Julie London:

The Allure of Heartache

 
 

I was planning to write about John Coltrane this week, on the 75th anniversary of his birth. He was one of the five or six most important jazz musicians ever, a fiercely brilliant saxophone innovator whose influence still blazes brightly, 34 years after his death. He brought a transcendent intensity to his music, a blend of strength and spirit that has seldom been matched. And, besides, he made my favorite album of all time, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman.

But when I looked at the calendar, I noticed another 75th birthday this week that I doubt anyone else will observe. I respect, admire and appreciate John Coltrane as much as anyone. But I love Julie London.

It's not likely that many people under 50 even know her name. She acted in 22 films and starred in a prime-time hospital drama in the 1970s, but I've never seen her movies or a single episode of Emergency, her TV show.

The Julie London I cherish is the singer who smoldered through the 1950s and `60s with a crushed-velvet voice, a languid sex-kitten hauteur and a broken heart that never seemed to heal. If she's remembered at all, it's for her first and only hit, Cry Me a River, which topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1956 and sold 3 million copies. She recorded 32 albums in a 12-year period, but after her record label went out of business in the late 1960s she never sang in public again.

There were any number of singers in the `50s who combined talent with glamour-girl looks Peggy Lee, Jeri Southern, Jo Stafford, Chris Connor, June Christy. But no one came close to Julie in pure sex appeal. She had long, luxuriant hair, legs that wouldn't stop, pale blue eyes and a figure-eight shape. She adopted all sorts of provocative poses for album covers and publicity stills. On one album, Calendar Girl from 1956, she appears in 12 cheesecake outfits. When you open the album, the "Thirteenth Month" unfolds, revealing a nearly nude Julie on satin sheets, wearing only a carefully placed white fur shawl, as she gives the camera an unsmiling bad-girl gaze.

There's a certain campy appeal to all of this, and it's easy to see how she fits into the retro-cool, tongue-in-cheek lounge scene. But if all you're interested in is camp or ironic leopard-print hipness, you're missing the point. Stop looking at the pictures-if you can-and listen to the music.

Julie London, I'm telling you, is a great singer. I'm serious. There is nothing faux about her.

It's hard to think of any singer of classic jazz-inflected pop music who has been more neglected or more underrated. From a technical standpoint London couldn't come close to what Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan or Lee and Southern could do. But she knew her vocal limits and worked within them, creating a compelling and memorable body of work (no pun intended) that sounds better with each passing year.

She was born in California on Sept. 26, 1926, and grew up as Julie Peck. She was the daughter of vaudeville performers and first sang on radio when she was 3. After dropping out of high school at 15, she found a job as an elevator operator in a Hollywood department store. In a classic story of discovery, a talent agent riding on her elevator arranged a screen test for the teenaged Julie. She made her first film in 1944, was a favorite World War II pinup and worked as a singer before withdrawing from show business in 1947, when she married actor Jack Webb and began to raise their two children.

A year after she divorced Webb in 1953, she met pianist and songwriter Bobby Troup, the composer of Route 66. Hearing her sing at a party, the smitten Troup was convinced she could be a star. By the end of 1955, she had recorded her first album, Julie Is Her Name, accompanied only by Barney Kessel's guitar and Ray Leatherwood's bass. Every major label passed on the album before it was accepted by Liberty, a small company that London stayed with for the rest of her career.

The first song on the album was Cry Me a River. Besides being the only hit song with the word "plebeian" in its lyrics, it defined London's characteristic style. By singing close to the microphone, she created a whispering sense of intimacy that made you feel she was confiding to you alone.

She had the kind of voice that doesn't wake up until the sun goes down. She could be coy and insinuating her Makin' Whoopee is practically an invitation to do so-or overtly frank. She closed a torch song called Nice Girls Don't Stay for Breakfast by purring, half under her breath, "Pass the jam." She once recorded the Mickey Mouse theme, and I swear she made it sound sexy.

Yet there's a vulnerable quality too, as if she felt a deep, private pain that had never gone away. In her unhurried At Long Last Love, recorded in 1965, we hear the poignant uncertainty in her voice. The message of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's Wives and Lovers may be socially retrograde now, but if Julie's woman-of-the-world version doesn't get to you, then you don't have a touch of romance in your soul.

Julie London took her singing seriously. She was understated, always in tune and never exaggerated a single note. If she wasn't a jazz singer in the sense that Ella and Sarah were, she knew the landscape. She recorded songs by Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock and made a brilliant album of Cole Porter songs with the Bud Shank Quintet. She rarely sang at full voice or at a fast tempo, yet no matter how soft or deliberate the pace, you're never bored when Julie London sings. It's the same approach that has made Shirley Horn one of the most celebrated jazz singers of our time. It's part of what makes Diana Krall who sings Cry Me a River on her new album-the biggest star in jazz today.

After the success of Cry Me a River, London was suddenly in demand. She sang in nightclubs, made frequent albums and co-starred in movies with Gary Cooper, Rock Hudson and Robert Mitchum. On New Year's Eve 1959 she married Troup, and they had three children together. In 1967 she recorded the album she considered her finest, Easy Does It, but her record company folded, and she never went into the studio again. She was only 41.

In 1972 her first husband, Jack Webb, invited both London and Troup to star in a new television series called Emergency. She played a nurse, Dixie McCall, and Troup was Dr. Joe Early on the popular show, which ran through 1977. When Emergency left the air, London quietly left show business for good.

For years, I kept hoping she would make a comeback because her style of singing, and her throaty, deep-toned voice, only improves with age. She emerged from retirement just once, to sing My Funny Valentine on the soundtrack of Sharky's Machine in 1981. She stayed at home with her children, working crossword puzzles and reading books-as many as three a day, by some reports.

By the time Troup died in 1999, London's own health had begun to fail as the result of a stroke in 1995. On Oct. 18 last year, Julie London died at the age of 74. A lot of people didn't even know she was still alive.

Yet her songs are still with us, and so is that disarmingly tear-stained voice, ever haunting, ever alluring, forever Julie.

South Florida Sun-Sentinal

Ft. Lauderdale - September 26, 2001

By Matt Schudel