For Bill Henderson’s 88th Birthday, an Uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test from Ten Years Ago

About ten years ago, the inimitable vocalist Bill Henderson sat with me for a Blindfold Test in the offices of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Today’s his 88th birthday; here are the proceedings.

* * *

Bill Henderson Blindfold Test:

1.  Billy Eckstine, “Travelin’ All Alone” (from BASIE/ECKSTINE INCORPORATED, Roulette, 1959/1994) (Eckstine, vocals; Count Basie Orchestra)

Sounds like Count Basement.  Look out!  Billy Eck-stein! [Travelin’] Yeah. [Travelin’] Yeah. [So you think this is Count Basie and Billy Eckstine.] Well, it sounds like his orchestra.  It could be Billy’s orchestra. He had pretty much the same guys. A lot of the same guys went through all of those orchestras. Like, Ellington had a lot of different guys, and somebody asked him, “How did you get all those guys?” He said, “I simply pay them money.” But that is Billy Eckstine.  There’s no question about that.  He was a monumental kind of guy. Also, he was a complete balladeer—and handsome.  Women loved this guy.  He was like a magnet.  He used to say, “Ladies, line up over there.”  And they would line up over there! [LAUGHS] From the Regal stage in Chicago.  It was amazing.  In those times, that’s when big orchestras came through Chicago all the time.  He wasn’t somebody I emulated, but I understood what was happening.

I never really tried to sing like singers. I really sang like my father, who was never in show business.  Emphasizing the words, rounding them off and all that kind of stuff, was my way of seeking attention, because I was the third child in the family. See?  And the only way I could really be understood was to say something that they would have to listen to.  And my father was great.  He was really something.  I loved to sing with him in church.  And we were not Baptists. We were Presbyterians in a Baptist neighborhood.  Calumet Avenue.  Southwest.  Near South Park, which is now Martin Luther King Drive.

His performances were… You could sit down and write all that stuff down, because he was perfect in those days. He was the perfect balladeer. I have no idea when he made that, because he was much older than I was.  I remember him coming to the Regal Theater, and the audiences were loaded with women.  You could tell when it was going to be a success, because they were there, man. That’s 5 stars.  Just for being him, that’s 5. “I’m in the mood…” Then Arthur Prysock came along, too. There were a lot of different guys who came into I guess you’d call it that genre. The arranger could be somebody like Ernie Wilkins.  It could have been at that time… I’m trying to think of some names.  That’s where it gets to be difficult. [You sang with Basie.] See, Billy Eckstine gave birth to Johnny Hartman.  He was another guy that the women really loved.  This is the only guy that stood in front of the microphone with his hands in his pocket, and just sang. When you just let that come all out, the audience feels all of that.  And you’re not making a move… It’s not like… Joe used to sing like this. [HANDS OVER CHEST] I think Lena Horne called him “My Mummy,” because he looked like this.  But he could sing, too, Joe Williams.  But Johnny Hartman was introduced by Larry “Good Deal” Steel. “When it’s showtime in the Beige Room.”  That’s what he used to sing. He introduced this young kid, and he didn’t elaborate too much about what he sounded like. He just wanted the audience to hear that. And when he started to sing, he could hear women and even some guys go, “Whoa!!!”  There were quite a few singers at that time.  A lot of guys didn’t get the shot that they should have gotten.  I think Johnny Hartman got a bigger shot after he was dead.  Because Clint Eastwood had his sound in one of his movies, Madison County or something like that.  A lot of people asked me, “where can I see him perform?” and I said, “He’s not alive.” They didn’t know.  But he was a helluva singer, too.

Billy Eckstine was very nice to me.  As a matter of fact, he introduced me to Billy Strayhorn.  We went over to his house.  Billy loved to cook. I think he cooked something with beans and beer. It was good.  I didn’t realize how little Billy Strayhorn was.  He was a little guy.  Not like Johnny Puglio, but like Mickey Rooney. But he could write love songs.  As a matter of fact, I think Lena Horne said he was her soulmate.  Because he knew how to write love songs, and he loved things about flowers, azaleas, gardenias, and colors, too. One thing I want to get of his is called “Multi-colored Blue.” Nobody seems to know where that can be found.

2. Mark Murphy, “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” (from MEMORIES OF YOU, High Note, 2003) (Murphy, vocals; Norman Simmons, piano; Darryl Hall, bass; Grady Tate, drums)

Oh, it’s Mark Murphy. Yeah! We did a show with Mark and several other singers, singing Johnny Mandel at the Bakery in California.  That’s really the first time he heard me sing.  Because sometimes people really don’t pay any attention to you; they’ve got their own thing to contend with.  He used to rave with people. People would come back to me and tell me, “He’s talking about you.” So I said, “Wow.”  But he could do this, too, Kerouac and all that stuff. [OUT OF VERSE AND INTO LYRIC: “Never treats me sweet and gentle…”] I had it bad!!  The ability to sing a verse from the audience’s standpoint, not knowing where this verse is supposed to go, and then when you hear the chorus and you realize some guys can make up verses, leading up into a song.  George Burns and John Bubbles, they used to be on stage and they used to make verses up to any song, and the audience would not know what the song was going to be until they sang the chorus.  But they were good at this.  He’s good at that, too.  I never heard that verse before. So that may be his. But you see, it fit.  It could be a verse that sang, but I don’t know it.  And it’s Ellington.  So I don’t know if that was written already.  Because there are a lot of things that were written that were never played or never sang anywhere, maybe at some kind of performance on stage. Now, Mark Murphy had a way of ending things, too. The pianist could be somebody like Ellis Larkins or… God.  It’s like The Millionaire. Do you have A, B and C? Norman Simmons?  Wow!  Norman was lately with Joe Williams.  Carmen, too.  But that part, I never heard him play like that before.  So that was a whole different thing.  He was going with Mark Murphy.  Wow!  That was very good. A Joe Williams tribute record?  Get out of here! I give that 5 stars, too.

[PLAY “In The Evening”] God, this is brilliant, man. Soulful, too. There’s another guy that people are not really hip to.  But see, this is accompanying, which is a lost art. A lot of singers are feeling the heat, too, because of that. [Not a teamwork era.] Yeah.  But also can take care of himself.  A lot of piano players only take care of themselves, and you would have to find a place to get in.  There’s some thought on Mark’s part, though, for this. Because he knew… He’s really singing the blues. He thought about it, and who he’s giving this tribute to.  Did he pick Norman?  See, about accompanying, that means that you can go in different directions.  You can become this kind of piano player, you can become the classical thing… See, Oscar Peterson had that talent, to go the whole spectrum of playing for anybody.  That’s why he played for everybody with Pablo Records.  When he played for me, I was spellbound. God!  Then on top of that, when you’re new, you would make suggestions that you hoped somebody would hear, and he listened to everything.  So after a while, you tell somebody about this: “You told Oscar what to play?!” “I was dumb.  I didn’t know.”  But he took it and played it.  So it really made me feel good, and I’m getting royalties from it.  Because I found out that a vocal arrangement is just like anything on paper. So there’s a lady in California who is giving me money.  On the Oscar Peterson thing, my name is on it.

At that time, Billy Eckstine was a visionary as far as vocals are concerned. Because he used to make up verses, too, to a lot of his songs; a lot of the old standard songs. They were guys that knew how to interpret a song, regardless of where the song came from or who wrote it.  If they picked it, they would know something about this song that they could display their talents with. That’s what I try to do with whatever song that I sing.  I try to do that, too.  Not because I heard them do it.  But maybe because I DID hear them do it in the old days.  But I heard my father a lot.  Because his favorite song was “There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie, But I Don’t Care.”  I can’t find that music anywhere.  I don’t know if it was Bing Crosby or Chris Columbo or whoever it was that sang that.  But my father sang it to my father. [And here you are.] Yes, I am here.  And there was four of us altogether.  So he sang it a lot.

3. Cassandra Wilson, “Throw It Away” (from GLAMOURED, Blue Note, 2004) (Wilson, vocals; Reginald Veal, bass; Abbey Lincoln, composer)

Is the bass player Percy Heath?  No?  It could be Ray Drummond. But it’s somebody, the bass is part of their body.  See that tone?  That’s the kind of tone that Ray Brown had.  But that’s not Ray Brown.  Is it Abbey Lincoln? She has an inflection like Abbey, though. It’s not Cassandra.  Ah.  Well, there are different things she does to let me know. When she dropped a little of Abbey Lincoln and something else came in, I thought it was her. Her pauses.  How she caresses words. And she is another visionary.  See, most times you can’t find a bass player that would accompany.  I did that with John Heard at my daughter’s wedding, and I sang “Sleepin’ Bee,” and he played the string parts. I was on the floor, man. Whoo! This is not John Clayton. It’s in that thing somewhere. [Not West Coast.] New York? [Southern. Sometimes in New York, but he’s southern.] Ah!! I see a face, but I can’t call a name.  It starts with an H. [No.] That’s what I said. It doesn’t start with an H. I love what he’s doing.  Which is a difficult thing to do, to accompany somebody.  Hear he’s playing the right notes for her to hang with?  That’s very important.  Now, this is strolling. DANG-DONG, you know. Now he’s got to play something for her. Right in there somewhere.  That would be my bass player for an all star band.  He’s orchestral.  See?  He could fit in an orchestra or a small group. 5 stars. That was a tour de force.  [AFTER] Never heard of Reginald Veal.

4.  Al Jarreau, “Groovin’ High” (from ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE, Verve, 2004) (Jarreau, vocals; Larry Williams, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Peter Erskine, drums)

Bobby McFerrin. [It’s not.] That’s what I said. It’s not Bobby. I was close, but it’s not Bobby. It’s a guy much younger than Bobby. [No, I don’t think so.] Oh, then it’s Al Jarreau. He’s another monster. He’s got that facility to do that stuff, man. When was it made?  Sounds like probably in the ‘80s somewhere. It’s brand new? [2004.] That’s what I said. It’s 2004. Have he and Bobby McFerrin ever sang together? It would be interesting to write something for those two guys.  Because they are orchestral. Bobby is even moreso; he’s got strings and flutes and all kinds of things going on in his head.  English! What’s the word when you are really good with words?  There’s a phrase.  It’s not linguista… He has a way with words. This is beyond scat singing. He and Bobby McFerrin are beyond scat singing.  Scat singing was raw.  These guys are more like an orchestra in some aspects, encompassing the strings, the horns, sometimes the drum and the bass.  They’re considering all of that.  So these guys I consider to be masters as far as that kind of vocalese thing is concerned.  I’m not like that at all.  I just want to sing! 5 stars. People are going to think I’m being paid for that. [I know you’re not.] Thank you.  That’s not on tape.

5.  James Brown, “It’s Magic” (from SOUL ON TOP, Verve, 1969/2004) (James Brown, vocals; Oliver Nelson, arranger; Louis Bellson Orchestra)

It’s not Jimmy Scott, is it? It’s not Jimmy Scott.  I was just testing you.  That’s all. It’s not Ruth Brown either.  I’m getting close, though, I think. It’s like a poker game.  I’m trying to read your face. That’s what made me think it was Ruth Brown, that thing she does. I’m stumped. I have no idea.  I liked it, and I thought it was a tremendous arrangement. But I don’t have a clue who the arranger is. I’m failing, ladies and gentlemen.  I have no idea. I could see the singer in a nightclub.  The audiences probably  loved her like crazy. I thought it was Ruth Brown there for a minute, because there’s something about what she did that reminded me of Ruth Brown.[The last name is correct.] Brown is the last name? Wow. [AFTER] That was James Brown?? Holy toledo, that sounded like a rough lady. Wow!! Now, that has to be an old cut of his, right? It different for him.  That’s another thing. I would never have thought it was James Brown, because the chart is altogether different, and obviously he’s going in another direction.  But then it sounded… Oh, God. It sounds like I don’t know what the heck I’m talking about. I’m in limbo for stars. It sounded like several different people, and I wasn’t sure whether that person wanted to become one or the other. See?  I would consider for THAT alone to be maybe 3½ stars.  Though it was well done for whatever that was.  Boy, this Blindfold Test gets to be political, too, doesn’t it. I mean, if I make the wrong thing, there’ll people coming in the door talking about, “You made the wrong move, Bill Henderson. Out of here!” This means that some guys can go in different directions. It’s terrible when you’re deciding what somebody sounds like. I enjoyed it, but I thought it was very remindful of several female singers, and at first I thought it was Little Jimmy Scott.

6.  J.D. Walter, “On a Clear Day” (from CLEAR DAY, Double Time, 2001) (Walter, vocals; Dave Liebman, soprano saxophone; Jim Ridl, piano; Steve Varner, bass; Ari Hoenig, drums)

They’re influenced by the Orient. Is that a soprano?  He got something else out of it. Kurt Earling.  Earling Kurt. It’s not him either. This sounds like a guy who plays an instrument and sings. Oh, that’s not him playing. This is the same saxophonist that played the opening? They’re sensual sounds.  Crying. I thought for a minute it was going to go into Leon Thomas. You know, sometimes you get a feeling that it could be Johnny Mathis trying to go in a different direction. That’s very difficult, though, man. You’ve got to have some people that know where they’re going with that. Mmm. I have not a clue. They must have worked together a lot to be able to make that harmony and things that they got, to work that close together and doing something.  Because there was like two instruments playing there.  That’s why I thought at first it was a saxophonist who sang.  And there’s a pianist in there somewhere. 4 stars for being unusual.

7.  Jimmy Rushing, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” (from FIVE FEET OF SOUL, Roulette, 1963/2003, Jimmy Rushing, vocal; arranger, Al Cohn)

[LAUGHS] Man, my bucket’s got a hole in it.  Sounds like Mister Five by Five a little bit. This is the kind of stuff you never heard him do.  Because he always had to do something that was very familiar. This is probably what he did in person at some club or something.  He’s some I listened to, heard in passing.  But I was more interested in what Joe Williams was doing in Chicago, because he could sing anything. That’s why a lot of composers and songwriters wanted him to sing their songs, because he would give it the right inflection. He could sing just about anything—Pagliacci, all of that stuff.  Because he had that kind of voice. But guys like Jimmy Rushing, they only sang a certain kind of way.  This is different.  This is swinging much more.  And the orchestras are different. It’s not Basie, but they are emulating something like that. Al Cohn and Ernie Wilkins both did a lot of stuff for me. Billy Byers.  I took all of those charts with me to Basie’s band, and every night, after I finished singing, Basie would say, “You don’t sing anything by Joe Williams?”  I said, “No.  That’s why I brought all these charts with me.”  Because he took me everywhere, and we sang on a lot of television shows, just he and I.  But he always would say, “You don’t sing anything by Joe Williams?” I think I would have been dead in the water. [I think that was a smart strategy.] I think it was.  I think he liked me because of that. [People pay attention when you do your own thing and not someone else’s thing.] Yeah.  Because that was the reason why Lockjaw put me with the band.  He said, “you’re going to like this guy.” When I sang, I had all of those charts, and there was no real rehearsal with that band. I remember the first big date we had was in England, and Basie was calling my name, and I was in the dressing room. I was supposed to be at the microphone. Because when I got to the microphone, the band was halfway through my number. That’s when I looked at Basie’s face, and it was the first time I saw him get angry.  But see, nobody tells you anything.  So that was lesson number one. That’s what you call hard knocks. The second lesson was that Lockjaw gave me something to drink, and I was standing in the wings, getting ready to go on, and I was drinking this, and as I drank I was going… [TALKS DRUNK] And the band was watching me. Then Basie was saying, “And now, ladies and gentlemen,” and they were calling my name, and I was just standing in the wings, going, “Who-ho-ho.” I said to myself after that moment, “I don’t think drinking is mine.” That’s when I quit.  I never started, but that’s when I knew it was wrong. Could not handle it.

But that’s 9 stars.  Because I’ve never heard him sing like that.  And that was something complete, lyrics and everything. Five feet of soul! Those are the kind of songs he sang, you don’t even have to worry about what they are.  You just sing them. But this was a special arrangement, I think.  Probably something he wrote. [Clarence Williams wrote it.] Yeah, Clarence. That sounds like him.  He wrote a lot of stuff Joe sang, too.

8.  Carmen Lundy, “It Might As Well Be Spring” (from SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN, Justin Time, 2003) (Lundy, vocal; Anthony Wonsey, piano; Curtis Lundy, bass; Victor Lewis, drums)

The wife of James Taylor, I thought it was. [At first you thought it was Carly Simon.] Yes.  But it’s not. I see a face, but I can’t see a name. I think I know who this is, but I’m not sure what the name is. It’s jazz.  There’s no question about it.  It’s an approach to jazz singing, more feminine than masculine. She’s in that same genre that Cassandra is in, as far as getting well-known things and putting her own inflections on it. The trio is involved with her, because they’re putting stuff together like that. I don’t know if she sings and plays.  It looks like somebody independently is playing.  There are three people I know who sound like somebody is accompanying them—Shirley Horn, Diana Krall, and Dina DeRose. They play like somebody is accompanying them.  When they sing, it’s altogether different. It’s like this guy is following her everywhere, and it’s her playing it. But this is a trio, and they seem to be working very closely with her.  Maybe it’s her chart.  Maybe she scored it.  Or maybe the piano player scored it for her.  But it’s somebody like that.  I don’t know who it is. It’s not Ella Fitzgerald.  It’s not Lena Horne.  It might be this singer, at-the-end-she-may-say-her-name.  No.  “It might as well be…”  Karrin Allyson or somebody like that. Tierney Sutton? I have not a clue. I enjoyed it, though. It was a tour de force all the way through.  Placing the lyric and the melody and all of that stuff together with what the trio was playing, it was like they were opposing each other musically a little bit, and fitting in like a puzzle. That is difficult to do from night to night, because sometimes guys want to go somewhere else when they play, and you want to go where the chart is going, and you’re in trouble when they go somewhere else. So I don’t know who it is. 4 stars.  Carmen Lundy?  Wow.  It was different.  It’s hard to do a standard like that and change it altogether, and still be remindful of how it really is supposed to go.

10.  Kurt Elling, “Detour Ahead”(from FLIRTING WITH TWILIGHT, Blue Note, 2001) (Elling, vocals)

This is Kurt.  This is another guy who knows what he wants to do.  He’s based in Chicago, and he seems to have all these good people to work with, because he comes up with something different all the time. And he’s singing! See, all of that phrasing and everything, the arrangement that’s going with him. He maybe wrote this stuff. [I think his piano player did the chart.] Well, his piano player’s a clone. Here, too, the chart is not namby-pamby.  This chart is meant to be played this way, so he can sing the way he sings. See, all the retards and things like that.  If they know when you’re going to do that.  He changes the melody. Does he play an instrument?  Maybe glockenspiel or something. That’s a joke.  I only joke when I’m in trouble! Sometimes when you’re on stage, you get in trouble, and you say: Oh, boy!  Do you know how many different showers they have with one knob?  And mostly in motels. When you turn a knob, it gets too hot.  When you turn it off completely and start it again, it’s cold water coming down. In my house, I have two knobs where you can regulate the water. Every hotel I’ve ever been in, except when I was in Europe, they have a lot of different things going on.  They have a bidet.

See, that drum hit, DONG, is part of the arrangement.  The drummer is aware of all that.  That’s 5 stars for the adventure.  A lot of adventure than that. A lot of going places musically. It’s probably an interesting set when he sings in clubs.  And he looks like Buffalo Bill.

11. Nat Cole, “These Foolish Things”(from LOVE SONGS, Capitol, 19__)

Nathaniel. Yeah. The guy who told him to sing, I don’t know if he could be still alive or not, because he was just playing piano at the time. He said, “You ought to sing!” Here’s a guy who could play and sing, and he was a helluva pianist. You know, Oscar Peterson sang like him.  If you heard Oscar sing, he sounds just like him. Also, Ray Charles sang like him in the beginning. And his television show was not sponsored.  It was what they call sustaining.  Whoever was at the station loved him so much, they put him on anyway.  But a lot of people in the South… Because he was singing love songs.  I guess guys in the South get too warm with a black guy singing love songs. Duke Ellington had a train when he went to the South.  They all stayed on the train, unless there was somebody who would invite them into their home.  Those were the days. This is 11 stars.  Because this guy was the epitome of what kind of singer…at that particular time.  Tremendous. And could talk to an audience and everything.  The orchestra sounds like Basie a little bit. I’ve sung this song, but I have not sung it recently.  There are a lot of things I would love to sing. Sometimes it’s just difficult getting a chart to be done with it.  You have to be concerned with financial things.

I hope I passed.  Sometimes, man, when you have a personal opinion, and you know that if you give that opinion, it’s going to be around the world, and it’s very shocking when it comes back to you.

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Filed under Bill Henderson, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, vocalist

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