I’ve written many times about songbirds – not the feathered variety but the ladies who sang during the big band era — and how some of them went on to become solo stars and even movie icons. But I also enjoy writing about someone like Jane Harvey, who didn’t quite reach superstar status but still had a nice career, working with pros like Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington on her way to becoming a successful recording artist. And even though she took some time off for her family, in her later years she again entertained her fans, performing well into her eighties.
A Jersey City native whose birth name was Phyllis Taff, she took the name Jane Harvey when she began her professional career during World War II. Still just a teen, she was appearing in a Greenwich Village nightspot when she was discovered by legendary jazz impresario John Hammond. That led to a job singing with Benny Goodman’s band and making a number of good records with the group. Over the next few years she blossomed as a headliner in clubs in both New York and Los Angeles, where she also began an association with Desi Arnaz’s Orchestra.
For the next couple of decades Harvey enjoyed a lot of career success, not only as a recording artist but also by appearing on radio and TV and even making her Broadway debut. She also worked with Duke Ellington and others, becoming a much-respected jazz professional and generating a number of solid albums, although her decision to take some family time off during those years might have slowed her career momentum. But she continued to work as much as possible through the years and found renewed success in the late 1980s with her Other Side of Sondheim album. The following two decades would see her again become a favorite of knowledgeable fans, and she kept entertaining them almost up until her death at age 88 in 2013.
Jane Harvey w/ Benny Goodman – “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me”
I’ve written a lot of posts about various Songbirds — the ladies who got their start by singing with the big bands — and even though many of them went through bad times, most managed to persevere and have a nice career. However, that wasn’t always the case. Ann Richards seemed to have everything going for her, including talent, beauty, and even marriage to a famous bandleader, but she came to a tragic end when she took her own life in 1982.
A native of San Diego, Margaret Ann Borden pointed toward a musical career while growing up, studying singing and even teaching herself to play the piano. By the time she was in her late teens she was calling herself Ann Richards, and was looking for professional opportunities in the West Coast jazz world of the early 1950s.
Although the age of the big bands was winding down by then, several good outfits were riding out the transition to a newer style of music. After spending some time learning the ropes with Charlie Barnet’s group she moved on in 1955 to a job with Stan Kenton, who was then in the midst of a long career as a bandleader, one that would see many ups and down. Kenton was much taken with the gorgeous and talented young singer, featuring her front and center in concert and on records. Before long he even married her in spite of their nearly 25-year age difference.
The rest of the decade went well — the couple even had two children along the way — but the 1960s brought a lot of change. It started in 1961, with the duo sharing the cover of a new album, Two Much!, but later the same year they split up. Details are fuzzy, but the timing seemed to match her decision to appear in Playboy magazine. Hoping for a boost to her solo singing career, she instead found herself in the midst of a scandal. Even though the pictures were tame by today’s standards, at that time it was unusual for a celebrity — even a minor one — to pose in Playboy, and it seemed to begin a downward spiral for the singer. Although she made a few more records and continued to make occasional club appearances in later years, she never really recovered her equilibrium and finally committed suicide at just age 46.
Ann Richards – “An Occasional Man”
In October of 1942, Billboard magazine — which had been tracking best-selling records since 1936 — added a new chart to its listings, one that it called the Harlem Hit Parade. (It would eventually be renamed the R&B chart.) The very first #1 record on the newly-created chart was “Take It and Git” by Andy Kirk and and His Clouds of Joy.
Andrew Dewey Kirk was born near Cincinnati (across the river in Kentucky) but raised in Denver, a city with a rich tradition in musical education under the long-time guidance of Paul Whiteman’s father. By the time Kirk was in his late teens he’d learned tuba and saxophone well enough to play in a local group, and within a few years had relocated to Dallas and joined a more renowned band, one that called itself Terrence Holder’s Dark Clouds of Joy.
By then it was the mid-1920s and the era of hot jazz was really getting underway, but the band didn’t do as well as some and by late in the decade the guys were ready for a change. Holder was kicked to the curb and Kirk was elected the new leader of the group, now based in Kansas City, and it was renamed Twelve Clouds of Joy. (The ‘Twelve’ would later be dropped.)
Although Kirk was just an average instrumentalist himself, he had some talented musicians on board — including future legend Mary Lou Williams playing piano and doing arrangements — and the band did very well for a couple of years, generating several good-selling records along the way. Things did slow down in the early 1930s but the group relocated to New York and rebounded in 1936 with a pop hit on “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” featuring inventive vocalist Pha Terrell.
The band continued to do well for the next decade, with a lot of solid records in addition to its 1942 chart-topper, and at one time or another employed some of the best musicians around. In addition to Williams (and her husband, John, who played sax), alumni included Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Don Byas, Buddy Tate, and many others. But by the late 1940s Kirk was ready to slow down a little, and he dissolved the band and for the most part devoted himself to business concerns from then on. He did serve as a musician’s union official for a while, and later made an attempt at a comeback, but not too much came of it. He was 94 when he died in 1992.
Andy Kirk And His Clouds Of Joy – “Until the Real Thing Comes Along”
Andy Kirk And His Clouds Of Joy – “Take It and Git”
(Video removed at source.)