MUSIC CLIP - OSCAR PETERSON, “MOONGLOW”
Welcome to Afterglow, I’m your host, Mark Chilla.
This week, we’re highlighting some recordings that pianist Ellis Larkins had with various singers in the 1940s and 50s. Larkins was the first African American to attend the prestigious music conservatory the Peabody Institute, and later went on to study at Juilliard. He became a fixture of the 1950s jazz scene in New York, and despite not recording with many singers over the course of his career, the few sessions he worked on are notable. Ahead, we’ll hear his work with Chris Connor, Mildred Bailey, Maxine Sullivan, and Ella Fitzgerald.
It’s Ellis Larkins and the Singers, coming up next on Afterglow
MUSIC - ELLA FITZGERALD, "STARDUST"
Ella Fitzgerald in 1954 with Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish’s song “Stardust.” That comes from her album Songs In A Mellow Mood, recorded for Decca Records that year. Fitzgerald recorded that song a few times over the course of her career, including live at Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago in 1958 and a bossa nova version at the height of the bossa nova craze in 1962. But this 1954 version remains one of her most iconic, mostly because of the restrained and steady slow stride piano style of Ellis Larkins.
Mark Chilla here on Afterglow. On this show, we’re saluting the work of pianist Ellis Larkins and the times he accompanied singers.
Ellis Larkins was, in my opinion, one of the finest accompanists of jazz singers in the 1950s and 60s, although he never recorded with them often, nor does he get a lot of credit today. He’s probably most remembered today for his many recordings he made over the years with trumpeter and cornetist Ruby Braff. That’s what you’re hearing in the background right now.
His style is unmistakable: a light, rhythmic bounce, perfectly in time, with a stride piano bassline on the up tempo numbers, and cascading upper melodies on the ballads.
Ellis Larkins, born in Baltimore in 1923, was trained at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute. He was, in fact, the first African American to attend the conservatory. He later moved to New York to study at Juilliard, and began to get involved in the New York City jazz scene in the 1940s, recording with Coleman Hawkins, Dicky Wells and more.
One of the first recordings he made with a singer was with Maxine Sullivan in 1947. She was about a decade out of the spotlight, when she became famous for singing the tune “Loch Lomond” with Claude Thornhill’s band. She had been performing in New York at the club Le Ruban Bleu around this time, and was invited to record some of her repertoire for the small label International Records. The recording quality is not great, which mostly has to do with the poor quality of the shellac. But the musicality of both Sullivan and Larkins shines through. Let’s hear two songs from that session now.
Here is Maxine Sullivan and the Ellis Larkins Trio in 1947 with the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer tune “Legalize My Name,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - MAXINE SULLIVAN, “LEGALIZE MY NAME”
MUSIC - MAXINE SULLIVAN, “SKYLARK”
Maxine Sullivan in 1947 with pianist Ellis Larkins. Just now, we heard Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer’s “Skylark,” and before that, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Legalize My Name.”
Another notable singer that Ellis Larkins became associated with in the late 1940s was Mildred Bailey. Like Maxine Sullivan, Bailey was at least a decade out of the spotlight, having become famous alongside Paul Whiteman’s orchestra back in the late 1920s. She passed away in 1951, so her recordings with Larkins in 1947 are among her last great performances in the studio. Larkins’s subtle swing helps bring out the best in Bailey’s voice, highlighting her rhythmic phrasing and that slight tinge of the blues.
Here are a few recordings from their time together. This is Mildred Bailey and Ellis Larkins in 1947 with “Lover Come Back To Me,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - MILDRED BAILEY, “LOVER COME BACK TO ME”
MUSIC - MILDRED BAILEY, “CAN’T WE BE FRIENDS”
Mildred Bailey and the Ellis Larkins Trio in 1947 with “Can’t We Be Friends” and “Lover Come Back To Me.” That comes from the CD Mildred Bailey Sings Me and The Blues.
Ellis Larkins’s most famous time with a singer came alongside the great Ella Fitzgerald. At the time of their recording sessions together in 1950, Fitzgerald was much like Maxine Sullivan and Mildred Bailey: a remnant of the swing era trying to carve out a path in the new musical landscape. Recently, she had made her presence as a groundbreaking scat singer in the emerging bebop jazz scene. And now, with Ellis Larkins, she found a new career as an interpreter of older theatre songs, bringing out the musical subtly of what would soon be known as “The Great American Songbook.”
Their 1950 duet LP together for Decca Records called Ella Sings Gershwin is one of the first “songbook” albums ever made, and became the template for countless other albums. The most remarkable part of this album is the swing. Here, you have two artists (Fitzgerald and Larkins) who each had a perfect sense of rhythm, and were able to complement each other’s rhythmic subtly in both ballads and up tempo numbers. Let’s hear two songs from that landmark album now.
First up, this is Ella Fitzgerald and Ellis Larkins with the Gershwin tune “How Long Has This Been Going On,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - ELLA FITZGERALD, “HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON”
MUSIC - ELLA FITZGERALD, “LOOKING FOR A BOY”
From the 1950 Decca album Ella Sings Gershwin, that was Ella Fitzgerald and pianist Ellis Larkins with “Looking For A Boy” and “How Long Has This Been Going On.”
We’ll have more music featuring Ellis Larkins alongside singers in just a bit.
I’m Mark Chilla, and you’re listening to Afterglow
Welcome back to Afterglow, I’m Mark Chilla. We’ve been exploring the work of pianist Ellis Larkins this hour, and his recordings with various singers.
I want to turn now to his work with singer Beverly Kenney. Kenney had a short but brilliant career in the 1950s. She died tragically of suicide at age 28 in 1960. But one of her best recordings came in 1958 on the album Beverly Kenney Sings For Playboys, her first LP for Decca Records. Pianist Ellis Larkins was by her side, playing both piano and celeste, and creating a dreamy backdrop for Kenney’s smoky delivery.
Here are a few songs from that session now. First, this is Beverly Kenney with “Try A Little Tenderness,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “TRY A LITTLE TENDERNESS”
MUSIC - BEVERLY KENNEY, “IT’S A MOST UNUSUAL DAY”
Singer Beverly Kenney in 1958 with “It’s A Most Unusual Day” and “Try A Little Tenderness,” two songs from her Decca LP Beverly Kenney Sings For Playboys. Ellis Larkins was featured there on piano.
This next recording might be a bit of a stretch. I believe it’s Ellis Larkins on piano, but I’m not entirely sure, and maybe someone out there who knows a little more can let me know for certain. It comes from singer Aretha Franklin. When Aretha Franklin first moved from Detroit to New York City when she was only 18 years old, she began performing on the New York City jazz circuit, singing at the Village Vanguard and other clubs. One of the pianists that she befriended was Ellis Larkins. Shortly after, she was signed to Columbia Records, where she put out more traditional pop recordings for several years, before making it big as an R&B on Atlantic Records in 1967.
I do know that on at least one of the 100+ songs she recorded for Columbia, Ellis Larkins was featured on piano. He is credited as a contributing artist on the two-disc Columbia compilation record “The Essential Aretha Franklin,” also known as “The Queen In Waiting.” However, which recording exactly is less clear. The session information on these liner notes are sparse, I’m going to give my best guess based on the research I could do, and based on my own ear. If anything has any more information, please let me know.
Here is Aretha Franklin in 1964, possibly with Ellis Larkins on piano, and the Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen song “Only The Lonely,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - ARETHA FRANKLIN, “ONLY THE LONELY”
Aretha Franklin in 1964 with Van Heusen and Cahn’s “Only The Lonely.” That song is featured on the Columbia Records CD The Essential Aretha Franklin, aka Queen In Waiting. And I believe it was Ellis Larkins featured on piano.
On these next recordings, I’m certain Ellis Larkins is the featured accompanist. It comes from singer Chris Connor. Larkins’s trio was the accompaniment on Connor’s first solo LP, called Chris Connor Sings Lullabys of Birdland, which was also the first LP recorded for the Bethlehem Record label. Connor brings her cool, smoky style that she developed with Stan Kenton’s orchestra to this solo LP, and Larkins provides the steady, subtly swinging background.
Here is Chris Connor and Ellis Larkins in 1954 with Cole Porter’s “Why Shouldn’t I” on Afterglow
MUSIC - CHRIS CONNOR, “WHY SHOULDN’T I”
MUSIC - CHRIS CONNOR, “LULLABY OF BIRDLAND”
Chris Connor in 1954 with “Lullaby of Birdland” and “What Is There To Say,” two songs of her debut LP for Bethlehem Records, both featuring Ellis Larkins on piano.
To close off this hour, I want to return to the music of Ellis Larkins and Ella Fitzgerald, perhaps one of the greatest musical partnerships in jazz. Larkins and Fitzgerald met again for a duet album in 1954 for the Decca record Songs In A Mellow Mood. Like their previous Gershwin outing, this record showcases both musicians’ amazing sense of swing. It’s also an intimate record: it feels like a behind-the-scenes peek into a one-on-one session between two top-notch musicians just having fun
Here again is the great Ellis Larkins alongside the great Ella Fitzgerald in 1954 with
MUSIC - ELLA FITZGERALD, “UNTIL THE REAL THING COMES ALONG”
MUSIC - ELLA FITZGERALD, “MAKIN’ WHOOPEE”
Ella Fitzgerald in 1954 from the album Songs In A Mellow Mood, featuring the great Ellis Larkins at the piano. That was "Making Whoopee" and "Until The Real Thing Comes Along."
Those songs can be found on the CD reissue known as Pure Ella.
Thanks for tuning in to this 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