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Ernie Andrews: No Regrets

Ernie Andrews in the studio, 1954
Ernie Andrews

Sure, writing about music is a little like tap dancing about architecture, but beyond the usual inadequacies caused by translating from one mode of expression to another, writing about Ernie Andrews has its own particular challenges. His performances are so engrossing, so viscerally all consuming, that it’s almost like being assigned to report on a trip to the amusement park. You wind up asking yourself, “Geez, why can’t I just enjoy the rides?”‘

Andrews might be what you get if you crossed Billy Eckstine with Louis Jordan. His voice melts into a mellow baritone on ballads. At 75 years old, he is still a ladies’ man: suave, sexy, charming. But Andrews can also romp and stomp and shout with the best of the rhythm men. Every song has blues potential. And humor abounds, sometimes in the most unusual places: his readings of “Don’t Touch Me” hover so cleverly between a rebuke and an invitation that audiences never fail to chuckle.

Of his talents, he says simply: “Well, all my folks were singers. My mother was a good singer. My father was from Virginia; he was a good singer. My aunts and uncles, they were all Baptist singers, yes. My grandmother was a harp.”

Born on Christmas Day in 1927, young Ernie spent his first 13 years in Philadelphia. Jimmie Lunceford, Earl Hines and Ella Fitzgerald with the Chick Webb Orchestra-his favorites-came through the nearby Lincoln, Nixon Grand and Pearl theaters. He adored vaudeville with its many comedic talents.

In 1940, a summer vacation spent visiting his grandmother in Jeanerette, La. turned into a four-year stay. Although Andrews missed city life in the North and its big shows, the little town had its benefits. Trumpeter Bunk Johnson, during a period of relative obscurity in his own career, served as the school bandmaster. Under his direction, Andrews took up the drums. Besides, it was only 90 miles to New Orleans, where his mother eventually found work.

“She was a chef in the Page Hotel on Druillet Street,” Andrews remembers. “All the bands stayed there when they came through, like Lionel Hampton. At that time, Mrs. Hampton-Gladys-and Lionel wanted to adopt me from my mother. And mother said, ‘It won’t work. That won’t work.’ You understand? That’s what happened with that.”

Andrews would have future opportunities to visit the Hamptons when he and his mother relocated once more, to Los Angeles, which became their permanent home. Andrews lives there to this day. At Jefferson High, he joined a vast pool of emerging West Coast jazz talent. His schoolmates, under the tutelage of pioneering educator Sam Browne, included Sonny Criss, Eric Dolphy, Teddy Edwards, Art and Addison Farmer, Dexter Gordon, Chico Hamilton, Hampton Hawes and Ernie Royal with a number of others nearby and relatively close in age: Red Callender, Buddy Collette, Wardell Gray, Marshal Royal and Lucky Thompson.

Andrews joined the choir-and managed to get himself kicked out. When the director, Mrs. Rawlings, asked the young baritone to sing tenor, he told her, “You can’t make a pick out of a shovel.” That was the end of that.

No matter. Andrews was already ushering at the Lincoln Theater down on Central Avenue. He also entered-and frequently won-its Wednesday night amateur competitions, the West Coast equivalent of the talent contests at New York’s Apollo. “A guy named Joe Greene came up,” Andrews recalls. “He said, ‘How would you like to record for me?’ I said that I wouldn’t mind. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Greene, as it turned out, was a noted songwriter associated with Stan Kenton and responsible for zany novelties like “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine.” He would launch Gem records with a sultry tune called “Soothe Me” as sung by the 17-year-old Andrews (included on Rhino’s Central Avenue Sounds compilation). It became a local hit, selling around 300,000 copies. Lacking a B-side for one of Andrews’ later singles, Greene penned a brand new song overnight: “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” Another up-and-coming local, Charlie Mingus, played bass for the session.

A bright young talent, Andrews had the good fortune to experience the peak of L.A.’s Central Avenue, a scene that rivaled New York’s 52nd Street. “You had the Downbeat and the Last Word and the Jungle Room,” he enthuses. “It was scattered around: The Morris Hotel down on 5th Street and the Plantation, out there where all the big bands used to play on 108th… I made my first band appearance with Andy Kirk at the Alabam. And with Benny Carter’s band at the Trianon.”

Bass player turned talent manager John Levy actively pursued Andrews to become one of his first clients and, by 1954, he was part of a roster that included George Shearing, Nancy Wilson, Cannonball Adderley and Dakota Staton. Offers came for Andrews to go out on the road-from the likes of Count Basie and, later, Duke Ellington, who wanted him to tour with the Sacred Concert. He took a stab at New York, making a perhaps premature debut at Birdland and spending several months here and there between different clubs with a show called No Time for Squares starring comedian Timmie Rogers. But ultimately, Andrews never made a major breakthrough outside of Los Angeles. Like the young lions of future generations, that first group of singles remains his biggest commercial splash. Exactly what prevented him from rising further is debatable. Without a proper contract during his first five years, Andrews did sour on the music business at an early age and would continue to tussle with the industry in years to come. Although he might have cashed in by imitating the popular balladeers like Eckstine and Nat Cole, as Levy suggests in his autobiography, Men, Women, and Girl Singers, Andrews patently refused to “chase the style of the business,” lose his bluesy inflections or go pop.

“What happens to a lot of people, you see, is they get hung up for stardom,” Andrews explains. “They see their names on the marquee. Or on the headlines of the papers. Or the magazines. They get thrilled with that. Who am I and who you are? You know what I’m saying? The truth of what you’re doing has to stay within the realm of who you are.”

He also disliked New York, its pace and its pressures, which may have proved critical for achieving greater critical recognition. “That’s the only place I know that you can get in free and have to pay to get out,” Andrews kids.

“I was living in the Skyler Hotel with Chico Hamilton. It was so small that you had to go out in the hallway, turn over and get back in the bed. You’re two or three days late with the rent and they got a plug in your door. I said, ‘Listen, I got a job up in the Catskills. I’m gonna make $750 tonight. When I come back, I’ll pay my rent, but I need my tuxedo out of my room.’ And the guy says, ‘Well, when you come back and pay your rent, then I’ll give you your tuxedo.’ That’s New York!”

Moreover, it didn’t help-well, at least not his career-that Andrews had settled down with a pretty cashier from the Jungle Room named Delores a few years earlier and already had children to take care of back in L.A. He simply didn’t want to chance losing his family for an already risky career and stay out on the road for months on end. Andrews would have to make difficult compromises along the way, but at least they came coupled with incredible personal rewards. Of Delores, he says lovingly: “She allowed me to be who I was.” They sustained a loving marriage for 53 years, until she succumbed to cancer. The couple produced five children, 10 grandchildren, five great grandkids and counting.

Andrews did accept a position as a band vocalist with trumpet wonder Harry James, an association that lasted from late in 1958 through 1969. With their long stints in Las Vegas, he could at least return home for a day or so every other week; the trip, as he recalls, was exactly 287 miles. Or he could have his family visit him out there. James, he says, was a wonderful man to work with.

A radio broadcast from the Blue Note in Chicago captures Andrews’ first night on the job. In the introduction of his new singer, James reminds the audience that he helped get Frank Sinatra’s career off the ground. Andrews struts his stuff on “Song of the Wanderer.” He contributed to tracks here and there on James albums like Live at the Riverboat (Dot). His solo albums This Is Ernie Andrews and Soul Proprietor, accompanied by the Shorty Rogers Orchestra, were recorded for the same label. But unfortunately, the band did not prove to be the launching pad so many others, including the James outfit, had provided for their singers. Andrews’ talents could have been more fully utilized, not to mention the timing: the rock ‘n’ roll invasion hit after the first few years of his tenure.

The coming years would be filled with uphill battles. By 1969, Los Angeles had become a radically different city than before Andrews started with James. Racial tensions resulting from de facto segregation had simmered throughout the ’50s. Police harassment because of racial mixing in clubs on Central Avenue forced many to close. The Watts riots in 1965 burned much of what remained. In the compelling 1986 documentary Blues for Central Avenue, which takes Andrews’ career as its focus, he motors back and forth between boarded-up buildings and empty lots on the once-busy street. Standing in front of a chain link fence that separates him from nothing, he states with a wave of the arm: “Here stood the great club Alabam…. We got what we wanted, but we wrecked what we loved.”

Work was tough to come by, and at his lowest point, Andrews was singing in a Santa Monica club for $6 a night. But he never gave up. He began to build his career back by performing with the Frank Capp-Nat Pierce Orchestra (later renamed the Capp-Pierce Juggernaut) beginning in the 1970s, a relationship that has lasted almost three decades. Other performance credits include a tour with the Gene Harris-led Philip Morris Superband in 1989 and ’90; dates with the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra, the L.A. Symphony Camerata; at the Jazz Bakery, the Blue Note, the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, the Playboy Jazz Festival, and, most recently, for a Black History Month celebration of servicemen at the Naval Station Great Lakes led by Clark Terry. He has recorded with the Jay McShann Kansas City Band, the Harper Brothers, on Mack Avenue’s The Legacy Lives On and as a leader for Joe Fields’ Muse and High Note labels. His latest release is called Jump for Joy.

On his studio recordings, Andrews does not come across as quite the firebrand that he is on stage. But a full assessment of his discography is difficult; aside from one pieced-together CD of Benny Carter and Harry James material reissued by GNP Crescendo, Travelin’ Light, nearly all of his titles that predate the CD era remain out of print. Among the most tantalizing is a live album with Cannonball Adderley, arranged through John Levy and issued by Capitol (scheduled for rerelease next year). They appeared together at the Village Gate. Andrews also wistfully mentions a session for Roulette with Jimmy Jones and the Basie woodwinds that was never even released.

“When I get on the floor some nights, I wish I could stay on it for eight years and not come off,” says Andrews. To see him, is to know. After years of struggle, Andrews knows he is fortunate: he has a new love in his life, work and is celebrating through music. “I didn’t know anything about this business and, you know, I still don’t. I don’t take it for granted and I think that’s the best way to be. Just take it a day at a time. And enjoy-live your dreams and enjoy the ride.”

Originally Published