Pity the City of the Angels. With its reputation for smog, traffic congestion and urban blight threatening to overpower its gentler amenities, California’s largest metropolis often gets a bad rap. “It was a malignant place,” Dave Frishberg told me in a 2008 interview, adding how pleased he had been to relocate to Portland, Oregon after serving a 15-year tenure in southern California.
But until recent times, Los Angeles – as noted by jazz writer Will Friedwald (“Aging Gracefully with Sue Raney”, The New York Sun, 1 October, 2007) – had something available nowhere else on earth: a triumvirate of legendary under-appreciated singers – Bill Henderson, Ernie Andrews, and Sue Raney. Henderson and Andrews, the two gentlemen of this trio, have sadly passed on. That leaves Sue Raney, still very much with us, and still deserving of greater recognition.
I first heard her years ago on her second Capitol album, Songs For A Raney Day, arranged by none other than Billy May. Barely 21 when it was recorded, Raney captivates from the opening notes with a gorgeous, mellifluous voice, flawless diction, spot-on intonation, mature phrasing and the vocal control and assurance of someone who – despite her youth – had already spent years in the limelight.
Indeed, she had. Born Raelene Claire Claussen in McPherson, Kansas and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Raney began singing at age four, making her first public appearance the following year. (But note: many accounts of events in Raney’s life story may be a year off from her actual age. She explained why: “Leonard Feather, in the Encyclopedia Of Jazz, he called me and said: ‘I want your birthdate.’ I went: ‘June 18th, 19 . . . 40!’ I lied by one year – it’s really 1939.” Feeling churlish for having obliged the ageless and youthful-sounding Ms. Raney to divulge her actual birthdate, I have been less than scrupulous about double-checking her age at various stages of her chronology.)
By the time she taped Songs For A Raney Day (1960), she had been singing professionally for nearly 10 years, had been a teenaged star of radio, and had made her recording debut for Capitol in the company of the redoubtable Nelson Riddle, the singer’s arranger.
Though an impressive start, to paraphrase Carolyn Leigh, the best was yet to come. There may have been a few missteps and setbacks along the way, but the steady arc of Ms. Raney’s accomplishments is as remarkable as it is under-appreciated. How talent such as hers can be overlooked bewilders, but probably has partly to do with the decision to pursue her entire career on the left coast, away from the centre of jazz in New York City.
I recently visited with Sue by phone at the Sherman Oaks home she shares with her husband, former Major League ball player, Carmen Fanzone. Mr. Fanzone, an accomplished trumpeter, has appeared on many of his wife’s recordings. Ms. Raney, I discovered, is one of the nicest people I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing.
She attributes her early start in music to the dogged guidance of her mother, admitting author James Gavin’s characterisation of her as a ‘fierce stage mom’ holds some validity. ‘I started singing at four, I tap danced and did all those things. I was one of those little Shirley Temple dolls’
She attributes her early start in music to the dogged guidance of her mother, admitting author James Gavin’s characterisation of her as a “fierce stage mom” holds some validity. “She had musical background; she sang in my uncle’s band . . . she had me out there, working. I started singing at four, I tap danced and did all those things. I was one of those little Shirley Temple dolls, you know. She’d have me singing everywhere. Later, I wanted to do things on my own, and it was hard. I had a hard time with my mom.”
Her mother’s machinations yielded results, however, leading to the singer’s first big break with a radio spot on the popular Jack Carson Show. Carson was seeking a teenager for the programme and Raney – an experienced vocalist at 15 – fit the bill. The Carson gig meant that the family would relocate to Los Angeles.
Raney’s exposure on the radio led to her signing a contract with Capitol Records at the tender age of 17 where she recorded a number of singles, in addition to three LP albums over the course of several years. I asked her how it felt to be in the studio with Nelson Riddle and his orchestra while still in her teens: “Well, it was overwhelming, but when I think about it now, it becomes more overwhelming than when I was in the middle of it, not knowing what was expected of me . . . He was a lovely man, and I was his girl singer sometimes when he’d take bands out. We went to the Kennedy inauguration together, which I was so proud [to be part of]. I was 21 then.”
By this time, she had mastered the art of singing jazz without, perhaps, being considered a pure jazz singer. But if the way she glides into a phrase à la Johnny Hodges or other “singing” instrumentalists, finesses the beat, and erects a scaffolding of blue tonality over a carpet of relaxed swing is not jazz, then it’s a close relative. These qualities inform every note she sings on an album such as Songs For A Raney Day.
Wishing to test said skills on her own, Raney oversaw a stormy break up with her controlling mother, and ended up marrying her manager, which, she admits, was a mistake. “He was a nice man, . . . he was helpful to me . . . and a lot of people mistake love for someone who’s helping you along the way.” Though not fated to last, marrying her manager did facilitate Raney’s desire to be independent of her mom.
Then, in 1964 – just prior to the release of her third and final Capitol album – she was hit by a car in Los Angeles. It took nearly a year for a full recovery, by which time Capitol had released the album, titled All By Myself. She was asked to appear on The Tonight Show to promote it. As she tells it, “They wheeled me out on a dolly because I couldn’t walk at that time. . . . Of all things to be hit by a car when your new album was just coming out.”
‘By the time I came along in the 60s, there was already all this . . . rock and roll, all of those things that kind of ruined the era that Sinatra and Ella enjoyed. They had already made their mark, but for people like myself, it wasn’t good timing’
Changes in popular taste throughout the 60s also impacted her career. Says Raney, “I remember an article being written that I was born too late because if I had been born in the era of the band singers, I’d have had a different kind of career. . . . By the time I came along in the 60s, there was already all this . . . rock and roll, all of those things that kind of ruined the era that Sinatra and Ella enjoyed. They had already made their mark, but for people like myself, it wasn’t good timing.”
Despite these challenges, Raney found work and had opportunities to record LPs with Phillips and Imperial after her association with Capitol ended. Club dates, concerts and television work helped to fill her schedule as well during the 60s and 70s. Asked to share a highlight of her television appearances, she related this anecdote: “I enjoyed The Dean Martin Show, that was fun to do. He never came on the set. There was no rehearsing with him; there was always this Lee Hale that would stand in for him. So when I’m singing with him, doing the duets, for the first time I see his face. And I think to myself: ‘That was pretty good.’ You know, we ended up coming off pretty good together.” You can see Sue’s appearance on the Dean Martin Show on YouTube.