I thought it might be fun to talk about four of my favorite sultry female vocal albums, since most of us have just finished living through the hot summer nights of August, right? In no way am I suggesting that these are the four best Sultry albums, heck they don’t even all come from the same genre, but they are more like “obvious” hidden treasures. That is, LPs that are easily available, and often forgotten. There were two albums that introduced me to this kind of sultry, not quite jazz, and certainly not rock music. The first one was Willie Nelson’s Stardust Album and the Second was Linda Ronstadt and Nelson Riddle’s trilogy of songs from the Great American Song Book. The remaining three albums were What’s New, Lush Life, and For Sentimental Reasons. These last three albums came out from 1983 to 1986 and had combined sales of over 8 million copies in the United States. So, I guess I wasn’t the only one to discover their parents’ music in the eighties. I’ll look at these three albums later, but for today let’s talk about Willie’s album.
Stardust was released in 1978, way ahead of the American Song Book revival. Willie is certainly not a sultry female, but it was this album that started me to listening to the kind of music I would grow to love, that is the “Girl Singers” sing. It was quite a departure from the music we were all used to hearing from Willie; the record label didn’t want to do this project. Willie said it was inspired partially by the death of the great crooner Bing Crosby. It consisted of pop standards like, “Moonlight in Vermont”, “All of Me”, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”, and was arranged by Booker T. Jones. It was recorded in Nelson’s inimitable style at Emmylou Harris’ house.
As a 24-year-old Willie Nelson-fan living in central Texas, I wasn’t quite sure what to think about this album; it surely wasn’t the same music you would hear at Willie’s Fourth-of-July Picnics outside of College Station. At the time though I owned stacked Quad 57s and the album just sounded so fabulous on my system that I would listen to it over and over again; I must admit I still do to this day. It was one of the many times when my stereo introduced me to music I had no idea I would grow to love.
Linda Ronstadt and Nelson Riddle’s trilogy of songs from the Great American Song Book. The three albums were What’s New, Lush Life, and For Sentimental Reasons. As I mentioned these three albums came out from 1983 to 1986 and had combined sales of over 8 million copies in the United States. These albums became late night regulars at my house for years. They were beautifully recorded, beautifully orchestrated by the great Nelson Riddle, and as it turns out: unbelievably, beautifully sung by Linda Ronstadt. These albums are easy to fine used and very inexpensive. I’ve never seen the three-box set used, but why does that matter? The original pressings sounded better anyway.
Cool Heat – Anita O’Day Sings Jimmy Giuffre Arrangements is one of my favorite albums of all time, it was recorded in Hollywood in April, 1959. Will Friedwald has said that, “the only white woman that belongs in the same breath as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Hoiday, and Sarah Vaughan.”
She was born Anita Belle Colton. She sings with an incredible sense of ease and rhythm at the same time. These, combined with her powerful, dynamic voice, made her a great match for the “Big Band Era” she sang in. Yet when you listen to one of O’Day’s recordings, you never think of her as just a girl singer for a big band. No, she refused to fit the female stereotype of her day. In fact, O’Day thought of herself as a “hip” jazz musician who played vocal. Often, she even wore a band jacket and skirt instead of an evening gown. She changed her name from Colton to O’Day, which by the way is pig Latin for “dough,” which she hope to make plenty of.
Cool Heat is a departure from most Anita O’Day albums. It’s not quite as hard hitting or swinging as most of her albums. Missing from this LP is the irrepressibly hot jazz singer who scats with driving abandonment and who sings with great dynamics. Instead she lets us hear her soft and romantic side. Cool Heat showcases her capacity to concentrate her emotions and to swing ever so softly. One added bonus is that it has my favorite female recording of “Mack the Knife”, that is as long as you don’t count the one where Ella forgets the words.
My copy of Cool Heat was reissued in 1982 by Polydor and pressed in Japan. I have no idea how it compares to an original stereo or mono pressing, but would love to. Mine is very quiet and sounds very good for a reissue of this time period. I looked a few minutes ago on Audiogon and Ebay and couldn’t find a copy, but Ebay did have a large selection of O’Day recordings. If you come across this album it’s a perfect musical experience to listen to in a hot summer night with someone you love.
Shadowland was K.D. Lang’s debut solo album released in 1988. The album included her collaboration with Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn, and Kitty Wells on the cut “Honky Tonk Angels’ Medley.” It was produced by Owen Bradley, who produced most of Patsy Cline’s best-known work, and Shadowland is kind of Lang’s way of musically remembering her longtime love for Patsy Cline and her music. Lang seems to team up perfectly with Owen Bradley and engineer Bobby Bradley. Bradley was Cline’s most notable Nashville patron and I think it comes through clearly, but in no way is Lang intimidated by the challenge. She throws out reverent caution and sets off with explosions of her own style on almost every song. I was especially moved by classic torch songs like “Black Coffee” and “Busy Being Blue.”
Shadowland is simply a beautiful sounding album. Whether or not you like the music will be a matter of taste, I guess, but I can’t imagine anyone not loving it. Even if you aren’t taken in by the music, I’m sure you will be blown away by the sheer beauty of its sound. It is vivid, warm, and alive sounding. The LP produces a big coherent soundstage and the vocals and instruments just seem to come to life in my room.
I find it a little hard to say what genre Shadowland falls into. I guess it pushes the limits of contemporary country or maybe it could be called Texas Swing meets the Blues. Anyway, Lang swings with an ease and beauty that makes this album transcend any particular genre. Add to that her unmatched ability to phrase the lyrics in such a way that reaches down and touches your very heart makes this an album that never fails to move me.
The last track on Shadowland is a medley of country standards sung with Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells. Lang does an amazing job of holding her own with these so called honky-tonk angels. This is, simply put, one of my favorite albums. Just a note in closing: I picked up my current copy, which plays mint except for about 5 seconds at the beginning of side two, at Rasputin’s in Berkley for a whole five dollars, and I see this record around all the time from two to ten dollars. You should give it a listen, it’s about as good as recorded music gets.
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