Julie London’s Conflict of Confidence

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(Photo: Chicago Review Press)

Singer Julie London was her own harshest critic, but skepticism was not the feeling that came across when she performed. Take, for example, the smash hit “Cry Me A River,” which led off her 1955 debut album, Julie Is Her Name (Liberty). Following Barney Kessel’s guitar lead, every accent, pause and whisper become enticements. Singers spend their careers honing this quality. London did it just before she turned 29. Still, she summed up her approach by saying, “I sing low and sexy because I can’t sing any higher.”

Michael Owen explores the contradiction between her confidently seductive delivery and own lack of self-assurance in his definitive biography, Go Slow: The Life Of Julie London (Chicago Review Press). Owen—an archivist for the Ira Gershwin estate—draws on numerous sources, including interviews with her associates, government documents, newspapers and magazines, including DownBeat. While London’s voice, gaze, outfits and many of her film roles emphasized sexuality, her biographer refrains from delving into salacious themes. The focus here is on London’s work and how her affable, sometimes sharp, personality proved sustaining in a mercurial industry.

Much of London’s successes came from a combination of happy accidents, her generous spirit and eventual willingness to try new avenues. Born as Nancy Gayle in California, her father was a photographer and her mother was an amateur singer. When London was 16 and working at a Los Angeles drug store, an eager talent agent saw her, and that meeting led to film deals, as well as a new name. Her movie roles, as Owen describes them, were of mixed quality. His summation of their plots and 1950s Hollywood lore would also be of most interest to film enthusiasts. London had appeared on screens for a considerable length of time, up to co-starring in the popular 1970s drama, “Emergency!,” which her first husband Jack Webb (of “Dragnet” fame) produced.

When London and Webb divorced in the early ’50s, she turned to music, only as a listener, as a way of keeping her mind off of the end of her marriage. That changed when she went to a Hollywood nightclub in 1954 and met songwriter Bobby Troup. He recognized her talents and became London’s second husband.

“In his desire to persuade Julie to sing in public, Bobby alternated between sweet talk and bullying,” Owen writes.

Troup succeeded after a bit. Along with London’s stunning debut, her 30 albums included the richly orchestrated London By Night (Liberty, 1958) and an alluring small-group Cole Porter tribute, All Through The Night (Liberty, 1965). She even took a credible stab at interpreting rock hits, like “Light My Fire” in the late 1960s, even though, unfortunately, it was the silly “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” that became that 1969 record’s title track.

If London constantly diminished her own talents, she eagerly advocated for her accompanists. She was, of course, Troup’s biggest fan, but also championed such musicians as guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. While Owen depicts London as usually apolitical, one of the funniest segments of Go Slow comes when she testified before the U.S. Senate in 1967 to extend copyright payments to performers. She argued that singers’ interpretations of songs are as individualistic as the writers’ roles in creating them. As an example, she played her version of the “Mickey Mouse Club” theme song, which, naturally, conveyed a sensuality that was not heard on the children’s program.

Owen is at his sharpest when describing London’s music, such as his depiction of the 1966 album For The Night People (Liberty). He connects her rendition of “God Bless The Child” to her family’s Depression-era struggles. The author also has an interesting take on how she uses atonality on “I’ll Never Smile Again.”

While Owen takes an admirably respectful tone throughout the book, he tiptoes around some episodes that warrant further explanation after they’re introduced. He states that London and Troup had lost much of their money in 1970 because of “bad financial deals,” yet does not describe what those deals were. Ultimately, some parts of her narrative remain understandably out of reach. Whether or not her death from cancer at age 74 in 2000 derived from a lifelong cigarette habit remains unknowable.

As Owen mentions in the epilogue, pop music trends during the 1990s could have sparked renewed attention for London’s career. With that decade’s resurgence of interest in 1950s swing and lounge music, her records had become valued collectors’ items. London was too ill to directly benefit from any of this, but the fascination contributed to the ideal career retrospective, Time For Love: The Best Of Julie London (Rhino, 1991). Still, while she apparently loved that compilation, her declining health and self-effacing personality prevented her from turning it into a revival. As she once said of her place in show business: “You gotta have the ego for it. And I never really did.” DB



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On Sale Now
July 2022
Sean Jones
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