I once asked Jon Hendricks, the Godfather of vocalese, if he had a favorite singer. His immediate answer? Ernie Andrews, who, he informed me, is a singer in the same class as Joe Williams, Jimmy Rushing, Al Hibbler and Billy Eckstine.
Having made a couple of early hits with the Red Callender's band when he was 17, Andrews spent the better part of the 1950s with the Harry James Orchestra. When Williams departed Count Basie's band in 1961, Andrews was apparently offered the job-and refused. He has been content to keep a low profile and stay in his native Los Angeles, valuing his loved ones and home life over vigorous touring schedules.
I heard Andrews at the Priory in Newark, N.J., on Sept. 25, 2000, the night before he recorded Girl Talk, his current HighNote release. It was absolutely thrilling. The man, in fine voice at 72 (now 74), worked the crowd brilliantly. Andrews once said that he was inspired by the "more fiery performers" who "get off the ropes and get in the middle of the ring to fight." In his case, that takes the form of a scrappy, streetwise approach to the songbook: "Once in a Lifetime" turned him into a powerful motivational speaker; other songs, like "Don't Touch Me," softened with his considerable charm and wit (not to mention the pretext of weakened resolve). While many men don't have a clue about "Girl Talk," the foxy Mr. Andrews proved thoroughly versed in his subject.
After such a sparkling performance, Andrew's studio recording feels like a tiny bit of a letdown, but even today's live recordings generally fail to capture the energy and spontaneity of a concert. And Girl Talk is still a fine studio session by this American treasure. Andrews sings "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" with the wisdom of those 72 years only to defy the aging process with the bouncing version of "Old Man River." "A Cottage for Sale," aided by tenor saxophonist Teddy Edward's sensitive accompaniment (the two have been buddies since their days at L.A.'s Jefferson High School), finds Andrews at his most tender and melancholy.
In the best of all possible worlds, everyone should have a chance to hear Andrews in person. If you can't, Girl Talk is the next best thing.