Tag Archives: Ralph Burns

MY SEARCH FOR PAT KIRBY

My search for the singer Pat Kirby — an extraordinary artist — began last Monday, June 12, with a trip to the thrift store closest to my college, as I described here.  I’d amassed nearly thirty dollars of records, and the long-playing one by a singer I’d never heard of before caught my eye because of the cover photo, the Decca label (Decca in that period tended to be more rewarding than some lesser labels), the repertoire, and the identification that the orchestra was directed by Ralph Burns.

That the disc was also $1.49 minus the Monday 25% discount was also encouraging, and I thought there might be excellent musicians accompanying Miss Kirby.  I should point out that I had never heard a note of her singing, nor had I been of an age to see her perform on television.

And, having just come from teaching a class of mostly uninspired students, it is likely that the cover picture of Miss Kirby, sweet pedagogue, caught my eye.  I would have bet that her students were paying attention.  It might be silly to have an instant crush on a portrait of someone c. 1956, but I make no more apologies for myself than that.

Good songs, as well.

Before Monday evening, I had played the album four times, had spent a good deal of time searching for Miss Kirby, and had emailed several friends who are professional singers to say, “You have to listen to her.”  Rebecca Kilgore listened and approved: I knew I was on the right track.

At this point I invite readers to do just that. I confess that I had put the needle down on the first track hoping for a pleasing, competent singer but really searching for surprises from unannounced jazz stars.  They may well be there, but Miss Kirby took my attention wholly.

I hear a controlled passion, a lovely dramatic sense.  She understands the words, offers them with diction that is both natural and impressive.  Some passages of lyrics that I had never fully understood are clear for the first time.  Her rhythmic sense is splendid . . . and although she has a splendid vocal instrument, her voice is never the main subject.  It’s the song.  She’s not imitating anyone (although she reminds me ever so delicately of Teddi King) and her approach seems so unaffected but, as any singer would tell you, she is no amateur.  I hear a tender tremulous vibrato, full of emotion but Miss Kirby is in complete control, never over-dramatic.  Yet she can be almost saucy on DOWN WITH LOVE, which rises to a near-shout; however, her LOVER MAN is a young woman’s sweet series of wishes.  Her IN LOVE IN VAIN — backed only by a guitarist who might be Barry Galbraith and a string bassist — is beyond memorable.

I don’t know whether she or Burns or perhaps Milt Gabler chose the songs, but Miss Kirby shows tremendous courage in singing LOVER MAN with the potent shade of Billie hovering.  She manages to make me hear her on I FALL IN LOVE TOO EASILY, making that song her own, not Mr. Sinatra’s.

I will put my adoration down for several paragraphs and offer a story, by John Fink, from the September 15, 1956 Chicago Tribune “TV Week” — full of attractive photographs of a dark-haired, pretty young woman, sipping soda through a straw, singing in front of an overhead microphone, demurely wearing a narrow-striped top. The story’s headline, in lower-case turquoise, is “once too shy to stand up and sing!”  I know the enthusiastic prose that one finds in weekly television guides, but at least Mr. Fink had offered a few facts.

Philadelphia has always been home base for Pat Kirby.  The songstress of the Tonight program, seen week days at 11 p. m. on Channel 5, started life there as Patricia Querubin, and did her first vocalizing with a high school band.  Too shy to stand up and sing, she sat at her piano at the rear of the stage.

Two years ago, after a shot at local radio, Pat was tapped for an Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts appearance.  She won, then retired to Philadelphia to consider a Hollywood offer.  But Hollywood, she decided, was too far from home.

By that time Steve Allen had signed her up for guest appearances on Tonight, and she was staying in a Manhattan convent, returning to Philly on week-ends to be with her parents and three brothers.  She was signed as a regular on the program, and had begun to make records.  She knew she had really arrived when they asked her to make an album called “Pat Kirby Sings.”

The singer with the jet black hair and flashing black eyes stands 5 feet, 6 1/2 inches tall and weighs a tidy 125 pounds.  Her father, a merchant mariner, is of Spanish descent; her mother comes of Irish stock.

Pat chooses her songs for the feeling in the lyrics and leans towards “standards” by Gershwin and Arlen and Rodgers and Hart.  “If the words don’t mean anything,” she says, “why bother pronouncing them.  You might just as well sing vowels.”

But her long range goal was to get married.  She was all of 20, and she had made up her mind.  Pat accomplished that last June.  The lucky fellow?  A boy back home in Philadelphia, of course.

For the moment, we can ignore all the stereotypes and sexism of 1956.

Here are the (uncredited) notes on the back of the Decca album:

Decca’s newest recording artist, Pat Kirby, is one of the most talented as well as the most attractive newcomers in show business. She appears several times a week over NBC Television, and hardboiled critics as well as enthusiastic watchers of Steve Allen’s “Tonight” show are already predicting that she will soon be one of the nation’s top-flight stars.

Born twenty-one years ago in Philadelphia, where she was raised, Pat Kirby comes from Irish and Spanish forbears — her real last name is Querubin.  She was educated at St. Francis Xavier Grammar School and John W. Hallahan Catholic High School, and it was at the latter institution that Pat began to display her musical versatility.  In the school band she played the tympani, drums, piano, organ, and celeste — there seemed to be no instrument she could not master. There was only one thing that did not seem to interest her, and that was singing.  A vocal career was the last thing on her mind; her ambition was to play the drums in an all-girl orchestra.  It was only after she graduated that she took up singing because she thought the ability to sing might help her in show business.

Pat’s professional career began when she was offered occasional piano and singing jobs with small bands in and around Philadelphia.  She forsook the piano — reluctantly — when Buddy Williams engaged her as vocalist for his orchestra.  It was not long before she was featured with the band in such coveted showcases as the Bellevue-Stratford and Benjamin Franklin Hotels in Philadelphia, the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, and many other top spots.  A little more than a year ago, Pat began doing a “single.”  In November 1954, she gained national recognition by winning the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Program,  She also appeared for twenty weeks on “Get Happy,” a show emanating from Philadelphia’s WCAU-TV, in which Pat was given a chance to act and ad-lib as well as sing.

This album furnishes proof that Pat Kirby has arrived.  The songs she sings are among America’s favorites, and she renders them all with a delicate and sure touch.  The songs themselves have a central theme.  Whether the numbers are Ballads, Rhythm Tunes, or Torch Songs, all of them answer the question posed in the title, “What Us This Thing Called Love?”  The arrangements for the numbers are unusually lush in scoring, and their enriched instrumentations furnish a worthy background for Pat Kirby’s voice. 

In writing this post, I have spent a good deal of energy chasing invisible cyber-rabbits.  I found out that after Miss Kirby had made this recording, she “abruptly retired,” although I saw mentions of her singing on the Merv Griffin Show c. 1960-62.  Did she retire as soon as she became pregnant?  Did she choose, a good Catholic, to forsake the bright lights for happy domesticity?  Did she miss performing? (Did Someone hasten her flight by behaving inappropriately to her? She was, as we say, both very attractive and very young.)  Decca, incidentally, seems to have had her record some pop singles, including the paper-thin TAMMY (circa 1957), and this Frank Loesser rarity, which might have had merit. And then, nothing.

I found out that Buddy Williams played drums and apparently had played them for Miller and one of the Dorseys.  Of course, no recordings from the period are listed in Tom Lord’s online discography, and there is no entry for Miss Kirby.  Or Miss Querubin.

There is a single by “Pat Kirby” of the theme from the motion picture SAYONARA, but it does not sound like the same singer.  There is no YouTube video of her, although there is televised evidence in the Paley Center (more about that shortly).  Facebook bristles with authorities, some quite incorrect and vehement about it, but no one responded to my request for information — from a group devoted to the dark corners of popular culture.  And I have little success with family-ancestry sites: her parents may have been Robert and Helen Querubin; her married name might have been Burgoyne.  Given that she was born in 1935 or so, I doubt that she will write to me to say, “Young man, you have gotten the facts of my life all wrong.”

However, I have a frustratingly lively lead that might lead nowhere: a Google search for Pat Kirby led me to the Paley Museum, which has two kinescopes of the Steve Allen show: on one she sings THE BOY NEXT DOOR, the other I’M GLAD THERE IS YOU.  And . . . on Trip Advisor, of all places, Liz M. from Philadelphia visited the Paley Museum and wrote this comment:

I visited here to see a video of my mom on the Steve Allen show from 60 years ago. She was young singer Pat Kirby who sang regularly with Andy Williams. They had 2 episodes.  It is so wild to see your mother in action years before you were born. My friend had never been there before and can’t wait to go back for special events.

I find that very touching, and Trip Advisor has a space to “ask Liz M. a question,” which I did.  Keep your fingers crossed.

Pat Kirby, who obviously wanted privacy after her brief intense turn in the spotlight, might have planned it all this way.  A short bolt of fame, of public visibility, might have been all she could tolerate or all she wanted.  William Faulkner said of fame that his ideal would have been to have written his books without his name on the title page — to do the work and remain anonymous.  Pat Kirby leaves us under an hour of musical evidence of the finest kind imaginable, and then she made her exit.  Thank goodness we have the records, because who would believe this tale otherwise?

I’d love to know more, if only to honor one of the finest — and least heralded — singers I’ve ever heard.

P.S.  (“This just in!”) Music scholar Bob Moke told me on Facebook that Pat is the speaking voice in the middle of this famous record.  The singing voice at the start is Lois Winters — all confirmed by one of the Lads.  Any snippet of Miss Kirby is greatly appreciated:

May your happiness increase!

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TRAVELS WITH MOLLY: “LET’S FLY AWAY”

Molly Ryan by Don Spiro

Molly Ryan by Don Spiro

I’ve been admiring Molly Ryan’s singing — and her instrumental bandmates — for almost a decade now.  Her latest CD, her third, LET’S FLY AWAY, is a beautifully elaborate production, consistently aloft.

Molly Ryan CD cover

Here are the details.  The CD features a theme (hooray!) — the delights of travel, with some ingenious choices of repertoire:  WANDERER / BEYOND THE BLUE HORIZON / FAR AWAY PLACES / LET’S FLY AWAY / FLYING DOWN TO RIO / A RAINY NIGHT IN RIO / SOUTH SEA ISLAND MAGIC / THE GYPSY IN MY SOUL / THE ROAD TO MOROCCO / UNDER PARIS SKIES / TRAV’LIN’ ALL ALONE / IT’S NICE TO GO TRAV’LIN’ / ANYWHERE I WANDER . . .

and alongside Molly (vocal and guitar) some of the finest jazz players on the planet:  Bria Skonberg, Randy Reinhart, Dan Barrett, Dan Levinson, Adrien Chevalier, John Reynolds, Joel Forbes, Mike Weatherly, Mark Shane, Dick Hyman, Kevin Dorn, Scott Kettner, Raphael McGregor, with arrangements by the two Dans, Levinson and Barrett.

When I first heard Molly — we were all much younger — I was immediately charmed by her voice, which in its youthful warmth and tenderness summoned up the beautiful Helen Ward.  But Molly, then and now, does more than imitate. She has a gorgeous sound but she also knows a good deal about unaffected swing, and in the years she’s been singing, her lyrical deftness has increased, and without dramatizing, she has become a fine singing actress, giving each song its proper emotional context.  She can be a blazing trumpet (evidence below) or a wistful yearner, on the edge of tears, or someone tart and wry.

The band, as you’d expect, is full of great soloists — everyone gets a taste, as they deserve, and I won’t spoil the surprises.  But what’s most notable is the care given to the arrangements.  Many CDs sound as if the fellows and gals are on a live club date — “Whaddaya want to play next, Marty?” “I don’t know.  How about X?” and those informal sessions often produce unbuttoned memorable sounds.  But a production like LET’S FLY AWAY is a happy throwback to the glory days of long-playing records of the Fifties and Sixties, where a singer — Teddi King, Lena Horne, Doris Day, Carmen McRae — was taken very good care of by Neal Hefti or Frank DeVol or Ralph Burns, creating a musical tapestry of rich sensations.

Now, below on this very same page, you can visit the page where LET’S FLY AWAY is for sale, and hear samples.  But Molly and friends have cooked up something far more hilariously gratifying — a short film with an oddly off-center plot, dancers, visual effects, hard to describe but a pleasure to experience:

Yes, it does make me think of Mildred Bailey’s WEEK-END OF A PRIVATE SECRETARY, but perhaps that association is my own personal problem.

And tomorrow — yes, tomorrow, Thursday, September 3, at 9:30 PM — Molly and friends are having a CD release show at Joe’s Pub, with Dan Levinson, Mike Davis, Vincent Gardner, Dalton Ridenhour, Brandi Disterheft, Kevin Dorn.  You may purchase tickets (they’re quite inexpensive) here.  Details about the show here, and Molly’s Facebook page.

Purchase a digital download of the CD (with two hidden tracks) OR the physical disc itself (with twenty pages of liner notes and wonderful art / photographs) OR hear sound samples here.

Airborne, delightful swing.  Why not FLY AWAY?  Let’s.

May your happiness increase!

RED NORVO’S SPOTLIGHT BAND on FILM

The distinguished jazz film scholar Mark Cantor offers another cinematic mystery:

“In Back Beats and Rim Shots, Warren Vache and Johnny Blowers discuss a band put together by Red Norvo, under the sponsorship of Coca Cola, for an overseas tour during World War II.  The tour never happened, but before the band broke up a film  — called THE VICTORY PARADE OF SPOTLIGHT BANDS — was made of (in Johnny’s words) “the show.”  At least one performance from this film is known to me, and I have pulled a small set of pictures of the band from this film.  Coverage is not great, and the guys are somewhat disguised by the costume hats they are wearing.  I do see Eddie Condon on rhythm guitar, and Flip Phillips is one of the saxophonists. From what Johnny said, both in an interview and in his book, Dale Pearce and Dick Taylor should be in the brass section, but you don’t get close enough to really see most of these players clearly. There are five reeds in the band, and I am almost certain that Flip Phillips is to the far right.  Hymie Schertzer and Aaron Sachs are supposedly in the section, but I am not sure where.  The rhythm section is quite possibly Ralph Burns, Eddie Condon (for certain), probably Clyde Lombardi and Johnny Blowers (again, a certainty).

Please let me know what your readers think.”

The hats, oh, those hats.  Eddie Condon looks as if he is beginning a long prison term.  

I would love to hear the soundtrack.  

I’d also like to know whatever possessed the film director to dress everyone up — although it is indeed possible that they wore period clothing as part of their “show.”

A postscript.  Eddie Condon loathed big bands and was not shy about saying so.  Phyllis Smith Condon, his wife, was a copywriter for the D’Arcy agency — and she was in charge of the Coca-Cola account.  During the war, she, Eddie, and Ernie Anderson tried to market jazz to the servicemen and women under the beverage’s sponsorship — one project that never quite materialized resulted in a late-1942 recoding session for Condonites and famous friends.  But Eddie still looks miserable under his hat.