ANYTHING WITH “BEATLES” on it was hot property in the ’60s. Artists across the gamut of musical genres and styles recorded songs bearing the Lennon-McCartney imprint. Along with the expected rock and pop artists, the occasional country and folk artist and even a jazz singer delved into the Fab Four’s songbook. Few of these non-rock artists enjoyed any notable commercial success with these attempts.
By the end of the decade, the times they certainly were a-changing and many MOR (middle-of-the-road) singers attempted to keep up with them by recording contemporary rock and pop songs. They usually kept to tried-and-true songwriters, like the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Paul Simon—or at least to their “safer” songs.
But by the end of the decade, just about any song by just about any rock artist, group, or songwriter was fair game! Of course, these older pop singers didn’t just crib the songs and their original arrangement.
“Julie is at her breathiest and most sultry, seeming to sing not with her vocal cords, but rather to radiate a protoplasmic sound.”
They had talented, thoughtful if old-school arrangers translate the rock songs into music that sounded more palatable to an older (white) demographic. While this may sound easy, it was not—very few of these artists made a successful transition from Tin Pan Alley music to the ‘new’ rock music, and for many, the attempts were embarrassing. 1
This was only fair on the Cosmic Scales of Justice as many rock & roll singers had been embarrassing themselves attempting to sing old-school standards since the ’50s.
Life magazine notes that Julie London’s turn from Hollywood actress to popular recording artist. Of course, this photo makes her look like a gorgeous movie star.
A kitsch-like quality
But until the Beatles and Dylan, there hadn’t been a similar passion for MOR singers to include rock & roll in their repertoire. Subsequently, there had been few instances where a Sinatra or a Clooney had made a bad pop record out of a good rock record.
Perhaps “bad” is the wrong term to use—perhaps I should say “inept,” as many of these singers recorded professionally competent versions of rock songs but showed a complete lack of understanding of what was happening in the world of rock music and so those songs came out sounding just plain wrong!
At least, they sounded wrong to the younger listeners who were buying the original rock records in the ’60s. Over the years, as listeners have embraced an ironic take on the past, some of these wrong records have taken on a kitsch-like quality. Some have even become modestly collectable among people who normally only collect rock music.
This is the Billboard review of ABOUT THE BLUES: “This is an attractively made up package, with a cover that’s simple, yet catches the bluesy mood of the disc. Julie London, on these selections, is at her breathiest and most sultry, seeming to sing not with her vocal cords, but rather to radiate a protoplasmic sound.” 2
Julie is her name
Julie Peck’s story is like a Hollywood movie come true: A beautiful young woman was discovered while working a mundane job and signed to a movie contract! She changed her last name from Peck to London and appeared in more than twenty movies. Unfortunately, she never became a big movie star.
Ten years after her first movie, she was “discovered” a second time, this time singing at a nightclub. This time, she signed a recording contract with the fledgling Liberty Records and this time there was no wait for stardom. Her first single, Cry Me A River, was a Top 10 hit in 1955, which provided the record company with its first hit.
Unfortunately, Julie’s style of music was on the way out as rock & roll was on the way in and despite one fine record after another, she never had anything resembling a pop hit again. As a Top 40 recording artist, she was a one-hit-wonder!
London had more success as an album artist when her début album reached the Top 10 on Billboard’s LP chart in early 1956. Her next three LPs all made it into the Top 20 and she looked like she might be the female Sinatra. Liberty took full advantage of her drop-dead gorgeous looks, which were exploited to the max on the covers of her albums.
My favorite Julie London album is ABOUT THE BLUES. When I was single (lo those many, many years ago), I was a bit of a Don Juan. If I brought a young lady to my apartment and wanted to woo her, I would turn the lights down and light a candle. Then I would put this album on the turntable and ask my date to dance with me. I considered listening to Julie London while dancing slow and close to be creative foreplay.
Julie London’s third album was CALENDAR GIRL and featured a deluxe, gatefold jacket with Julie in twelve cheesecake poses, one for each of the months of the calendar.
About the blues
Julie London was known for her husky, sexy voice and come-hither vocal style. About her singing, Julie said, “It’s only a thimbleful of a voice, and I have to use it close to the microphone. But it is a kind of over-smoked voice, and it automatically sounds intimate.” This is too much modesty: London’s early albums are among the most fascinating (and sexy) easy-listening records ever made.
Both her voice and how that voice was recorded up-close to the mic give those albums an intimacy that has rarely been achieved before or since. Interestingly, they were not produced by some lecherous company A&R man, but by her husband, songwriter Bobby Troup.
“It’s only a thimbleful of a voice, and I have to use it close to the microphone. But it is a kind of over-smoked voice, and it automatically sounds intimate.”
But after those first four albums, her audience of hip, white, male record-buyers inexplicably stopped buying her albums in large numbers. For the duration of her recording career, she never reached Billboard’s Top 100 again! Nonetheless, she continued to record and Liberty stuck with her, releasing more than thirty albums through the end of the ’60.
This culminated in 1969 with her final studio album, YUMMY, YUMMY, YUMMY, a record that was laughed at by every rock music fan who heard it for the next few decades. And then it became hip to like bad—I mean, inept—records.
Compared to her early albums from the 1950s, this cover photo (probably from 1968) and design is unimaginative. This album went straight to the discount section of what used to be called five-and-ten-cent stores and could be had for a mere 99¢.
Love in my tummy
Released in March 1969, YUMMY, YUMMY, YUMMY featured a typical if unexceptional cover with a close-up of the ever-lovely London. The album was produced by Tommy Oliver, who had worked with easy-listening artists like Edie Adams, Vicki Carr, Doris Day, Eddie Fisher, and Joanie Sommers.
Oliver was good with complicated arrangements for orchestras and getting a clean sound, which came in handy with the London album. His experience in overseeing the making of a rock album was as producer of the 1966 album JEFFERSON AIRPLANE TAKES OFF! and not much else.
Listed below are the twelve songs on Julie’s swan song album. Each is accompanied by the artist most often or closely associated with the song:
Stoned Soul Picnic Laura Nyro
Like to Get To Know You Spanky & Our Gang
Light My Fire The Doors
It’s Nice To Be With You The Monkees
Sunday Mornin’ Spanky & Our Gang
Hushabye Mountain Bobbie Gentry
The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo) Bob Dylan/Manfred Mann
Come To Me Slowly Margo Guryan
And I Love Him The Beatles
Without Him Harry Nilsson
Yummy, Yummy, Yummy The Ohio Express
Louie, Louie The Kingsmen
Just how ineptly the songs are misconstrued by everyone involved with this album cannot be put into words. The recordings must be heard to be believed—my fave may be “The Mighty Quinn,” but “Louie Louie” is a close second (both linked below). Fortunately, thanks to YouTube, that’s easy. Here are three standout (sic) selections:
A piece of the action
What fascinates me most about these recordings is the total lack of ironic distance in them: Oliver’s arrangements are tasteful, the band is made up of fine Los Angeles session musicians (that’s John Guerin and Hal Blaine on drums and Lyle Ritz on bass), and London seems involved in these performances, as if this is what rock and pop music should sound like if real singers like London sang them all the time!
This was a fairly common—and fairly condescending—attitude among the previous, older generation of record-makers (singers, songwriters, arrangers, producers, musicians, etc.). They hated rock & roll but were learning to like individual rock songs. 3
But YUMMY, YUMMY, YUMMY doesn’t reek of that kind of animosity or condescension. Neither does it reek of mere patronization. It just sounds like Liberty, London, and Oliver are doing their best—as they see it—to come to terms with the music that is selling in the millions all over the world.
They simply wanted a small piece of that action.
They didn’t get it—the small piece of action or what the ‘new’ music was all about. In fact, in ways, some of these tracks sounded almost surreal in the juxtaposition of the two more or less distant realities of the rock and easy-listening mind-sets!
As I stated, I was then and remain a fan of Julie’s—especially those early titles—and was baffled that a singer of her class and distinction would stoop to this. YUMMY YUMMY YUMMY was considered substandard by discrete listeners for years and outright jeered at by many serious rock fans.
This photo of Julie in bed looking like the centerfold of the still-new Playboy magazine takes up one half of the inside of the fold-open jacket to the CALENDAR GIRL album (above). 4
Steamy erotic caramel
Today’s listeners are a very different breed: YUMMY YUMMY YUMMY currently enjoys a 4½-star rating (out of five) from Amazon customers. One such customer opens his 5-star rating with this:
“This product belongs in the library of any lover of cocktail music or pop versions of rock. In other hands, this work might elicit a snicker or two but in Julie London’s hands, it’s like listening to the audio equivalent of warm caramel.”
As I also stated above, the times they were a-changing back then and the times they certainly have been a-changing since then. At the other end is this review by J. R. Spencer, who gives the album a 3-star rating. Spencer is a real fan and the author of Lady Liberty – The Julie London Definitive Handbook:
“Julie’s last album for Liberty Records was Liberty’s idea that her smoky, intimate voice could transform ridiculously inappropriate material into steamy, erotic torch songs and was apparently too compelling to resist. How humiliating for such a gifted and beautiful jazz vocalist.
When I met Julie back in 1992, she mentioned that she thought this album was a real joke. This album does qualify for the incredibly bizarre and camp status in received among collectors. Overall this is a good album, but just such a campy example of commercialism, and in my opinion an insult to Julie’s true greatness as a jazz vocalist and stylist.”
And those two observations are a good place to bring this piece to a halt! Except to say that after her career as a recording artist ended, Julie then enjoyed her greatest success as an actress, starring as Nurse Dixie McCall in the popular ’70s television series Emergency! Her co-star was hubby Bobby Troup.
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of the page is of Julie London as an actress in 1956. Whether or not it was from one of her movies that year (Crime Against Joe, The Great Man, or the rock & roll exploitation film The Girl Can’t Help It) I don’t know. Nor do I care, as it’s a lovely shot of a lovely woman and that’s good enough for me.
1 There have been fans and collectors of ‘bad records’ made by singers who had no business singing, whether they were legitimate MOR singers or celebrities exploiting their fame. Such singers have become a minor sub-genre in the field and are often ironically referred to as ‘golden throats.’
2 Using the term “protoplasmic sound” to describe ABOUT THE BLUES is far more far-out than the folks at RCA Victor referring to JEFFERSON AIRPLANE TAKES OFF! with the rather pedestrian “jet age sound” blurb on that album’s back cover.
3 As an extreme example of this attitude, there is an infamous invective that Frank Sinatra penned for the French magazine Western World in 1957. He called rock & roll “the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear” and a “rancid-smelling aphrodisiac.”
Sinatra blathered on, claiming rock & roll “fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd—in plain fact, dirty—lyrics it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth.” (Elvis History Blog)
4 It’s doubtful that asking a woman of Ms. London’s stature to appear in his magazine even entered Hugh Hefner’s mind at this time, as Playboy had almost no cultural clout in the 1950s. Twenty years later and Playboy had that clout and the money and he made just such an offer to Linda Ronstadt. She turned him down (and, alas, we are the poorer for it).