After casually rescuing an album by jazz singer Joya Sherrill from a local dollar bin this week, I'm wondering if unearthing dusty LPs can at times be the result of strange coincidences in the time-space continuum. Are particular albums aligned with a particular time for the listener? Can someone call Carl Sagan and find out?
Well, maybe not. The odd coincidence in this case is the one happening after birth guaranteed to await us all -- Joya Sherrill (Guilmenot) died Monday, June 28 in New York. There's not much information to be found about Sherrill online, though the New York Times published an obituary on July 8 which confirmed some of the information I had gleaned via the Google in the days prior to its publication.
Sherrill first gained fame in the mid-1940s as a teenager singing with Duke Ellington and his band, being introduced after writing a set of lyrics for "Take the 'A' Train." She would work with Ellington's band off and on over the next couple decades, including as part of the cast for the Duke's enigmatic jazz fantasia A Drum is a Woman, which appeared in full on the United States Steel Hour television series and as an abbreviated LP version in 1957, and as part of the 1963 stage show/album My People. When not working with Ellington, Sherrill performed solo (often with other Ellington alumni), acted on Broadway, and went on a tour of the Soviet Union with Benny Goodman in 1962. In the early 1970s, Sherrill even had her own children's show on local New York television, called both Time for Joya and Joya's Fun School at different times during its run.
Sherrill made a somewhat enigmatic album of her own, Sugar and Spice, shortly after working on Ellington's Drum project -- the LP catalog number would indicate a 1959 release, but it's listed in a February 1960 Columbia ad in Billboard as a brand new album. Musical accompaniment and arrangements were provided by Luther Henderson, a famed Broadway orchestrator/arranger who had also worked with Ellington. It was the Ellington connections that intrigued me enough to pick up this LP without looking too closely at it, and it wasn't until I threw it on the turntable that I realized all the song titles were familiar nursery rhymes or lullabies. Uh oh.
I was relieved to discover that Sugar and Spice isn't a children's album. However, much of it would work as a jazz gateway for kids who know the usual suspects in the nursery rhyme world ("Three Blind Mice," "Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater," "Humpty Dumpty," etc.), though some lyrics could cause pained parental explanations to be needed. Sherrill wrote the album's songs, converting the basic concepts into jazz lingo and subjects. For example, Little Bo Peep won't bop (and thinks Birdland's a sanctuary), and the Old Lady in a Shoe "drinks the booze from her high-top shoes." The musical backing is usually uncluttered, coming across more like a small combo than an orchestra session. Hearing Sherrill sing makes me wonder if Willie Nelson was a fan, because at times she uses some of the same tricks of phrasing and melody that he has over the years. The light subject matter and swinging arrangements make for a fun album, if possibly a bit silly for "serious" jazz fans.
It doesn't appear that Sugar and Spice has ever been available since it's original appearance five decades ago. Sherrill also recorded an LP of Ellington songs for the 20th Century Fox label in the mid-60s, which did briefly appear as a CD during the reissue boom of the 2000s. (Columbia, 1959/1960)