The Girl Singers That Time Forgot

The Desaparecidas of Classic American Pop

The Girl Singers That Time Forgot

Lucy Ann Polk
When Lucy Ann Polk died in 2011 the mainstream music press took scant notice, the obituaries mostly being terse synopses of a complex, puzzling career that gave but a hint of someone who grabbed the brass ring but held it only briefly before vanishing from sight. Her entrée into the music business was with her sister and two brothers as the Four Polks. After changing their name to the Town Criers, the sibling group held forth with many of the day’s top bands (Les Brown, Kay Kyser, Lionel Hampton, et al.), with Kyser especially important as the first to feature Lucy Ann as a lead vocalist.

After the Town Criers broke up in 1948, Lucy Ann made a momentous career move in rejoining Les Brown’s orchestra the next year; so commanding a presence was she that from 1952–1954 she won the DownBeat Reader’s Poll as “Best Girl-Singer with Band,” and from 1951–1953 finished in the top 15 of Metronome Magazine’s “Best Female Singer” poll. Her fruitful tenure with Brown, during which she seemed destined for even greater success as a solo artist—it wasn’t a fantasy to think her smooth, smart, subtly emotional singing could translate into mainstream recording success on a par with Doris Day’s—is documented in part on Lucy Ann Polk with the Les Brown Orchestra, a 29-track CD issued by the Dutch label BV Haast. Lucy Ann appears on 17 of those numbers, including a breezy, upbeat “Sometimes I’m Happy” with some nice vocal shadings to emphasize the lyrics’ conflicting emotions; a wistful reading of the Carl Sigman-Bob Russell jazz standard “Crazy He Calls Me,” featuring an evocative woodwind chart adding melancholy shading to the singer’s reading (Billie Holiday trademarked this classic; ironically, in 1957 Lucy Ann would step in for an ailing Billie when the latter’s health was collapsing and forcing her to cancel shows); a cool, swinging rendition of “Them There Eyes” with a smoky but restrained sensual undercurrent energized by a frisky clarinet solo. It’s on Spotify and is available as a digital download on Amazon.

In 1954 Lucy Ann embarked on her solo career with the Trend label. Her first 10-inch EP, Lucy Ann Polk with the Dave Pell Octet, was released in 1954; her second solo recording, a full album titled Lucky Lucy Ann, was released by Mode in 1957 (and reissued on the Interlude label in 1959 as Easy Livin’). With Pell’s octet the sound and the arrangements are expansive and a bit baroque, but never so much so as to diminish Lucy Ann’s sensitive inspection of such exquisite pop-jazz tunes as Koehler-Arlen’s “When the Sun Comes Out,” Strayhorn-Ellington’s “Just A-Sittin’ and A-Rockin’,” Cole Porter’s “Looking at You,” and four choice numbers by Sonny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen, including lovely ballad performances of “But Beautiful” and “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” (Four of the Burke-Van Heusen numbers were issued as the 1959 EP The Dave Pell Octet Plays Burke & Van Heusen.) On Lucky Lucy Ann pianist-arranger Marty Paich fashioned a batch of understated arrangements and expertly deployed the instruments for a maximum atmospheric effect of late night, wee small hours reflections. The tender but sensual touch Lucy Ann could bring to ballads was in full flower by this time, and to hear what she does with Ellington’s “I’m Just a Lucky So and So”; to immerse yourself in the sultry dreaminess she invests in Styne-Cahn’s “Time After Time”; to give in to her truly sultry, low-key but smoldering reading of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Memphis in June,” is to understand what timeless artistry is all about. Amazon offers both of these albums in a CD twofer titled But Beautiful: Lucy Ann Polk Accompanied by the Marty Paich Sextet and Quartet & The Dave Pell Octet, and Spotify offers Lucky Lucy Ann.

By 1960 Lucy Ann Polk had essentially left the building, thereafter performing only sporadically and never recording again. Towards the end of her life she suffered from dementia, but the aforementioned Bill Reed met her at a party in the early 2000s and found her “to be terribly quick on the uptake.” When he asked her if she knew she was regarded as an important singer of her era, she quipped, “No. I guess they’ve been keeping that from me.” If that sentiment were a lyric, oh, could Lucy Ann have made hay with it.

Betty Blake
Betty Blake is not alone in being a singer people hear for the first time and wonder why she wasn’t a major star, but in her case the question is doubly bedeviling because she so clearly had it all. On her only album, In a Tender Mood, recorded for Bethlehem in 1961, she is simply spectacular: swooning and seductive on the exotic ballad “Moon and Sand,” with its spare, tropical flavor enhanced by guitarist Kenny Burrell; vivacious and swinging on “Let There Be Love,” a soaring sentiment goosed along by Mel Waldron’s rich arrangement centered on textures alternately soothing and celebratory; positively sensual and engagingly didactic on “It’s So Peaceful In the Country,” delivered in a pastoral setting enhanced by Burrell’s sexy guitar, Teddy Charles’ atmospheric vibes, and the warm sax work of Zoot Sims. Many of the songs here are written or co-written by Alec Wilder, who worked in both the classical and pop fields with great success (Sinatra once conducted an album of Wilder’s classical compositions). The album available at Amazon includes four bonus tracks, including her first solo recording, a 1957 single for Golden Crest featuring an extraordinary pop tune in “Jersey Boy” that simply jumps off the disc by dint of its adult yearnings couched in an arrangement suitable for early 60s female teen pop icons on the order of Lesley Gore or Joanie Sommers—clearly way ahead of its time. After ’61 Betty Blake was never heard from again until 2001, when notices appeared of her death from cancer at age 63. Twelve pages into a Google search produces nothing save press release boilerplate about her album reissue. Gone Girl, truly.

Jane Fielding
A regular presence on the West Coast jazz scene in the mid-50s, the evocative Jane Fielding worked the club circuit with some of the decade’s finest jazz musicians and took a few of them into recording studios in 1955 and 1956 to record her only two albums, which have finally been reissued on a single CD available at Amazon. Born Mary Jane Cranston in Lansdale, PA, the girl who became Jane Fielding was playing campus dances with a local band by the time she was 15. After her family moved to Los Angeles she soon sat in at top jazz clubs such as Sardi’s and Jazz City. By age 20 she had a contract with the Jazz West label and, with pianist Lou Levy and bassist Red Mitchell in tow, cut the hushed, intimate sides released as Jazz Trio for Voice, Piano and String Bass. The gentle swing and melancholic pentimento of her feathery voice over Levy’s empathetic, energetic piano on “I’ll Remember April”; her husky, deliberate phrasing behind the beat that ups the heartache ante as Levy adds spare punctuations on the Gershwins’ “How Long Has This Been Going On”; the long, yearning, legato lines with which she transforms Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean” into a torch song—this was one savvy singer at age 21, probing, with unusual maturity, over spare instrumental backdrops the complexities of love as explored by songwriters twice or more her age and with far more life experience at this thing called love.

Jazz Embers followed in February 1956. With pianist Kenny Drew arranging and leading an inspired quintet featuring two sax players (Joe Maini on alto, Ted Efantis on tenor) and again assaying lesser-known classic pop entries by such songwriting teams as Mercer-Whiting, Fields-Schwartz, Schwartz-Dietz, Comden-Green, and Robin-Kern, Fielding is singing with new confidence and taking more chances, especially with respect to timbre and phrasing—the roller-coaster of emotions she conjures in swooping into her lower register and then rising to a wounded falsetto in Monk’s “‘Round About Midnight,” with only Drew’s reflective piano supporting her, is a higher degree of intensely personal vocalizing. Although she offers a bravura display of frantic on-the-beat singing in romping through “Too Marvelous for Words,” Jazz Embers is more about introspection and reflection as love arrives, blooms, and then departs (it can legitimately be heard as a concept album). In addition to the sheer authority of her interpretive abilities, Ms. Fielding impresses with the emotional investment she makes in the narratives—she owns these moments.

There would be no more Jane Fielding recordings apart from two TV performances (included on the aforementioned CD). She married, sang in a church choir, did some musical theater, and raised a beautiful daughter (Tina Burman). In 1996 she suffered a stroke and was taken to the Stroke Activity Center in Palm Springs, CA. During her recovery she sang for the Center’s fundraising evenings, her final public performances. In the pictures her daughter posted of Jane shortly before her death in 1997 she looks joyful and content, an impression her daughter’s online notes confirm. Surely there were other happy endings among the Gone Girls, but this is one of the few with credible documentation. Scant as it is, it’s more than we know of many of Jane’s peers, who left only trace evidence—revelations of experiencing profound kinship with heartbreak and elation in voices constituting all that remains of them—before vanishing, like some lost civilization, in the mist of memory.

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