Julie-AM220

IN THE 1950s, each new Julie London album was awaited eagerly, and not just for her singing. There on the covers was the B-movie beauty – she of the tumbling honey-blonde hair and come-hither blue eyes – posed in varying states of deshabille. The gatefold jacket of Calendar Girl showed her in a series of pinup-style cheesecake photos, one for every month. On the front of Julie she wore a babydoll nightie and sat upside-down in a lounge chair, one leg pointed upward as she stared out invitingly.

The sound on the vinyl was the perfect counterpart to those pictures: a smoky-sweet bedroom purr, so short-breathed that every phrase sounded like a coital murmur of love. “A small voice makes a big stir,” said a 1957
Life cover story about the singer.

It all started with “Cry Me a River,” her top-ten hit of 1955, recorded with a barebones duo of guitar and bass. Through 1969, the former Julie Peck of Santa Rosa, California would make about thirty albums for Liberty. Only later would she be acknowledged widely as a talented pop-jazz singer with faultless intonation and relaxed, swinging time.
Those assets are evident on Around Midnight (1960), one of her many sink-into-a-cloud make-out discs. Amid the billowing strings and angelic background voices, a fine big band sometimes emerges, and it’s then that we hear London’s jazzier side. The arranger, Dick Reynolds, is best known for his work with the Four Freshmen and the Beach Boys. He rolls out the feather comforter for London as she confides a number of forlorn jazz standards: ‘Round Midnight, Lush Life, Don’t Smoke in Bed.

She had little to say about her singing, and most of it was apologetic: “I have to use a microphone … very close to the microphone. I’ve never learned how to breathe properly. I always run out of breath during a song; then I gasp in the wrong places … And if the mike’s close it accentuates everything, including that breathy quality.”

Offstage, the winsome sex kitten was a tough dame: foul-mouthed, hard-drinking and smoking, and by her own admission quite unambitious, perhaps due to fear. London had started to sing mainly because of her second husband, songwriter Bobby Troup. They met in 1953, shortly after London’s divorce from Jack Webb, the star of
Dragnet. Troup had heard a half-tanked London singing at a party, and he kept prodding her to try it professionally. To her distress, he booked her at a Hollywood cabaret, the 881 Club. London recalled hiding in the bathroom before the first show.

Then came “Cry Me a River,” and there was no turning back. She had to be tipsy or high on pot to get an LP done; “terrified of the camera,” she lip-synched to her records on TV. In most of her films,
one sees a beautiful but glazed creature. The exception is The Great Man, in which she plays a drunken, washed-up band singer; London admitted she wasn’t entirely acting.

Albums remained her best showcase. In
Around Midnight she’s the inexplicably spurned girl, nestled in bed with just her cocktail and cigarettes to keep her company. Touches of jazz bring up the energy. Troup’s Lonely Night in Paris finds her singing in solid time with a walking bass; in Black Coffee, a crying alto sax highlights her tale of woe.

London kept singing until the early ‘70s, when she began a five-season run as Dixie McCall, a nurse who looked good but said little, in the TV series
Emergency! She died in 2000, but her records survive her; in the canon of boudoir soundtrack music, they’re hard to beat.

-- James Gavin, New York City, 2006

[James Gavin, the author of
Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, is writing a biography of Lena Horne.]