Julie Is Her Name
Liberty – 1955
Julie London’s 1955 debut is a stark and intimate recording. Though fitting comfortably within the lounge stylings of the mid-fifties, it stands as one of the great “late-night” pop albums of its – or any – era.
To identify an artist as a “torch singer” almost seems reductive. The term initially came to identify someone who would sentimentally croon over an unrequited love, thus, “carrying a torch” in hopes that they would return. It’s kind of sad for an artist to be relegated to that as a defining existence. However, there is something in that niche – especially in the mid-century era of kitschy lounge singers and jazz vocalists – that resonates with a dreamlike longing.
Did I really just type the word “kitschy” in a review of a Julie London album? My apologies. Let’s be honest, though. Perhaps it’s a bit overly sentimental, but Julie London’s 1955 debut album, Julie Is Her Name, claims the designation of my go-to album in the wee small hours. Though she often gets tagged as a torch singer, maybe that isn’t all bad. Sometimes what we really need is a martini and a sultry songbird to help us feel less alone. When I need someone to commiserate with, Julie London has my back.
From the first notes of “Cry Me a River,” you can tell London is on to something special. Barney Kessel’s pristine jazz guitar and Ray Leatherwood’s upright bass provide London with all she needs in terms of instrumental accompaniment. That’s right. The entire album consists of nothing but guitar, bass, and Julie. At first glance, it may seem like the stripped down arrangement is the result of a beginning artist not able to afford an entire backing jazz orchestra, but the restraint and openness that Kessel and Leatherwood bring only allows the torch to burn that much brighter. The pair’s contributions can’t be understated; in fact, one Apple Music offering of the track “I’m in the Mood for Love” even goes so far as to add “featuring Barney Kessel and Ray Leatherwood” on the listing. There’s no denying that the vocalist is front and center on this album, and rightfully so, but the simplicity this trio of musicians bring together on this recording helps to set it apart from London’s other albums of larger jazz combos or full blown orchestras.
Julie London hasn’t received as much serious attention as contemporaries such as Sarah Vaughan or Helen Merrill; perhaps since many of her jazz vocal recordings to follow in the early-sixties seemed to be increasingly emblematic of a bygone era being left behind by the encroaching psychedelic sixties and whatever the cool kids in mop tops were revolting against. However, absent that social context, London’s silky vocals still offer a suitably comforting soundtrack to your boozy evening mope fest. There’s something to be said for that.
Maybe this is the original bedroom pop for middle aged divorcees. After all, London was famously (even if briefly) married to television and movie actor Jack Webb, who may be best-known for his role as Sgt. Joe Friday on Dragnet (“Just the facts, ma’am”). Perhaps that’s why younger listeners at the time lifted their noses at London, who may have been associated with the square responsible for this kitschy golden throat monstrosity of spoken word lounge recording.
Instead, a retrospective of London’s work, void of social context, may allow for new listeners to appreciate the sultry singer for what she offers, as well as for who she has inspired. Younger listeners – and fans of more contemporary female vocalists like Lana Del Rey and Julien Baker – would do well to look into one of the original torch singers in this recording. After all, while London may slip deeper into the smoke-filled sappy lounge vibe in later albums – perhaps teetering even more on kitsch as she employs larger orchestras – Julie Is Her Name remains pure and captivating throughout.