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: