Maxine Sullivan – Swingin’ To Loch Lomond   2 comments

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.

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2 responses to “Maxine Sullivan – Swingin’ To Loch Lomond

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  1. What a wonderful holiday treat! I well remember that series of traditional tunes done up in Big Band style, but never knew who did them, nor even that it was the same singer and band. Thanks for filling a hole in my education. And that video is a hoot. Of course, the elephant in the room here is segregation, and the ridiculous fact that white audiences never saw it–in fact in some cases were legally forbidden to.

  2. Thanks, Ralph. And I know what you mean about the segregation aspect — the same occurred to me. It’s a recurrent theme that I’ve mentioned in previous posts, notably in Remembering the Music of the Cotton Club.

    If it’s not too self-important of me, I’ll quote from that post:

    It was a popular Harlem night club that featured black performers but was restricted to an all-white clientele, which might seem to be a paradox but was a product of the casual racism of the time. The decor, the costumes – even the name Cotton Club – reflected an attitude that’s disquieting to us now, but was considered perfectly acceptable in the 1920s and 1930s. Even the decoration — a jungle motif — was in keeping with the feeling that early jazz, especially that performed by black musicians, was “jungle music”. The club also dictated the look of the scantily-clad girls in the chorus, who were required to meet certain qualifications; they had to be tall, attractive, and under 21, but most important, light-skinned — in the slang of the era, a “tan”.

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