Maxine Sullivan is one of my very favourite singers (as well as something of an honorary fellow Scot) – so I couldn’t let her centenary this month go by without taking the opportunity to write about her. Unfortunately, I was too young – but only just! – to have heard her sing live (she died in 1987, which is just when I was first listening to jazz), but I’m lucky enough to now know many of her colleagues. And none of them has anything but the highest praise for her, both as a singer and as a human being. She is definitely a lady whose life and career are worth celebrating.
Maxine was born Marietta Williams on May 13, 1911 in Homestead, Pennsylvannia. She began singing as a child and went on to perform regularly in and around Pittsburgh. “Discovered” by Gladys Mosier, the pianist in Ina Ray Hutton’s all-girl band, she moved to New York in 1937 and was introduced to bandleader Claude Thornhill.
According to Will Friedwald, who writes about Maxine in his book Jazz Singing, “Thornhill’s ideas as to how to use her voice were to soon do as much for his career as they would for Sullivan, and he concentrated on a gimmick that Sullivan had already been using for years. Thornhill matched Sullivan’s ‘suave, sophisticated swing’ with material from way out of the Afro-Jewish jazz and Tin Pan Alley lexicon, from Anglo-European folk sources, which paid off in the Sullivan-Thornhill hit ‘Loch Lomond’.”
Loch Lomond was an international hit, and, as she later said, it put Maxine on the map. She was very clearly a class act, with her cool voice and unfussy, natural, gentle swinging style, and although she recorded a string of traditional folk songs and standards, she was forevermore known as the Loch Lomond Girl – not that everyone approved of the liberties being taken with song: one American radio station manager banned it, deeming it “sacrilegious”.
In 1938, she sang the song in the Dick Powell movie Going Places which also starred Louis Armstrong – pictured here with Maxine and songwriter Johnny Mercer who penned the lyrics for the Harry Warren tunes featured in the film. (See clip of Mutiny in the Nursery at the end of this article.) Ella Fitzgerald later went on record saying that she had the idea of swinging the nursery rhyme A-Tisket A-Tasket from Maxine’s success with swinging the classics.
In 1939, Maxine appeared in the movie St Louis Blues, singing the title number while Dorothy Lamour got all the new songs. Maxine, however, managed to record one of Dottie’s songs – Hoagy Carmichael’s Kinda Lonesome – before the film was released.
In 1939, Maxine and Louis Armstrong were reunited – as Bottom and Titania, no less (see pic below) – for the ill-fated, but intriguing-sounding, Broadway extravaganza Swingin’ the Dream, the swing version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which brought together the creme de la creme of the jazz world. It wasn’t Maxine’s first foray into Shakespeare territory – she had already recorded swing versions of It Was a Lover and His Lass and Under the Greenwood Tree – and it wouldn’t be her last, as she revisited the bard’s sonnets three decades later in the delightful company of pianist, composer and arranger extraordinaire Dick Hyman.
Despite the fact that Swingin’ the Dream was a spectacular flop, Maxine’s career continued to blossom into the early 1940s when she and her husband, the bass player/small group leader John Kirby, became the first black stars to have their own radio show, Flow Gently Sweet Rhythm.
The show ended in 1942, not long after Kirby and Maxine divorced. During the 1940s, Maxine continued to be a major draw at nightclubs the length of 52nd Street. She came to Britain in 1948 – a visit which was documented by an American news magazine – and took a weekend out of her schedule to sing Loch Lomond on its “bonnie bonnie banks”. She didn’t perform – officially – in Scotland during that trip but I’ve found some lovely photos of her collecting water from the famous loch, and entertaining a crowd at the water’s edge, in the local press here in Glasgow. (She came back and toured Scotland in 1954.)
The 1950s were tougher for Maxine, partly because the jazz scene was changing and she was still regarded as a swing singer, and partly because she didn’t get the publicity for her shows from the radio stations, as she had in the past. She later said: “It was like walking uphill with the brakes on.” So, in 1958, she decided to stop performing and concentrate on her family and the community affairs in which she enjoyed an active role. By now married to pianist Cliff Jackson, she trained as a nurse, served as the president of her children’s PTA, and – in her neighbourhood of the Bronx – established The House That Jazz Built, where she rented rooms to musicians, provided space for local arts groups and organised workshops and concerts.
The retirement didn’t last long – and Maxine was back in the recording studio in the late 1960s when she embarked on what would turn out to be the arguably most productive and prolific comeback in jazz history. Working with such master arranger/players as Bob Wilber and Dick Hyman (with whom she had already collaborated on a classic album of Andy Razaf songs), she won over a new generation of fans with such superb albums as Close as Pages in a Book and The Music of Hoagy Carmichael (both with Wilber). With Hyman, she revisited the sonnets of Shakespeare for the cultish album Sullivan-Shakespeare-Hyman, a lesser-known gem in her recorded output.
By now promoted to jazz royalty and nicknamed “The Queen”, Maxine toured and recorded extensively during the 1970s and 1980s, notably with the Scott Hamilton Quintet. Her rate of recording seems to have accelerated in her final years when she produced five LPs with a Swedish group headed by trumpeter Bent Persson; worked her way through a raft of definitive songbooks of such favourites of the jazz world as Burton Lane and Jule Styne, with small bands under the direction of the pianist/arranger Keith Ingham, and produced the fabulous Uptown with the Scott Hamilton Quintet (featuring the wonderful John Bunch on piano). Lyricists loved her because she paid such great attention to their words, and usually sang the rarely-performed verses. And musicians loved her too.
Dick Hyman told me a few years ago: “I’ve always thought that she was maybe my favourite singer of all to have accompanied. Why? Because she was so musical. She responded to anything that she heard. It wasn’t just a matter of your following her; she would follow you too – so from the point of view of jazz, it was a very mutual kind of situation.
“As a person, she was laidback and easy to get along with. She was small-ish and perfectly self-possessed, and could take charge of a musical situation with her delicate way of singing – quite the opposite of someone who shouts the blues or rants and raves. She was very controlled, very delicate and feminine in what she sang. And she swung.”
Like many of the musicians Maxine worked with, Hyman stressed the fact that “she was one of the boys”. He added: “She was perfectly feminine but she fit right in with us – and really we thought of her as another musician because she was such a good time-keeper and knew how to relate to what we were doing.” I think the fact that she is the only female vocalist (and one of only three women) in Art Kane’s iconic Great Day in Harlem photograph (a snippet of which is shown above) illustrates the fact that she was regarded as a musician rather than a girl-singer.
Continuing the one-of-the-boys theme, Warren Vache recently told me that when he was 25, he was drunk under the table by Maxine, who – it seems – was very fond of her whisky. And, according to Vache, anyone else’s that was lying around … Despite the fact that she was an old lady when he knew her, Vache still refers to her as “a great gal” – and certainly the age difference between her and such younger musicians as Scott Hamilton and Phil Flanigan, who played bass in Hamilton’s quintet, didn’t seem to matter one iota.
Flanigan told me: “What I remember about Maxine is the ease of working with her and travelling with her. It was all pleasantness. The idea of a generational divide never occurred to any of us. I loved her singing style which was as straight and true to the composer’s intention as you could imagine but yet she did her own thing. She had a complete lack of affectation – which I loved about her. Some singers float on top of the rhythm section without sustaining any time. Maxine was an absolute genius at that but she could nail the time in such a way that it was a pleasure for a rhythm section to play with her. She was a musician of the voice, and a pleasure for other musicians to work with.”
Maxine Sullivan died on April 7, 1987, just months after returning from her last visit to Japan – where she was the darling of the jazz scene – with Scott Hamilton’s Quintet. And the last song she sang onstage (and recorded – as the concert was filmed)? You’ve guessed it: Loch Lomond.
(c) Alison Kerr
* I’ll be singing Maxine Sullivan’s praises on BBC Radio Scotland’s The Jazz House on Wednesday, May 25. Sadly, we were only able to play three tracks. So here is a wee compilation of videos of Maxine culled from YouTube.