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Singer Johnny Janis -- at best a great one

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Posted

Here's a longish post I made on the Songbirds list last night. A fairly full account of Johnny Janis's life can be found at his website:

http://www.starwellmusic.com/index.html

along with ways to order his recordings. I would say that a great many of us would be knocked out by "Jazz Up Your Life," with Ira Sullivan and Dodo Marmarosa -- Dodo in great latter-day form as accompanist and sometime soloist (Janis is no longer sure when this previously unreleased album was recorded but thinks early 1960s and obviously in Chicago). On "The Start of Something New" Janis is backed by the Billy Wallace Trio (yes, the Billy Wallace who was on Max Roach's "Jazz in 3/4 Time"), though the trio's approach is quite Garlandish, and Wallace gets only a few brief solos. The rest of what I say below probably explains itself, and I believe there are song samples on Janis's website, but the sheer elegance of his voice is remarkable, as are his deep, jazz-like instincts, though he is essentially a romantic balladeer. In this he reminds me of some of David Allyn and Johnny Hartman (though Janis is a tenor).

Thanks to Frederick Stack's post I found my way to Johnny Janis's website, have now

bought and listened to four of Janis's albums -- "For the First Time"

(ABC-Paramount, 1956), "The Start of Something New" (Columbia, late 1950s?),

"Jazz Up Your Life" (previously unreleased, rec. 1961-62?), and "Once In a Blue

Moon" (recorded 1965) -- and am pretty much astounded by the best of what is

here. (I've also talked some to Janis on the phone, reminiscing about old

Chicago days and musicians we both heard.)

Janis began with remarkable vocal equipment (he also played and plays guitar) --

a rhythmically supple, tenorish, wide-in-range voice, with an appealing

warm-fuzzy "nap" to it -- though on the "For the First Time" that nap is also

linked to a certain callowness of approach, which on the one hand can lead him

toward an artificial, finger-popping hipness ("I Got Plenty of Nothing,'" "I'm

Gonna Live Till I Die") ) and on the other hand can veer toward moist sentiment

("Hush-A-Bye," "Golden Earrings"). But on two fine songs that are somewhat

similar in what might be called their "throbbing" or "strumming" qualities --

Arlen's "When the Sun Comes Out" and Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very

Well" -- Janis begins to come into his own. Typically for him, the warmth and

ease of these interpretations seems to spring directly from his response to the

purely musical elements of the songs; one feels that he first engages with a

particular, congenial-to-him melodic shape or harmonic event, then moves from

there to the lyric and overall story-telling, though he is, then still rather

young, not yet fully "there" on that level.

"The Start of Something New" also is not quite in focus or mature emotionally

throughout, but its best performances, three slowish ballads -- "I Got It Bad,"

"In Other Words," and "The Nearness of You" -- are virtually full-scale, subtle

re-compositions of songs that are, of course, quite distinguished in themselves.

Janis's musical choices here might be described as hip without being "hip" -- he

planes down rhythms and alters given pitches and melodic shapes so that upcoming

harmonies are anticipated, this with a grace that recalls, say, Stan Getz. And,

again, the results remain wholly songlike; the silky virtuosity is there to be

detected, but it is never obtrusive.

Now two masterpieces. "Jazz Up Your Life" is aptly titled because it features

two superb jazz musicians -- trumpeter-tenor saxophonist Ira Sullivan and

pianist Dodo Marmarosa (plus bassist Jerry Friedman and drummer Guy Vivaros,

both excellent). Marmarosa -- one of the bebop greats whose dexterity had slowed

down some by this time, though there is a new Thelonious Monk-like, craggy depth

to his playing -- is the most important accompanist. As Janis said on the

phone, Dodo's accompaniments were conceived as single units that ran elusively

parallel to the song itself (Monk-like in this respect); and while Dodo's

so-to-speak "shadow" comping was potentially tricky for a singer to negotiate,

Janis found it inspiring (though devoid of hip mannerisms by this time, Janis

himself has the instincts and skills of a fine jazz instrumentalist). In

emotional terms, one is struck in particular by how dramatically specific the

romantic moods of "Too Young" and "You Don't Know What Love Is" are -- the

former wholly believable as a cry from or reminiscence of adolescence at the

hands of unfeeling adulthood; the latter performance a virtual postlude to "Too

Young," as Janis's sweeping lyricism at once summons up and balances out active

pangs of regret. At times, though, one still feels that these and other strong

dramatic moves on Janis's part are to some extent at the behest of the songs as

music per se; nothing wrong with that, but "Once In A Blue Moon" reveals that

for Janis a new integration of music and drama was to come. The album is all

slowish ballads, some of them so slow (e.g. "Melancholy Baby") that one can

hardly believe that forward movement is being maintained; the orchestrations by

Don Costa are, allowing for taste, gorgeously lush, often quite inventive within

that lushness, and superbly played (those French horns!); while Janis's voice

has taken on just the degree of graininess it needed to "cut" its innate

elegance and add an unavoidable edge of reality. Janis still works outwards

emotionally from the songs' purely musical elements, but that engagement with

the songs per se now meets with a certain resistance on the part of Janis's

vocal equipment and his own (one assumes) somewhat-weathered-by-experience self.

He's still a more elegant vocalist in 1965 than just about anyone then singing,

but one now detects in every choice, every move that Janis makes his desire to

reach out for what he then does grasp; thus one also feels that these choices

and moves are being made in a world where, as we know and he knows, many things

that one desires are ungraspable or fall away from us. In this respect, Billie

Holiday comes to mind, but Janis's "Once In a Blue Moon" is unique -- in part

because his vocal elegance is innate and much of it remains intact, in part

because some of the songs he is drawn to (Arlen and Mercer's "I Had Myself a

True Love," the old Ruth Etting ballad "Crying for the Carolines") demand a good

deal of range, timbral finesse, and sustaining power if they're going to be sung

at all. But listen also to the handsome, grave simplicity with which Janis

inhabits several songs that demands to be handled in just that way -- "If I Had

You" and (complete with its verse) "Melancholy Baby." This is an album of great

American singing, from a great American singer.

Larry Kart

P.S. One of the songs from "Once In a Blue Moon" I've never heard of before, "If

You Want To Love" by Hague and Roberts. Does anyone know where this song comes

from and who Hague and Roberts are? I'm usually good at finding things via the

'Net, but I'm coming up with nothing. (I know of Albert Hague, of the musical

"Plain and Fancy" and the song [among others] "Young and Foolish," but no online

mention of that Hague links him to "If You Want To Love.")

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Posted

I think it's likely to be that same Hague, who also, btw, appeared in that annoying movie and on that TV series based on the High School of Music and Arts (can't thinkof the name right now) -

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Posted

Fame -

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Posted

Larry:

I found a reference in an on-line Columbia label discography to a recording of "If You Want To Love Me You Have To Cry" by Jo Stafford. It apparently appeared on CO 40595. The discography indicates that the label credits Allan Roberts and Albert Hague as composers.

The ASCAP website credits Allan Roberts and Albert Hague as composers of "If You Want To Love" with a performance by Jo Staffard [sic].

Here's some more information from the ASCAP site concerning the song:

Publishers/Administrators:

HAGUE ALBERT MUSIC

% THE SONGWRITERS GUILD OF AMERICA

P O BOX 23710

NASHVILLE , TN, 37202

Tel. (615) 742-9945

ROBERTS ALLAN MUSIC CO

% MUSIC SALES CORP

257 PARK AVENUE SOUTH

20TH FL

NEW YORK , NY, 10010

Tel. (212) 254-2100

So, either this is the song that you're looking for or someone else looked up the title in the ASCAP files when the Johnny Janis LP was being produced and assumed it was the same tune.

>>>>

Larry Kart wrote:

P.S. One of the songs from "Once In a Blue Moon" I've never heard of before, "If

You Want To Love" by Hague and Roberts. Does anyone know where this song comes

from and who Hague and Roberts are? I'm usually good at finding things via the

'Net, but I'm coming up with nothing. (I know of Albert Hague, of the musical

"Plain and Fancy" and the song [among others] "Young and Foolish," but no online

mention of that Hague links him to "If You Want To Love.")

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Posted

Many thanks, Jazztrain.

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Posted

Thanks for reposting that detailed and insightful review, Larry--I obviously need to start checking Songbirds again on a more regular basis. I just ordered JAZZ UP YOUR LIFE and will pick up the others you mentioned when the budget allows.

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