A while back I wrote about bandleader Claude Thornhill, who is unfortunately less remembered than many of his contemporaries from that era, but was nevertheless a very important part of jazz history. He was an outstanding instrumentalist, composer, and arranger, but in addition to all that he was a shrewd judge of musical talent — the kind possessed by singer Maxine Sullivan.
She was born near Pittsburgh as Marietta Williams, but took her stage name as she grew to adulthood and began working her way into a musical career. By the late 1930s she’d managed to land a job at the Onyx Club in New York — singing during the intermissions between the acts of better-known performers. But one day Claude Thornhill happened to catch her brief singing spot, and it was the pivotal moment of her career.
Although Thornhill was well-established by then, he was still building his own career, and matching up with Maxine turned out to be a good move for both of them. Her sweet and melodious singing, backed by a talented group of musicians led by Thornhill, made for an appealing sound and they soon hit the recording studio. They began by cutting records of some established jazz standards, but it was a couple of jazzed-up Scottish folk tunes that ended up making the biggest impression on the record-buying public. “Annie Laurie” did very well, but “Loch Lomond” was a huge hit and became Maxine’s signature song.
Over the next few years, Maxine continued to record a lot of updated traditional songs like “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” and “I Dream of Jeannie,” but none approached the popularity of her previous hits. Still, she was a busy and successful entertainer and often appeared backed by the combo led by her then-husband, bassist John Kirby. Some of her best songs from that period include “Easy To Love,” Harlem Butterfly,” and “Blue Skies”.
Although Maxine would never reach super-stardom, she was a favorite of many fans and spent the rest of her life as one of the most respected songbirds around. She continued to make well-received appearances from time to time, singing with jazz groups led by established stars like Scott Hamilton, right up until her death in 1987. The last song she sang in public was “Loch Lomond,” her signature piece.