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02/21/13

Beverly Kenney
Complete Royal Roost Recordings
Complete Decca Recordings

Fresh Sound Records

Among the scores of female jazz singers who came and went during the 1950s, Beverly Kenney is a sad and rather exceptional case. Kenney was just 28 when she took her own life in June 1960. Mere weeks before her suicide (purportedly prompted by a failed romance with beat poet Milton Klonsky), Kenney appeared on the syndicated TV series Playboy’s Penthouse, an urbane showcase hosted by Hugh Hefner. In his introduction, Hef refers to her as “a girl with a rather warm and sensitive way with a song [who] hasn’t really made it in a big way yet.” True on both counts. Though Kenney recorded six albums beginning in the mid-’50s—three each for Royal Roost and then the far more powerful Decca—she remained largely under the radar. Which was a shame. Decent female singers were a dime a dozen in those days, but Kenney had something special, melding the winsomeness of Doris Day with the smolder of Julie London and the cool jazz sensibility of June Christy.

Kenney’s legacy would, no doubt, have been even more obscured by now if it weren’t for ardent Japanese fans who have kept her albums steadily in print. But on this side of the Pacific, those Japanese CDs came with hefty price tags, largely limiting Kenney’s circle of Stateside admirers to deep-pocketed collectors. Now, at last, the entire Kenney oeuvre—all six albums plus nearly three-dozen bonus tracks—is affordably available on two double-disc sets.

At a time when too many good singers were recording throwaway pop ditties, Kenney stood her ground, going so far as to perform a self-penned number titled “I Hate Rock and Roll” on admirer Steve Allen’s variety show in 1958 (the track is included in the Decca set). So the wealth of these 113 tracks, variously featuring such golden-age players as Johnny Smith, Urbie Green, Milt Hinton, Jimmy Jones, Jo Jones, Freddie Green, Charlie Shavers, Ellis Larkins, Hal Mooney and Dick Hyman, draw from the best of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley. Even when Kenney does delve into pop territory, most notably throughout her final album, 1959’s Like Yesterday, a platter of big-band hits from the 1940s, she manages to make the likes of “Sentimental Journey,” “And the Angels Sing” and “Tampico” her own. And rare is the vocalist, of any era or ilk, who can convincingly transform the inane “Mairzy Doats” into a dreamy ballad.

Among the bonus material on the Royal Roost set are 10 unreleased tracks recorded with pianist Tony Tamburello in 1952, when Kenney was just 20, plus a four-track radio transcription from 1956. The Decca set features 10 additional unreleased tracks, recorded for the Sesac label in 1958, and audio, including four songs, from that 1960 visit with Hefner. As their brief conversation unfolds, the Playboy mogul enthuses that he’s “quite excited about her prospects.” Pondering his prophecy a half-century later while listening to Kenney caress “What Is There to Say” or swing lightly through “It’s a Most Unusual Day,” it’s impossible not to indulge in some “what if” contemplation.

Originally published in January/February 2013
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