Friday, July 03, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 128: King Pleasure/Quincy Jones

Every King Pleasure session leaves me with more questions. How exactly did he fit into Prestige's world? How did he fit into anyone's? He has to have been one of Prestige's bestselling artists, but he seems to have been recorded as an afterthought, generally with a rhythm and blues band. This session is unusual in that he has a fantastic array of A-list musicians backing him up, but it also doesn't seem that it was exactly his session.

And we've seen this before, too. In 1952 there's a session by the Charlie Ferguson Quintet. Ferguson didn't exactly become a household word, even in jazz households, although he put together a fine group, including bassist Peck Morrison. And of the eight songs recorded that day, six of them instrumentals, Prestige only released four, and only two of them were Ferguson instrumentals. The other two that did get released featured a vocalist. Yes, it was King Pleasure, and yes, these two have become jazz classics: "Red Top" (also featuring Betty Carter) and "Jumpin' With Symphony Sid."

So here, again. That session is listed in the Prestige discography as "The Charlie Ferguson Quintet" with King Pleasure. For this one, at least Pleasure gets top billing: King Pleasure with Quincy Jones Band. But again, two cuts with vocals, two without.

This is the fifth of five sessions Pleasure would do for Prestige. They'd be collected in the now-legendary King Pleasure Sings/Annie Ross Sings LP in 1957. By then Pleasure had gone on to record a couple of singles for Aladdin (including a remake of "Moody's Mood for Love"), then Jubilee, HiFi Jazz, and United Artists ("Moody's Mood" again). Then nothing. He died in 1981, pretty much forgotten. I was only able to find one obituary, on a blog called The People vs. Dr. Chilledair, a reprint of a piece the author had written in 1981 for the LA Jazz Dispatch, and it doesn't add much to what we know about his life, which is close to nothing. But he adds this:
Postscript: Years later, after writing this, I encountered the singer’s last drummer, John Gilbert, on the internet. Here is what he wrote on his website: “This picture of me was taken in 1965 by King Pleasure at a service club in North Carolina. He was traveling through that part of the country using local rhythm sections. [Singer] Earl Coleman recommended me to King Pleasure for the gig, and it turned out to be a lasting friendship. I came to California in 1969 and we played some in L.A. until his health failed badly (emphysema). Pleasure stayed with my wife and I for a while in Sherman Oaks, Ca. My son was an infant and he would serenade him to sleep. I was also associated with Earl Coleman at the time. King Pleasure was initially impressed with the fact that I knew all of the words to 'Moody's Mood For Love' and other tunes that he had recorded. He was a sweet man and very helpful to me. Pleasure related to me that the greatest moment in his musical career came in New England. He was at a low point in his life, sitting at the back of a bus when a group of school children boarded the bus and one was chirping out 'Moody's Mood' which was a hit at the time. They had no idea that the figure in the back of the bus was the man himself. He got a big kick out of this and often happily reflected on that moment in time.”
I had wondered if Pleasure was particularly difficult, and maybe no one could stand to have him around for more than two songs at a time. When one thinks about jazz musicians of this era, one can't help but be aware that addiction is a possibility, but I'll never assume that.

Another possibility: maybe he only had so much material. Vocalese isn't exactly like instrumental improvisation. You're basically not improvising at all. You're following someone else's improvisation, so it has to be learned, and it's a little more complicated than learning a couple of verses and a bridge to standard. Plus, you have to write lyrics to that complex and often labyrinthine musical structure. Which also means finding the solo that'll work, and exposure to too much bad vocalese over the years has certainly shown us all that that's not a guarantee. Annie Ross went home one night and came back in the morning with"Twisted," but it's not that easy. Pleasure was a great singer, but he got his start performing an Eddie Jefferson lyric, and maybe putting together a successful vocalese piece didn't come easy to him.

In this case, he had some pretty serious support-- one of the hottest arrangers in the business, and two backup vocalists who were the royal court of the kingdom of vocalese, in Eddie Jefferson and Jon Hendricks. More backing vocals were provided by the Three Riffs, who weren't a group that went on to  stardom, but they were very good (one of them, Joe Seneca, actually did go on to a distinguished career as an actor).

He also had a powerful group of musicians working under Quincy Jones's direction. J. J. and Kai were really hitting their stride as a trombone team. Lucky Thompson probably never quite the recognition he deserved. This may have been 19-year-old Paul Chambers's first recording session.

The resulting songs may never have quite gotten the recognition of Moody's or Parker's moods, but they should have. "Don't Get Scared" is a Stan Getz solo, from a recording made in Sweden with Bengt Halberg and Lars Gullin. The Getz solo is sung by pleasure, the Gullin solo sung (and written) by Jon Hendricks, whose clever vocalese lyrics once earned him the nickname "the James Joyce of Jive."

"I'm Gone" is a Quincy Jones original, and the lyrics are credited to making Pleasure, but the arranged vocal ensemble parts, to the repeated phrase "I'm gone, I'm gone I'm gone I'm gone" are as important as the solo part.

So maybe this was essentially a Quincy Jones session. Jones wasn't exactly a regular in the Prestige stable, though he had done a couple of other arrangements, and he was a rising star, and maybe he brought the vocalists in as part of it, but the vocal tracks weren't all he wanted to do.

Maybe...but the vocal tracks are the ones that are remembered from this session. King Pleasure really was that good, with the right material, and he didn't record all that much.

But the instrumental tracks are worthwhile too. There's some masterful writing and masterful playing. "Funk Junction," which is sort of a continuation of the ideas in "I'm Gone," shows what happens when this same ideas are given to a bunch of talented improvisers. Of particular note is a solo by young Paul Chambers.

"I'm Gone" came out on 78 b/w "You're Crying." "Don't Get Scared" had two different releases--on 78, b/w "Funk Junction," and on 45, b/w "Red Top."

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