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
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
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:
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
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
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
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!
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.]