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Kenny Burrell Remembers Ernie Andrews

The guitarist and NEA Jazz Master pays tribute to the late vocalist (12/25/27 – 2/21/22)

Ernie Andrews 1997
Ernie Andrews on New Year’s Eve 1997 at the Grand Hyatt, New York (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Ernie Andrews, a deep-voiced singer who scored a major hit (1945’s “Soothe Me”) when he was still in his teens but remained perennially underrecognized by non-musicians in subsequent decades despite working alongside Harry James, Cannonball Adderley, Gene Harris, Lionel Hampton, and the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra, died Feb. 21 at Conroe Regional Medical Center near Houston, Texas, due to complications following a fall. He was 94. Guitarist Kenny Burrell, one of his closest friends for more than 50 years, contacted us to pay tribute.

I first met Ernie Andrews when I was playing at the Parisian Room in Los Angeles in the early ’70s. I was in [saxophonist/bandleader] Red Holloway’s band there, and Ernie would come in and sing with us sometimes. I knew he had been with Harry James for a while [over 10 years, beginning in 1958—Ed.], but I didn’t know all his history, which was extensive, till I got to know him.

Very people I knew then could do such an excellent job singing so many different styles: modern jazz, the blues, the Great American Songbook. And he was quite an entertainer too. On stage, when he talked between the songs, he showed that he was well-spoken, with a real understanding of the music and a gift for repartee.

There was a time when I would go home to Detroit every Thanksgiving and work two weekends there at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. I asked Ernie one year if he wanted to go along with me, he said yes, and he had such a great time that we made it a tradition for a while. He would come to my mother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. We became like brothers.

It was around that time that I recorded the Ellington albums with him [1975’s Ellington Is Forever and 1977’s Ellington Is Forever Volume Two]. A lot of singers have a hard time handling that Ellington and Strayhorn repertoire, but he was a master at it. He was also a wonderful blues singer, and his own recordings show that.

We talked to each other about once a week over the last few years. He was in his nineties and I recently joined that same club—we don’t have as many friends around as we used to, you know? So it was good to be able to stay close, even if it was only on the phone.

Ernie never got the tribute he deserved for his artistry. He had plenty of fans, but the critics almost ignored him. I think that might have been because he was so versatile. People aren’t always comfortable when musicians can work equally well in different genres. They want to put you in a category, because it’s easier that way. And I understand that. But it’s a shame someone like Ernie couldn’t be recognized more in his lifetime. He deserved awards.

[as told to Mac Randall]

Read JazzTimes‘ review of Ernie Andrews’ 2001 album Girl Talk.

Kenny Burrell

Acclaimed guitarist Kenny Burrell has worked as both a leader and a sideman since the 1950s. From 1996 to 2016, he was the director of the jazz studies program at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2005.