JJ 09/63: In My Opinion – Babs Gonzales

Sixty years ago, the singer, writer and head hipster loved Rita Reys but thought Sarah Vaughan couldn't swing. First published in Jazz Journal September 1963

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Babs Gonzales fronting his band in New York between 1946 and 1948. Photo by William P. Gottlieb

This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop.

Anyone who met Babs Gonzales, the personality boy, when he was in England recently, will know that here is a man who is really with the jazz. He was born in Newark N.J., one of a family of three brothers. He tells us that his mother strongly wished for a girl, but Fate decided otherwise. So his mother, evidently a person of some character, cocked a snook at the fickle jade, and christened all the boys Babs. He has sung with various modern bands in America and else­where and was the organiser of the first bop vocal group, Babs’ Three Bips and a Bop. He has also worked with Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Barnet. – Sinclair Traill


Lady Sings The Blues. The Essential Billie Holiday. HMV CLP 1541
There were but three people in America who could call her ‘William’ – Clark Monroe, Johnny Griffin and myself, we could all call her that. Anyone else was in trouble. I can’t say no more for her though than she fed everybody in New York for about four years – with no sweat! Any musician could go there and eat and get money for the subway or to go to the movies – every day they could do that! And if she was out of town she would leave some money with her mother. And every day you would find those who didn’t have no bread, they would be up at Lady’s house in the Bronx – and everything was cool! And that’s how it went down!

I was grieved when, at the end of her life, so many of her ‘friends’ left her alone ’cause they thought they’d have to loan her some money if they came by her path. But you know some fellow left her a thousand dollars a month – never no name, an anonymous donor. She was able to pay for her apartment out of that, and I used to go and take her out at least once a week. And Griff would go down there and cook for her. We used to tell a lot of those people who she had befriended to go by and say hello. She didn’t want no money, she wanted and needed friendship and the warmth of their being there.

You know she gave Sarah her first clothes to wear on the stage? And Carmen McRae was her maid for three years – she wasn’t a singer then, she just played the piano. But Lady wanted someone to look after her and so Carmen went along for three years. It was a great school for her and if you listen to Carmen you can hear what she learned. She won’t mind my telling you all this, for when you have to pay your dues, you just pay ’em and that’s all there is to that! I love her and she knows that, and if she hadn’t been with ‘William’ then she maybe wouldn’t be as she is today; that’s the way it is.

Of Billie Holiday: ‘They always think of the feeling she gave her songs, the soul and despair she possessed in her voice, but they never think of how she was running changes even before Ella’

But you can hear ‘William’ in so many singers. You see when they go to talk about jazz singers, even before Ella Fitzgerald knew how to run those changes, Billie Holiday was running those chord changes when I was in grammar school. She was doing that a long time before anyone else. And it’s really funny that people don’t think of that aspect of Billie’s work, they always think of the feeling she gave her songs, the soul and despair she possessed in her voice, but they never think of how she was running changes even before Ella. Musical changes in those things with Teddy Wilson, Miss Brown To You and all that stuff. The First Lady will tell you that is true, for that is how it was and nobody can’t change it – so you all remember that! She left me her ring. It ain’t worth all that, but I have been offered up to five hundred dollars for that ring. But I wouldn’t sell for anything; that ring is my Taj Mahal.

Letter From Home. Eddie Jefferson. Riverside RLP 411
Well, this is one time you don’t have to tell me nothing! That was E.J. Now I must take some time to explain to you some­thing ’bout this cat. When I left Dizzy’s band, with whom I had been singing, I gave my gig to Joe Carroll. My tune Oop-Pop-a-Da was doing cool and I thought I would go out on my own, so I went along with my Three Bips And A Bop from 1948 to 1951 when I met James Moody in Paris. We teamed up and we stayed together for three years. We made a couple of records which did good – Cool Wailing and the James Moody Story, but although we had done crazy in America I was keen to return to Europe. Well, Moody wanted someone to replace me, and I had heard Eddie Jefferson work one night in a little joint in Pittsburg, so as I didn’t want to leave Moody cold, I drove from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, got this cat and put him with Moody, before I cut out for Europe.

‘Eddie [Jefferson] is my notion of a real jazz singer. In fact, Eddie with Joe Carroll and Mel Tormé are my three favourite male singers’

Well, Eddie has been cooking ever since. When he made this album he had been out of work for some time. But he came to New York and saw me and Johnny Griffin who introduced him to Riverside. Well, we planned it this way – Johnny, he played tenor on the date, I A & R’d the session and made myself two hundred dollars for A & R money, and Eddie got the date worth eight hundred dollars; so everybody was happy. I am delighted to hear the record is doing good over here, for Eddie is my notion of a real jazz singer. In fact, Eddie with Joe Carroll and Mel Tormé are my three favourite male singers. Never forget that Mel Tormé is a very finished musician. In 1946 Tormie made a record with the Mel-tones called What Is This Thing Called Love. Now the Hi-Lo’s, the Freshmen and all those other groups can sing most fantastic harmonies, and they can match the harmonic part of that record, but none of them has touched the fire – so I always respect this man Tormé for he is a finished musician who knows his chords and knows just how to put them into sequence.

Now, when Ella started she didn’t know her chords, she just had a good ear but she has had to learn her chords. Of course she always had that crazy ear. There are many singers who know the chords but are not what I call jazz singers, they don’t use the jazz idiom. Lambert and Hendricks are very good friends of mine, and good musicians, but to my ear they don’t swing. King Pleasure don’t swing; and there’s the difference. And there are the girls of course, such people as Chris Connor, who has been exploited as a jazz singer. I think that’s bad for the genuine jazz singers. I heard Rita Reys on the continent, she swings – very expoobident! And the rest, the jazz singers, Carmen McRae, Annie Ross – both exceptional and they swing. ‘What about Sarah Vaughan?’ people will say. She has beautiful clarity, the clarity of Marion Anderson, and a wonderful range. I think she could have gained more laurels for her­self in that class of entertainment, but she chose to become a jazz singer – but she just can’t swing. But you can’t have every­thing; for those other girls I called haven’t got her beautiful tonal quality, that wonderful clarity and bell-like voice.

Well? All Right Then. Jimmie Lunceford. Phillips BBL 7037
At the time that record was made, Duke hadn’t attained the status that he gained later on, and when they had those ‘battles of music’ that they used to have in America, Lunceford was as tonally equipped as Duke to give battle. Harmonically and tonally so; it was a wonderfully trained orchestra. We had a boarding house and a restaurant and Lunceford and many other musicians used to stay with us when they were in town. Lunceford first took me on the road when I was sixteen – I went right across the States in his bus. I also had my first flight with Lunceford, for he was a pilot and had his own aircraft. He was a great man, you know, a scholar, an expert musician, a theologian, and above all a great gentleman. He taught me how to read the chords, so that when I eventually hit New York, I didn’t have to pay all those dues. That was the band for me!

Pink Champagne. Jimmy Rushing – Lullabies. Phillips BBL 7360
That’s my baby – he is the epitome of expoobidence. There are so many things I could tell you about Rush. He was very good to me when I was coming up – he was kind and good. Also he was the man who whipped me off to hospital in a cab when I was taken ill with an appendix – couldn’t get no ambulance, and he rushed me off, before I knew what was wrong with me. I have heard many blues singers – Joe Turner, Lightning Hopkins and T-Bone Walker with his big band – I caught him in Miami last March. They are what I call the root-crop of blues singers, those men I have mentioned.

I have heard Rush for the past twenty years but some of those other cats down South I had never heard before. They never come to New York, just play the South. But I’ll tell you what, they outdraw Basie, and even outdraw Duke in some places. It’s no big problem, for in the South they just want the blues down there. Of course Rush has been drawing ’em in for years and rightly so. Things have been good for him, real cool, these past years, and no one deserves it more than Rush.

‘No one would have ever thought that was Duke playing – those sixteen bars he played was just like some of them cats I heard in the deep Nashville lowlands’

I’m Just A Lucky So And So. Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Duke Ellington Song Book. HMV CLP 1227
Well, I heard about these albums and I’m glad I have at last got a chance to hear them. I have admired Ella since my school days and she used to dig me whenever she played Newark. And when I started to entertain she always tried to find me and blow me out; no matter where I’m at she’d find me and blow me out, and if I wasn’t gigging and, she had time off, we’d meet and go to all the joints, and blow and get high together. ‘I’ll blow you out, Gonsalves!’ she’d say. ‘All right, First Lady,’ I replied, ‘let’s go!’ As far as singing goes, there is nobody that swings like her and nobody as melodic as her. So she’s the Queen, and that’s all there is to say.

Now, about his highness the Duke. To start with that piano introduction in there just threw me flat. No one would have ever thought that was Duke playing – those sixteen bars he played was just like some of them cats I heard in the deep Nashville lowlands. No kidding, that shows you the way he can go when he wants to go. That really threw me and I guess that’s why he played it like that, just so as to throw a lot of us cats. He’s a man who is loved by everybody from garbage men to kings, and he treats everyone with the same cultured ease – a real gentleman.

As for his music, it is the epitome of jazz and that is that! When we were at school we didn’t care so much about what he was playing, but we used to go along just to see what he was wearing – just to see what Duke was wearing. And that title couldn’t belong to a better cat; he’s so sweet. If I only had just a third of his regal expoobidence, I would be a happy man for life.

I’m On My Way Now. Armstrong – Louis & The Good Book. Brunswick LAT 8270
Well, there’s another one of the bosses – you can’t get around the bosses. When I was in Vegas last December, playing there, Pops would make a point to come to my club to see how I was doing – and a couple of times he took out his axe and had a blow with me. You dig I had never played one of those big rooms before and that is the kind of cat Pops is. You know, ever since I was seventeen years old whenever Pops meets me he has never been too big to lend a cat a helping hand and be beautiful. Now, in Vegas he had a little difficulty with a cat out there called Louis Prima – a little artistic difficulty you under­stand. But I knew Louis Prima was wrong, so I had to straighten him out. And Pops said, ‘Yeah, gate if I was twenty years younger I’d have taken care of that business myself. Beautiful gate – look me up when we open at the Ambassadeur. Look me up and Pops will come down and hang with you.’

Talking about Pops you must go back to the truth and realise Pops was the first jazz singer. It’s no big problem, he was the first and the best. Then other cats came along, such as Leo Watson and he made his show, and then others. Then I learnt my chords from the piano and instead of just pure scatting as they had been doing, I tried to make it more melodic and harmonic with the chord changes. But Pops was first, no sweat. And shame on all those people who don’t want to admit it for they are just fooling themselves. Anyway, he has records to prove it.