They arrived in the early to mid-1950s fresh from the big band era and drew material from the Great American Songbook’s rich well. They made beautiful music with the top jazz and pop musicians of their time. Many seemed poised for long and fruitful careers, if not stardom on the grand scale of Doris Day, who represented the prototype of their particular subset of Girl Singers. Ted Gioia has described the style of one of the best, June Christy, as being in the “conversational, girl-next-door” mode, a phrase that applies to many of these vocalists. Some evinced an affinity for jazz singing in the way they played with tempo, timing, and phrasing, but more strove to create a mood, be it sunny or cloudy, in smooth, pure pop lines with slight modulations for effect. Although Doris Day made no secret of the Ella Fitzgerald influence on her style, hardly any of the Girl Singers following in her wake betrayed any Ella influence. But they were good: when they sang, you believed them, and some were blessed with transcendent interpretive gifts capable of recasting the Songbook warhorses in unexpected ways.
Come the 60s most of them were gone, their recording and concert careers rent asunder by rock ’n’ roll and a dramatic sea-change in American popular culture (and, not to be discounted, sheer weariness of the grind). There was no oldies circuit for them, no Vegas nightclubs, not even little out-of-the-way boîtes. Their albums, largely recorded for small, independent labels, quickly went out of print and stayed that way until very recently; only in the past couple years have CD versions (largely import-only) of some titles materialized, with many also available on Spotify.
They are the true Gone Girls, the Girl Singers that time forgot, the Desaparecidas of Classic American Pop. There are enough of them to warrant a book-length treatment, and the elite four profiled below give a taste of what that book might provide, for the music they made and for their personal stories, or what we know of them.
She had a distant smile, to cop a phrase from Raymond Chandler. Sang long, smooth lines full of mysterious intent, appearing within a song like the Cheshire Cat—now you see her, now you don’t. Her elusiveness, her chimerical presence, forced you deeper into her songs where instead of finding her you found yourself. She made six LPs between 1956 and 1960 and looks like a different person on each album cover. In some photographs her hair appears to be red; in another, blonde; in another it’s jet black and “pixie” short, Audrey Hepburn style. On her authoritative first album she is bright-eyed, cheerful, a sprite exuding life; on her final album cover, her now-blonde hair is drawn up in a tight bun and she gazes with patrician-like disdain upon a large crowd gathered in a public square below her. Bill Reed, who wrote the Kenney biography The Last Days of Beverly Kenney (available on the Scribd website), told me, “If you look at the photos she never, ever photographs, even remotely, the same way twice. Mort Lowenstein had an affair with her for at least a year, and he said that no photograph ever captured the way she looked.”
Musically, she got it all right: her enunciation is precise yet soulful, as if she had absorbed every elegant phrase Billy Eckstine—or indeed, the young Ella—had sung. All the pauses are in the right place; her understanding of the songwriters’ intent, if her own choices are any indication, is virtually infallible as she finds new ways into familiar texts from the Great American Songbook; the supple texture of her voice enhances the lyrical narrative she serves; and her uncanny ability to enlarge the emotions of a song without losing control of them reveals an advanced sensitivity to the complexities of this thing called love.
Among Girl Singers, she was singular. She didn’t break in with a big-time orchestra: her first paid singing job was with Western Union, then following the briefest of stints with bands she became a solo artist. She made but two TV appearances, one surrounded by smug jazzbos on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy After Dark, and the other a brief turn on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show in 1958. She seems to have had no mentors, no close friends, in the music world. It’s as if she emerged fully formed out of her Harrison, NJ, hometown, ready to sing with the finest musicians on the New York jazz scene.
Six official albums constitute her lifetime catalogue, three for the Royal Roost label (1956–57), three for Decca when her star was most ascendant (1958–60), all now available as a pair of double-CD releases. On his own SSJ label, Bill Reed has released Lonely and Blue (1952 radio transcriptions of dubious audio quality predating her Roost signing); Snuggled On Your Shoulder (1954 demos comprising the template for her Royal Roost debut); and the fascinating What Is There to Say? (previously unreleased tracks cut between 1954 and 1958, including some live radio performances, an audio interview clip, and even tap dance instruction!). Top jazz musicians were consistently drawn into her orbit. The albums, thick with musings romantic and melancholy alike by the era’s outstanding pop-jazz songwriters, are impressively consistent, from her debut with one of the great guitarists of the 20th century, Johnny Smith, on Beverly Kenney Sings for Johnny Smith, to the sophisticated ruminations—a true artistic great leap forward—on her final long player, Like Yesterday (which she completed with the aid of an in-studio psychiatrist after suffering a complete psychological breakdown during the sessions). Some say she was distraught over the end of an affair with Beat Generation guru Milton Klonsky, others say she broke under the strain of conflicted family relations. There were three suicide attempts, the final one (a lethal blend of alcohol and Seconal) coming on April 12, 1960. She left two suicide notes to her family, contents still sealed. And there are the haunted memories of those who thought they knew her: musician Ralph Patt (“A great singer…but pretty unhappy and not too stable”); jazz singer Audrey Morris (“I suspected severe melancholy, maybe mistook it for homesickness”); actress Millie Perkins (“There was a real melancholy about Beverly. She smiled a lot but didn’t laugh”). In the end, no one knows anything about her death, and few know anything substantive about her inner life.
Put another way, her voice was soft and smooth, her eyes were clear and bright, but she’s not there.