MUSIC CLIP - OSCAR PETERSON, "MOONGLOW"
Welcome to Afterglow, a show of vocal jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook. I’m your host, Mark Chilla.
The name Beverly Kenney is one that is little noted in the jazz history books. This singer’s seductive and melancholic style aligned with the cool jazz sensibilities of the late 1950s. However, in 1960, Kenney ended her own life at age 28. On this episode, we’ll examine the tragically short career of this fine jazz singer, examining her live recordings and the albums she made for both Roost and Decca Records.
It’s Beverly Kenney: Born to Be Blue, coming up next on Afterglow
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “IT’S MAGIC”
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “IT’S A MOST UNUSUAL DAY”
A recording that was featured on a Lincoln Car Commercial in 2021. That was Beverly Kenney with Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson’s “It’s a Most Unusual Day” and before that Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “It’s Magic.” Both songs are from the 1958 album Beverly Kenney Sings for Playboys, featuring Ellis Larkins on piano. Composer and TV Star Steve Allen wrote the original liner notes for this album, and in them he said, quote: “A word to Playboys: I would not recommend this album as Music to Make The Roman Approach By. You’re apt to get more interested in Beverly than the girl you’re trying to impress.”
MUSIC - JOHN LEWIS, “LITTLE GIRL BLUE”
Mark Chilla here on Afterglow. On this show, we’re taking a look at the short life and career of Beverly Kenney, an often-forgotten jazz singer who emerged in the late 1950s.
Beverly Kenney was born on January 29, 1932 in Harrison, New Jersey. Before moving to New York City to find work as a professional singer, she worked as a telephone birthday singer for Western Union. Her talent was apparent right from the start, taking on several gigs when she was barely in her 20s, including a stint with the Dorsey Brothers’ band.
Her big break came in October 1955, when she was featured in a Jazz Benefit concert for Israel at Carnegie Hall, sharing the bill with Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Tito Puente, and Marian McPartland. But prior to this, at age 22, she recorded a demo with pianist and vocal coach Tony Tamburello, which highlights Kenney’s already matured musicianship.
Let’s hear two tracks from this demo now, beginning with a song by Carmen Lombardo and Joe Young. This is Beverly Kenney with “Snuggled on Your Shoulder,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “SNUGGLED ON YOUR SHOULDER”
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “TEA FOR TWO”
Part of a demo from 1954 by Beverly Kenney. That was the Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar song “Tea for Two,” and before that “Snuggled on Your Shoulder.”
In 1955 and 1956, Beverly Kenney’s career began to take off. She was signed to Roost Records and continued to perform around New York City. Her debut record featured her vocals alongside Roost Records's star guitarist Johnny Smith and his quartet, while her second featured her with an orchestra led by arranger Ralph Burns.
We’ll hear two songs each from those two 1956 albums now. First up, here’s Beverly Kenney and guitarist Johnny Smith with the tune “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “THE SURREY WITH THE FRINGE ON THE TOP”
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “THIS LITTLE TOWN IS PARIS”
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “VIOLET FOR MY FURS”
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “GIVE ME THE SIMPLE LIFE”
Four tracks from Beverly Kenney’s early albums for Roost Records. We just heard “Give Me the Simple Life” and “Violet For My Furs,” both from the 1956 album Come Swing With Me, accompanied by the Ralph Burns’ Orchestra. Before that, the marvelous Milton Schwartz song “This Little Town Is Paris” and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s familiar “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” from the album Beverly Kenney Sings for Johnny Smith.
Still only 24 years old, Kenney was beginning to become a fixture of the New York Jazz scene. She earned a standing gig at Birdland with Lester Young, and upon her debut at New York’s Basin Street Club, Down Beat critic Nat Hentoff gave her lots of praise (compared to other singers of her day). He said Kenney was more flexible than Helen Merrill, swings more easily than Teddi King, and her musicianship and care for lyrics are far superior to Chris Connor’s.
Here are a handful of live radio sessions from 1956 featuring Kenney accompanied by pianist Gildo Mahones. First, this is Beverly Kenney with a song that became a staple of her live show, the Rodgers and Hart tune “Mountain Greenery,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “MOUNTAIN GREENERY”
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “ALMOST LIKE BEING IN LOVE”
Live from a radio broadcast from New York City in 1956. That was Beverly Kenney with Lerner and Loewe’s “Almost Like Being in Love,” and Rodgers and Hart’s “Mountain Greenery.”
For Kenney’s final album with Roost Records from 1957, she teamed up with pianist and arranger Jimmy Jones and his group known as the “Basie-Ites,” consisting of a few members of Count Basie’s ensemble, like trumpeter Joe Newman and guitarist Freddie Green. As you might imagine, this helped create a more straight-ahead jazz sound. And by now, Kenney’s voice was even more confident and seductive than in her debut.
We’ll hear a pair of songs from that album now. Here’s Beverly Kenney with the tune “Who Cares What People Say” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “WHO CARES WHAT PEOPLE SAY”
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “MAKIN’ WHOOPEE”
Two songs from the 1957 album Beverly Kenney Sings with Jimmy Jones and the Basie-Ites for Royal Roost Records. Starting that set, we heard the less familiar tune “Who Cares What People Say” followed by the much more familiar tune “Makin’ Whoopee.”
MUSIC CLIP - BEVERLY KENNEY AND HUGH HEFNER, “MAKIN’ WHOOPEE”
Three years later, Kenney would sing that same song, “Makin’ Whoopee” in a duet with Hugh Hefner on his Playboy Penthouse television show. And we’ll hear more from that TV broadcast in just a bit. Stay with us.
I’m Mark Chilla, and you’re listening to Afterglow
MUSIC CLIP - BEN WEBSTER AND OSCAR PETERSON, “HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN?”
MUSIC CLIP - BILL EVANS, “BLUE IN GREEN”
Welcome back to Afterglow, I’m Mark Chilla. We’ve been looking at the tragically short career of singer Beverly Kenney on this episode.
In 1957, Kenney moved from the Royal Roost record label to Decca, an upgrade in terms of exposure. She recorded three albums for Decca over the next two and half years. However, despite superb performances with accompaniment by jazz greats Ellis Larkins and Hal Mooney, she never quite earned the success that she deserved for a variety of outside reasons that we’ll get into.
With her good-looks, intelligence, and mysterious, smokey gaze, Decca marketed her as a jazz singer for high-class bachelors—sophisticated lounge music, if you will. Her first album, Beverly Kenney Sings for Playboys, has the singer slyly looking over her shoulder at a seven-foot-tall cartoon Playboy bunny.
Let’s hear a track from that album now. This is Beverly Kenney with the tune “Try a Little Tenderness,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “TRY A LITTLE TENDERNESS”
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “A SUNDAY KIND OF LOVE”
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “SOMEBODY ELSE IS TAKING MY PLACE”
“Somebody's Taking My Place” and “A Sunday Kind of Love,” two songs from Beverly Kenney’s final album with Decca Records titled Like Yesterday. Before that, we heard the song “Try A Little Tenderness” from her first album with Decca, Beverly Kenney Sings for Playboys.
Speaking of Playboys, in early 1960 Beverly Kenney would make an appearance on the syndicated television show Playboy’s Penthouse, hosted by Playboy-founder Hugh Hefner. The show was essentially a lounge talk show, where the small audience (all impeccably dressed) gathered in Hefner’s living room studio alongside the guests.
Playboy’s Penthouse only ran for two seasons, and while Hefner’s entire empire is very problematic at times, this early television program is fairly important in jazz history. It not only featured a number of important jazz stars from the era—including Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and Ella Fitzgerald—it also was one of the first television shows to highlight racial equality among its guests and audience members.
Here’s Beverly Kenney from her appearance on Hefner’s show—which would end up being her last televised appearance. This is “Everything Happens to Me,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “EVERYTHING HAPPENS TO ME”
A live performance from early in 1960 of Beverly Kenney on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy’s Penthouse television show, performing “Everything Happens to Me.”
Despite her immense talent and charm, Beverly Kenney’s career never caught on with the American public. The reasons may have simply been changing tastes: in the late 1950s, jazz vocals were on the decline, and it looked like rock and roll was here to stay. Kenney’s style seemed to be a relic of a bygone era, and the singer was reluctant to adapt her style to the times.
In 1958, she made an appearance on the Steve Allen show to express her true opinion on the budding music craze, and she didn’t mince words. Let’s hear it now.
Here’s Beverly Kenney in May of ‘58 with her own song “I Hate Rock and Roll,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “I HATE ROCK AND ROLL”
From the Steve Allen show in 1958, that was Beverly Kenney with “I Hate Rock and Roll,” a song that she herself penned.
I’ve alluded to the fact that Beverly Kenney was a tragic figure in the vocal jazz world. For all her jazz gifts, Kenney likely suffered from depression. Her friends all noted that there was an underlying melancholy to her personality, a trait that translated beautifully into her music, but one that had consequences in her everyday life. On April 13, 1960, Beverly Kenney was found dead of an overdose of alcohol and Seconal. She was only 28 years old.
We’ll close off tonight’s show with two tracks from her second album with Decca, titled Born to Be Blue recorded in 1958. These tracks capture Kenney as she was: confident, sensitive, and seductive with superb jazz phrasing, yet with that unmistakable underlying melancholy.
Here Beverley Kenny with “It’s a Blue World,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “IT’S A BLUE WORLD”
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “BORN TO BE BLUE”
“Born to Be Blue” and before that “It’s a Blue World” both performed by singer Beverly Kenney.
MUSIC CLIP - EDDIE HARRIS, “BORN TO BE BLUE”
Thanks for tuning in to this Beverly Kenney edition of Afterglow.
Afterglow is part of the educational mission of Indiana University and produced by WFIU Public Radio in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana. The executive producer is John Bailey.
Playlists for this and other Afterglow programs are available on our website. That’s at indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow.
I’m Mark Chilla, and join me next week for our mix of Vocal Jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook, here on Afterglow