Jonah Jones, Bobby Darin and a Heavy Load

May 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

Jonah Jones "I Dig Chicks" (1958, Capitol)

This is one of the classic “bad” album covers you will find if you check various sites devoted to such things. I think it’d be hard to argue with either of those adjectives. In any case, the artwork didn’t prevent the record from winning a Grammy in 1959 for Best Jazz Performance (Group). It did not, surprisingly, win for Best Album Cover – that went to a Shostakovich album released by RCA. Other winners included Ella Fitzgerald (in two categories), Duke Ellington (in three), the great Billy May, Nat King Cole, and, of course, Frank Sinatra, who was awarded Best Male Vocal Performance and Album of the Year.

A list like that sort of brings home the extent to which popular music in the late ’50s was still fairly “adult.” Rock and roll had of course arrived, but the time when hordes of teenagers would take to their garages to learn guitar, bass and drums and then write and record their own songs was still, for the most part, several years away – as was the turmoil the coming decade was to bring in general. The musical world was still largely one in which songwriters wrote the songs, arrangers arranged them, session players recorded them, and vocalists sang them.

Maybe the way to characterize it is to say it seems like it was a period of transition. Even Bobby Darin, who won Best Artist and Best Record that year, for “Mack the Knife,” was described as both a big band and a rock singer. He was perhaps an interesting illustration of the changing times, going from a Brill-Building songwriter to a singer of everything from the innocent, early rock of “Splish Splash” to the standard jazzy-pop-nightclub sorts of things that “vocalists” of the era would commonly do, to eventually even country music (interestingly, Roger McGuinn played 12-string guitar in his band before forming The Byrds). But then, like the decade, he got increasingly political and folky, and finally disillusioned, when, working on Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, he was at the Ambassador Hotel the night Kennedy was assassinated. Darin subsequently sold his home and most of his possessions and retreated to a trailer in remote Big Sur in Northern California for the next year. Returning to Los Angeles in 1969, he started a label, Direction Records, whose purpose was to “seek out statement-makers.” The label’s – and his – debut album, he explained,  was “designed to reflect my thoughts on the turbulent aspects of modern society.”

Sadly, Darin died in 1973 at the age of only 37. His heart had been damaged by rheumatic fever as a child and finally gave up, something he had feared would happen, which apparently drove him to try to achieve as much as he could while he was able. And he indeed did a lot, including packing in an acting career that even saw him garner an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1963.

What a trajectory. I’m not quite sure what particular turns Jonah Jones’ life took, but it seems he was able to marry his childhood sweetheart, have four kids, and live to the age of 91, having even performed at the Blue Note just the year before. From at least that broad perspective, then, it appears that he was pretty blessed. Though no doubt there must have been some hurdles placed in his way, as a black person born in Kentucky in the early part of the 20th century. But by the spring of 1959, three of the top ten jazz albums in the U.S. charts were by his quartet. The ’60s were coming, but they weren’t there yet, and Jonah Jones was making music, playing the clubs in New York and Vegas (his name even sneaks into a famous shot of the Rat Pack (below) in front of the marquee at the Sands Hotel; he was playing the lounge while they headlined the main room), and putting out some great album covers.

Jonah Jones appearing in The Sands' lounge


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