Too Cool For Words: June Christy and Something Cool

by Marshall Bowden

Read June Christy/Ballads for Night People

“Something cool…I’d like to order something cool” says the dame in the smoky, slightly seedy bar that is something out of a Raymond Chandler story. The kind of place where maybe there could be trouble at any moment; where maybe a couple of guys in raincoats with noses as crooked as a gerrymandered voting district come in and start asking questions. And that can’t be anything but trouble for you.

In the meantime, though, here is June Christy, a songbird from Springfield, Illinois whose real name is Shirley Luster. She’s been singing for a while, in fact she replaced Anita O’Day as Stan Kenton’s singer. Some said she sounded a bit too much like O’Day, but she developed her own style and her soft, but ever-so-slightly husky voice was perfect for the Kenton band.

Kenton was proud of Christy’s success, so much so that he helped her get signed to Capitol Records as a solo artist. In 1953 she recorded Something Cool, originally as a ten-inch, and later (1955) added four tracks to make it a twelve-inch LP. The arrangements were all by Kenton cohort Pete Rugolo, who also conducted the orchestra on the recordings. Interestingly, the same day that Christy recorded the four new tracks for the LP version of Something Cool she also began recording an album of duets with former boss Kenton at the piano. More on that later.

So we have this very unusual song, “Something Cool”. It became June Christy’s signature song, which is amazing given its narrative and emotional complexity. Our gal in the bar tells us she wants “something cool” in response to our request to buy her a drink. It’s warm here in town, she tells us, and she’s far from home. She can’t seem to remember your name, but she knows you from somewhere because she never drinks with strangers. You know better, but you offer her a cigarette, and she demurely accepts—”I never smoke as a rule /but maybe one /it might be fun /with something cool.”

She tells you about her glory days, when she lived in a large home and had lots of male callers. But that is all in the past. Returning to the present she refers to you as “a date” –whoa, there sister! —before coming back to the here and now: “Oh wait / I’m such a fool /He’s just a guy /who stopped to buy me /Something cool.”

Try to imagine a pop song today that packs that much information, that much emotional baggage, that much character development. Your head will probably explode trying to. Equally difficult is imagining the singer that would be able to put such a quirky song across and make it her signature song, a song associated with her immediately in the minds of listeners. It’s the equivalent of Frank Sinatra’s “One for My Baby” with the added intoxicant of sexual tension. The song allows the listener to see completely from the perspective of the female barfly who is the speaker; it also allows the male listener the fantasy of being the one to whom she is speaking. It is a unique part of the Great American Songbook.

The overall mood of the album Something Cool is melancholy, the colors all shades of blue. The incredible “Lonely House” is an aria from Kurt Weill’s Street Scene with devastating lyrics by Langston Hughes. The Rugolo arrangement is perfect, with curdling trombones and piping background flutes conveying the loneliness felt by the singer. “The Night We Called It A Day” is a well known ballad, but this version features a nice arrangement featuring alto saxophonist Bud Shank trading phrases with Christy, who sings a wordless, otherworldly vocalese that is surreal.

“Midnight Sun” is another unusual number, a ballad with lush lyrics by Johnny Mercer and splashes of rhythmic interplay from the orchestra. The LP version of Something Cool is a perfect balance between the melancholy ballads and more swinging, uptempo numbers, while the original ten-inch version included less uptempo material to dispel the overall blue mood. You can listen to it either way on CD and you will have two slightly different, though equally fine, listening experiences.

Then there’s Bud Shank, whose alto sax solos on the recording provide a counterpoint to Christy’s vocals and often underpin the lonely, late night feeling of some of the songs. Shank came to prominence with the bands of Charlie Barnet and Stan Kenton during the 1940s. In the ’50s he worked extensively with Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All Stars as well as leading his own quartet. Considered a West Coast “cool” player, Shank was well recognized for his ability to swing and his bright, instantly recognizable alto sound. A four-time winner of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences’ Most Valuable Player Award, Shank was also a member of the L.A. Four along with Ray Brown, Jeff Hamilton, and Laurindo Almeida. He’s still performing, his schedule packed with tours, festivals, clinics, and major jazz festivals, and has recently relocated to Tucson, Arizona. Shank has lent his talents to many, many recordings, but it is impossible to imagine what Something Cool would have been like without his distinct sound and beautiful playing.

Christy’s next release was the album Duet with Stan Kenton at the piano. You’ll seldom get the opportunity to hear Kenton’s simple yet perfect piano accompaniment style, and Christy’s singing is passionate. Once again the song selection is great, ranging from the well-known songbook numbers to the more obscure. June and her husband, tenor saxophonist Bob Cooper, were mostly responsible for the tune selection on her LPs, and they succeeded in crafting albums for her that were a perfect blend of singer and song.

“Frankly, I was not at all satisfied with Duet…and I don’t think Stan was either” she told Downbeat. “For one thing, there wasn’t enough time allotted for the album’s preparation. And I felt before we made it–and still feel–that using solo accompaniment can result in a monotonous sound. It doesn’t have to be that way, but in this particular case I think it’s true.”

Duet was followed up by The Misty Miss Christy, another collaboration with Pete Ruggolo. Again there was the careful selection of material that many singers might have considered a bit too offbeat, the progressive arrangements that echoed the big band sound of Kenton. Christy scores with a dead-on reading of Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” and silences those critics who had dogged her since her days with Kenton, saying she had poor intonation and couldn’t swing. It’s true that her intonation and phrasing improved over the years (of what singer couldn’t that be said?) but some of the criticism probably came from the lack of understanding of what Kenton and his arrangers were doing. Christy, like Anita O’Day before her, brought a new, “cool” conception of jazz singing to their role as big band singers. To those used to more traditional-sounding singers, it was hard to see just what O’Day and Christy were up to. Christy was probably the first true “cool jazz” vocalist and her continued popularity over time has demonstrated how the times have caught up.

In 1960 stereo was all the rage, and many popular artists rerecorded their earlier hits in new stereo recordings. Nat “King” Cole, Jo Stafford, and Frank Sinatra were among the vocalists who did this, and Capitol wanted a stereo version of Something Cool with which to tantalize both new record buyers and those 93,000 or so who had already parted with their cash to purchase either the ten-inch or mono LP version of the recording. The Ruggolo arrangements are the same, still sounding shiny and modern, and Shank is back as well to provide his gorgeous alto sax solos and fills. The main difference is Christy’s singing, which is quite similar, but somehow has a deeper quality, a resonance with the lyrics that she couldn’t quite manage at age 28 when she had cut the original mono versions.

In its stereo version Something Cool weathered the musical changes of the 1960s and could still be purchased at many record stores right up until the end of the vinyl album era. From its first recording as a ten-inch vinyl disc to the end of its LP run the album probably stayed in print for around 25 years.

In 1977 Christy released a new album, Interlude, which, though currently unavailable, was an excellent release that did nothing to tarnish the memory of her glory days. June passed away in 1990 at the age of 65. A short time later a Japanese import CD of Something Cool was released featuring the original mono version of the album. It was a nice chance for Christy’s fans to once again hear the mono version of the album, but unfortunately it included many extra tracks mixed in with the original ones, rather than at the end of the disc. 2001 saw the Capitol CD release of this classic work, a single CD featuring the complete mono and stereo versions of the album. This is the one to get if you want to follow this work in all its glory.

August is an auspicious month for this recording: it was on August 14, 1953 that Christy first recorded the mono version of the title track, and it was 26 years later, on August 25, 1979 when Christy’s employer and mentor Stan Kenton died at the age of 67. Something Cool is an album that should be studied closely not only by singers (for whom it should be required listening) but also arrangers and songwriters who want to hear what real songwriting and arranging is like. For the rest of us, it is simply an album to be savored, a rare combination of songs, singer, and musical accompaniment that is the perfect antidote to the heat of summer and the confections emerging from your radio.

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