Academic journal article Women & Music

Working Behind the Scenes: Gender, Sexuality, and Collaboration in the Vocal Arrangements of Billy Strayhorn

Academic journal article Women & Music

Working Behind the Scenes: Gender, Sexuality, and Collaboration in the Vocal Arrangements of Billy Strayhorn

Article excerpt

In mid-January 1956 Billy Strayhorn flew to Los Angeles from New York to begin a collaborative recording project with pop singer Rosemary Clooney. Although an experienced band singer, having recorded with Harry James and Benny Goodman, Clooney was most closely associated in the pop imagination with a string of hits she cut in the early 1950s for Columbia Records, most notably the Mitch Miller ethnic novelty songs "Come on-a My House" and "Mambo Italiano," as well as for her featured role alongside Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in Paramount's Technicolor blockbuster White Christmas. (1)

The collaboration with Clooney would be the first of its kind for both Strayhorn and the Ellington Orchestra: not only did it mark Ellington's first collaboration with a singer for a full-length LP, but for the first time in his seventeen-year relationship with Ellington, Strayhorn was offered full creative autonomy on a major recording project, one that (also among the first) daringly paired a star white female pop singer with an African American jazz orchestra. Even with a band as prestigious as the Ellington outfit, this pairing must have raised a few red flags for executives at Columbia, or at least it would seem so, judging by the evidence of the cover art for the resulting LP, Blue Rose. Images of Ellington and Clooney appear on the cover in a split visual space that juxtaposes, collage-like, a large filmic image of Ellington with a much smaller photographic image of Clooney. In the background, placed directly under the title Blue Rose: Rosemary Clooney and Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, a grainy, smoke-filled, black-and-white image of Ellington's face appears as if being projected onto a movie screen. He smiles gently, his eyes cast downward toward a brightly colored, pasted-on photographic head shot of Clooney floating in the foreground; she, in turn, innocently gazes outward toward an unseen camera, seemingly unaware of the celluloid Ellington looming behind her. This stylized separation of Ellington and Clooney in the visual field delineates, however satirically, racial and sexual boundaries through a technologically mediated, safe distance.

Yet the LP cover design, with its contrast of Clooney's "in-color" head against the "black-and-white" Ellington, also referenced the real-life "virtual" conditions involved in recording the LP--just one of a set of the unusual conditions surrounding Strayhorn and Clooney's working relationship. At the time, Clooney was pregnant with her second child and was suffering from extreme nausea and vomiting, a situation that precluded her from traveling from Los Angeles to New York to record the session. (2) On top of this challenge, the two collaborators had to work under a very tight deadline. As the story goes, producer Irving Townsend initially pitched the idea for Blue Rose to Ellington and Strayhorn on January 12 during the opening night of the Ellington Orchestra's engagement at Cafe Society Uptown. At the end of their initial discussion, "Strayhorn, Townsend, and Ellington had agreed on a basic approach to the album: whatever Clooney and Strayhorn wanted to do." (3) However, "whatever [they] wanted to do" was set to begin on January 23--and in New York, not LA. Townsend overcame this obstacle by making use of the then-relatively novel (at least for jazz) technology of multitrack recording: Strayhorn would fly back to New York to direct the session for the instrumental tracks, then travel back to LA to record the vocal overdubbing with Clooney. Originally, Ellington and Strayhorn wanted to title the LP Utter-Continental to highlight the bicoastal recording process, but that concept was nixed by Columbia in favor of the more pop-friendly title Blue Rose.

With Townsend's plan in place, Strayhorn, armed with records, manuscript paper, and pen, arrived at Clooney's Beverly Hills home on Roxbury Drive, where he stayed for more than a week in her older child's bedroom doing double duty as caregiver and musical collaborator (often simultaneously). …

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