Vocalese 2: King Pleasure and “Parker’s Mood”

For a definition of vocalese, see the previous post on Eddie Jefferson.

Before Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross joined forces to form Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, bringing vocalese to a wider audience, the most popular practitioner of the form was King Pleasure. King Pleasure? It might make a good name for a porn star, or perhaps a calypso singer, but a 1950s jazz singer? Well, he was born Clarence Beeks, and I suppose if your name is Clarence Beeks you might as well throw caution to the wind when choosing a stage name.

Pleasure scored a big hit in 1952 with a lyric to James Moody’s solo on “I’m in the Mood for Love,” titled “Moody’s Mood for Love” (It’s unclear if the lyric was written by Pleasure or Eddie Jefferson). Other successes included the song “Red Top,” with Betty Carter as second vocalist, and “Don’t Get Scared,” based on a Stan Getz recording.

Pleasure’s most profound—and eerie—lyric was for Charlie Parker’s song “Parker’s Mood.” Parker’s original recording was made in 1948, and the King Pleasure version was recorded in 1953. The song is a pensive, dirgelike blues, and Pleasure works with both the blues lexicon and the dirge quality of the original.

First, the original Parker recording:

Here’s the lyric:

Come with me,
If you want to go to Kansas City…

I’m feeling lowdown and blue,
My heart’s full of sorrow.
Don’t hardly know what to do.
Where will I be tomorrow?

Going to Kansas City.
Want to go too?
No, you can’t make it with me.
Going to Kansas City,
Sorry that I can’t take you.

When you see me coming,
Raise your window high.
When you see me leaving, baby,
Hang your head and cry.

I’m afraid there’s nothing in this cream, this dreamy town
A honky-tonky monkey-woman can do.
She’d only bring herself down.

So long everybody!
The time has come
And I must leave you
So if I don’t ever see your smiling face again:
Make a promise you’ll remember
Like a Christmas Day in December
That I told you
All through thick and thin
On up until the end
Parker’s been your friend.

Don’t hang your head
When you see, when you see those six pretty horses pulling me.
Put a twenty dollar silver-piece on my watchchain,
Look at the smile on my face,
And sing a little song
To let the world know I’m really free.
Don’t cry for me,
‘Cause I’m going to Kansas City.

Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City in 1920, and buried there in 1955. When Parker died just a little over a year after King Pleasure’s recording was released people started commenting on the prescience of his funereal imagery. Parker’s death made it that much more moving and chilling.

But before we meet our maker we go to Kansas City on our own two feet. In the opening choruses, Pleasure borrows heavily from the lyric of an earler blues, “Goin’ to Chicago,” by Count Basie, with vocals by Jimmy Rushing. Instead of “going to Chicago,” we get “going to Kansas City,” but Pleasure borrows the phrases “sorry that I can’t take you,” “when you see me coming, raise your window high,” “hang your head and cry,” and the infamous “monkey-woman” (often thought to be a drug reference, Wall Street Journal‘s Terry Teachout cites a book called Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary that defines the term as “an overly obliging or compliant female”).

Here’s the Basie recording:

But after taking us to Kansas City instead of Chicago, Pleasure takes another detour, “The Big Detour,” one might say, and starts singing about Bird’s funeral, his final homecoming. And it’s this passage that has really immortalized the song. “Sing a little song to let the world know I’m really free. Don’t cry for me,’cause I’m going to Kansas City.” This struck a chord with those who knew Parker, the tortured genius imprisoned by drugs.

And now for King Pleasure’s recording:

Eddie Jefferson, The Shakespeare of Vocalese

First of all, let me define vocalese for readers who may not be familiar with the term.

Vocalese is a form of jazz singing where lyrics are added to a previously recorded instrumental solo. The form was pretty much established in the 1950s* by singers like Jon Hendricks, King Pleasure, Annie Ross and Eddie Jefferson. The term was most likely coined by critic Ralph J. Gleason to describe the music of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Probably the two best known vocalese lyrics are “Moody’s Mood for Love,” which Eddie Jefferson wrote to a James Moody solo on “I’m in the Mood for Love,” and was a hit in 1952 for King Pleasure, and Annie Ross’s “Twisted,” based on an original by saxophonist Wardell Gray, and best known to many listeners from Joni Mitchell’s cover (“My analyst told me…”).

Having written vocalese myself, I have the utmost of respect for these pioneers. Writing a lyric to fit the meanderings and creative irregularities of a jazz solo is a difficult task, and much different from writing a lyric for a standard song form, which is, of course, much more regular. Vocalese is a stream-of-conciousness form, essentially. Or at least “stream of narrative.”

For me Eddie Jefferson is the greatest, and likely most prolific, of the vocalese writers, and his exuberant vocal style was a joy. I had the pleasure of seeing him several times in the 1970s at The Tin Palace, a New York jazz club, where he sang with saxophonist Richie Cole’s band. It’s often said that a great jazz solo is an instrumentalist telling a story, and Jefferson had a way of turning those solos into coherent and amusing verbal stories.  Among his most memorable lyrics are one for Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce” and his comic immaculate-conception twist on “Pennies from Heaven” which he called “Benny’s From Heaven.”

But “Moody’s Mood” aside (and, there is some dispute about whether Jefferson or Pleasure actually wrote that lyric), I think Jefferson’s masterpiece is his lyric for Charlie Parker’s solo on “Oh Lady Be Good,” from a live Jazz at the Philharmonic recording. Here’s that Parker solo, about a minute into the recording:

And now Jefferson’s lyric:

Here’s what Bird said…

I got in trouble fooling around with a pretty woman.
She said that she was alone,
And that I could come by her home.
She went out to lunch with me,
And a couple of times I took her out to see a movie or two,
And never ever thinkin’ that she would do that to me.
Every mornin’, yes, every evenin’,
I used to call her on the phone and tell her just how much I wanted her so,
And there is no mistake,
My heart would surely break if she should ever say goodbye.
My, why, I thought I’d die, [could] not survive without her sweet tenderness,
And her lovely caress, I’m a fool I confess.
I’m tellin’ you that she just left one evenin’,
Didn’t even say she’s leavin’,
I went by her house to take her to a dance and we were gonna have a steak
But when I knocked up on her door there wasn’t no answer.
Lord! In the mornin’ don’t you know
I’d never even thought that while I was standin’ round and waitin’ she was halfway out of town,
I figured maybe she had gone out to the store to get a couple of things she needed ’cause she knew I’d wait around,
I sat down on her steps and smoked a cigarette ’cause I just knew that she’d be back in plenty time.
The first thing I knew an hour then two and then three went by.
All my cigarettes were gone and I was wonderin’ to myself,
What in the world has happened?
When the lady from next door come up to me and said I know you’re the fella that’s been comin’ around
I don’t know how this is gonna sound
But Virginia’s out of town and she told me to tell you that she won’t be back ’cause she has gone off with her lover to get married.
Why in the world did she do it?
I could have did oh so much for her.
Oh well I guess there ain’t no use to thinkin’ ’bout it,
I got myself a new gal and she swear that she’s mine.

Girl, please be good to me…

(My transcription. Where I have “could” in brackets it sounds like Jefferson says either “if” or “did,” but I regularized it for sense.)

That’s pretty remarkable, I’d say. How long did it take him to write that, I wonder. He has skillfully shoehorned language into a challenging solo by one of the greatest of improvisers, and it all sounds perfectly natural. Bravo, Mr. Jefferson.

* While the form pretty much took off in the 1950s, there is an utterly fascinating outlier from 1929, the earliest example I’m aware of. It’s a setting of Bix Beiderbecke’s solo on “Singin’ the Blues,” by Ted Koehler, best known for his collaborations with Harold Arlen, many of them for the Cotton Club stage shows. This version is by Bix’s sidekick Frankie Trumbauer with vocalist Bee Palmer.

Thanks to the great vocalist and vocalese maven Giacomo Gates for some fact-checking help.

Even Ira Nods

A case can be made for Ira Gershwin as the perfect lyricist of the Great American Songbook, and by perfect I don’t mean best. What I mean is that his lyrics tend to have a great polish, unity and perfect marriage with a melody without really calling attention to themselves. He definitely has a recognizable style, but it’s a subdued one compared to say Lorenz Hart’s street-smart cleverness. For me his style is transparent and easy on the ears, like Christopher Isherwood’s prose. And for the most part, “The Man I Love” is one of his supreme achievements. But for me there’s also the blemish that doesn’t make the lady more beautiful. It’s the line “who would, would you?”

It scans and rhymes with “just meant for two,” but to me it’s lazy and not worthy of the rest of the lyric. Ira Gershwin, New York Jew, has written a great, universal American song of romantic yearning. There’s nothing ethnic about the language until we get to that sore thumb of a line, “who would, would you.” This, to me, sounds like a Yiddish-inflected New Yorkism, out of character with the rest of the song. It’s a phrase that suggests a hand gesture, two hands, and a shrug. Yet to even work with that aspect of the phrase the singer would have to pause between the two “woulds,” and the same pacing would not work with “just meant for two.” So when singers tackle it, it becomes an awkward “who would would you,” that is, no pause for the comma. I know Ira could have done better.

Someday he’ll come along, the man I love
And he’ll be big and strong, the man I love
And when he comes my way
I’ll do my best to make him stay

He’ll look at me and smile,
I’ll understand
And in a little while he’ll take my hand
And though it seems absurd
I know we both won’t say a word

Maybe I shall meet him Sunday
Maybe Monday, maybe not
Still I’m sure to meet him one day
Maybe Tuesday will be my good news day

He’ll build a little home, just meant for two
From which we’ll never roam; Who would, would you?
And so all else above I’m waiting for the man I love

Chris Smither’s Got No Love Today

Until 2001 Chris Smither was just a name to me. I knew vaguely that he was somehow connected with the folkie or singer-songwriter scenes. I decided to catch his set at the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle that year, and he blew me away, First of all, he’s a great fingerstyle guitarist. But he’s also a fantastic songwriter with great idiosyncratic lyrics. He has a wonderful sense of humor, delightful wordplay and true pathos. This song plays out its premise with a vengeance, playing off the call of a street produce vendor to make a leap to regret for love lost and ultimately self-awareness. “If hungry is what’s eating you I’ll sell you peace of mind”—pure brilliance. There’s so much packed into this lyric, yet it all moves along like a charm. This is a song where the verse is essential to set the scene. A great lyric, and there’s many more where it came from.

I don’t know much, when I knew less,
And I was heartbroke for the first time,
I was drowning in my tears,
I went looking for a lifeline,
Trying to find some comfort,
A simple tender touch,
Searching for some little cure
That would not cost too much,
And I could hear that produce wagon on the street,
I could hear that farmer singing,
As I cried myself to sleep

CHORUS
I got ba-na-na, watermelon, peaches by the pound,
Sweet corn, mirleton, mo’ better than in town,
I got okra, enough to choke ya,
Beans of every kind,
If hungry is what’s eatin’ you
I’ll sell you peace of mind,
But this ain’t what you came to hear me say,
And I hate to disappoint you,
But I got no love today,
I got no love today,
I got no love today,
No love today

I could not love to save myself
From lonesome desperation.
Everything I thought was love
Was worthless imitation.
My concept of commitment
Was to take all you could give,
I thought the cheapest thrills I loved
Were teachin’ me to live,
But nothin’ seemed to last or see me through
Nothin’ but that little song
That I still sing for you.

CHORUS

No love today, none tomorrow,
Not now, not forever.
You can’t see what comes for free,
I think you much too clever,
For your own good I will tell you
What’s right before your eyes,
Intelligence is no defense
Against what this implies,
In the end no one will sell you what you need,
You can’t buy it off the shelf,
You got to grow it from the seed,

CHORUS

Everything Happens to Me: Tom Adair and the Expandable Lyric

Matt Dennis (music) and Tom Adair (lyrics) were staff writers for the Tommy Dorsey orchestra, and many of their songs were introduced by Sinatra. Unlike most of the icons of the Great American Songbook, they didn’t write for the theater, so their songs didn’t grow out of (or get shoehorned into) story lines. Among their notable collaborations are “Let’s Get Away from It All,” “Will You Still Be Mine?” and “Violets for Your Furs.”

And “Everything Happens to Me,” which I’m just wild about. It’s a fun song, where the unlucky lover portrays himself (or herself) as an unlucky schlump in general. It’s basically a list of all the bad, but hardly catastrophic, things that befall the singer. And the wonderful thing about list songs, Porter’s “You’re the Top” perhaps being the supreme example, is that they’re infinitely expandable (just ask Chomsky). As a matter of fact, when I did a cabaret show in the late ’80s I called it “Everything Happens to Me” and wrote an additional chorus of lyrics, which I’ll share below.

Here’s the lyric that everybody sings:

I make a date for golf, and you can bet your life it rains.
I try to give a party, and the guy upstairs complains.
I guess I’ll go through life, just catching colds and missing trains.
Everything happens to me.

I never miss a thing. I’ve had the measles and the mumps.
And every time I play an ace, my partner always trumps.
I guess I’m just a fool, who never looks before he jumps.
Everything happens to me.

At first, my heart thought you could break this jinx for me.
That love would turn the trick to end despair.
But now I just can’t fool this head that thinks for me.
I’ve mortgaged all my castles in the air.

I’ve telegraphed and phoned and sent an air mail special too.
Your answer was goodbye and there was even postage due.
I fell in love just once, and then it had to be with you.
Everything happens to me.

Here’s a version by Rosemary Clooney, who could always be trusted with the care of a lyric.

When Sinatra sang it he opened with the brief verse:

Black cats creep across my path
Until Im almost mad
I must have roused the devils wrath
’cause all my luck is bad

Billie Holiday also sang the verse. And like many singers from the ’50s onward, she replaced “missing trains” with “missing planes,” which isn’t a bad idea.

And then there are the additional choruses. Here’s a version by the composer, who also had a performing career as a singer-pianist. He does a playful additional chorus that certainly doesn’t stand the test of time. I don’t know if Adair is responsible for the additional lyric.

Finally, my own contribution.

I join a new religion and the preacher starts to sin,
I throw away my turtlenecks, next thing I know they’re in,
I’m always playing solitaire and still I never win,
Everything happens to me.

I buy a famous painting and discover it’s a fake,
I move to San Francisco and they have another quake,
So far a pair of broken arms has been my only break,
Everything happens to me.

When first we met I looked to you imploringly
To put an end to my unlucky streak,
But you have no intention of adoring me,
Now once again my future’s looking bleak.

I sent a dozen roses in a last attempt to woo,
You said they made you sneeze and then you told me we were through,
I fell in love just once and then it had to be with you,
Everything happens to me.

Miss Peggy Lyricist

Of course I knew Peggy Lee as a singer since childhood. And I also knew some of the songs she wrote lyrics for, as recorded by her and others. But until recently I didn’t know that she had written those words.

We had Peggy Lee albums in the house when I was a kid. I remember especially “Live at Basin Street East.” She was on TV a lot in the sixties, and when I was an adolescent she had a surprise hit with “Is That All There Is?,” an uncharacteristic product of the pens of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. I remember an older Peggy, with bleached blonde hair, and lots of makeup, standing stock still, singing that maudlin song. I don’t know, is maudlin the word? I found her look rather ghoulish as she sang it, kind of like a lobotomized Baby Jane Hudson. At any rate, I won’t be posting that song here anytime soon. Maybe when I post Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were The Days”—that is, when hell freezes over. (Though, in defense of the melody of “Those Were the Days,” it started out as a maudlin Russian song, with English lyrics added by Gene Raskin, who I hope was a better architecture critic than lyricist.)

But back to Peggy Lee. She got her start as a big band singer with Benny Goodman. She met her husband, Dave Barbour, a guitarist, in the Goodman band, and the went on to collaborate on a number of songs, some of them really good. The Lee-Barbour collaborations have found favor among jazz singers. “I Love Being Here with You,” has been recorded by a number of singers, and in live performance it’s often done at the top or end of a set as a tribute to the audience. “It’s a Good Day” is not to my liking. It’s a kind of exuberant revival meeting song, and to my ears it’s as corny as “Jubilation T. Cornpone.”

My favorite of the Lee lyrics is “I Don’t Know Enough About You.”

I know a little bit about a lot of things,
But I don’t know enough about you.
Just when I think you’re mine,
You try a different line,
And baby, what can I do?

I read the latest news,
No buttons on my shoes,
But baby, I’m confused about you.
You get me in a spin,
Oh what a stew I’m in,
‘Cause I don’t know enough about you.

Jack of all trades, master of none,
And isn’t it a shame,
I’m so sure that you’d be good for me,
If you’d only play my game!

You know I went to school,
And I’m nobody’s fool,
That is to say until I met you!
I know a little bit about a lot o’ things,
But I don’t know enough about you.

It establishes its conceit right at the start and plays it out nicely. She uses the cliche “jack of all trades, master of none,” but we all know that the pop song is where cliches go to make a new start. Maybe not an earth-shattering lyric, but a good one that’s like smooth vodka to a singer, and one that works just right with Barbour’s melody. The only line that gives me pause is “no buttons on my shoes.” I’m guessing that when the song was written that was a way of saying “I’m up to date,” but I can’t imagine it can still convey that.

Below is a clip of Peggy and Judy Garland dishing and singing a duet on “I Love Being Here with You,” which I mentioned above.