma Rainey, Annie Ross, Jimmy Rushing, Jimmy Scott, Bessie Smith, Dakota Staton, Ethel Waters, Joe Williams.

 Riffs, Beat& Codas readers stay tuned for Part 2: I look forward to sharing my country, R&B, pop and rock favorites in July!