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Go Slow: The Life of Julie London


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Go Slow. The Life of Julie London
Michael Owen
296 Pages
ISBN: 9781613738573
Chicago Review Press

"Vinyl Viagra"

"Mainly I'm a lyric reader."

"Mickey Mouse...she can even make that sexy."

"I'm not a singer.

If all her movie footage over the years were put together, "there still wouldn't be enough to add up to one presentable part."

Will the real Julie London, as they used to intone on the TV quiz show "To Tell The Truth," please stand up?

Writing a biography of Julie London (1926-2000) couldn't have been easy. Michael Owen has done a superior job of research, assembling the story of a very private woman who was ultimately a footnote to pop culture in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States. Sadly, it seems, she could have been considerably more if she had wanted it.

That something more would have been as a pretty capable jazz singer, not just a lounge act, if not a particularly distinguished actress, but London, celebrated for her beauty, never got there. "You gotta have the ego for it," she admitted. "And I never did." Her own psychological and physical frailties kept her from becoming a major star, but that didn't bother her too much. To the contrary, a life of domesticity with a secure income was what she wanted, but her origins were very modest, so she either had to marry well or work a lot. As it happened, she did both, albeit at different stages of her life.

Born Gayle Peck, London was an early bloomer. At the age of fifteen, she caught the eye of an agent, of a photographer for Esquire, of a B-movie producer, and of an ambitious GI named Jack Webb, who was smitten by her pinup. She married Webb of "Dragnet" fame in 1947, but the marriage had failed by 1953, and was really over long before that. By then, she had had a role in one decent film, "The Red House," under her belt: her divorce from Webb left her with psychological scars, a substantial monetary settlement, a reputation as a gold-digger, and a career that was going nowhere.

Nowhere, that is, until she met Bobby Troup in 1954. Troup, taken with both her beauty and her uncomplicated vocal stylings, encouraged her singing, helped her assemble a band (that included Barney Kessel) and had her record an album for Liberty Records that included "Cry Me a River," which topped out at number eighteen on the Billboard Top 100 in late 1955. Ms. London, was, in spite of herself, a singing star.

There were two distinguishing aspects to London's subsequent career: her vocal limitations and her fabulous appearance. She was, as they say, drop-dead gorgeous, with a face and figure to match. Her impact on men, even otherwise rational ones like jazz critic Ralph Gleason, was astonishing. As she began to record for Liberty, her album covers became successively more provocative and her identity as "sex in a bottle" even more firmly established.

Arguably, what her audience—especially male—saw in her mattered a lot more than what it heard. What it heard was not a virtuoso performer, but a stylist with a small sound and a limited range. Crowding the microphone, her voice, breathy, low, and sensual, projected outright sexual allure that framed her image. London was earthy, but she wasn't dirty: a fantasy, really, accompanied by small groups of outstanding players (Jimmy Rowles, Emil Richards, John Gray, Dennis Budimir, Al Viola, Joe Burnett, Don Bagley and others) who gave her sympathetic harmonic support. At the same time, they never overwhelmed her sound: in front of a big band, London tended to disappear. In a small group setting, her phrasing, breathiness, effortless swing, good ear and laid-back time just worked. Audiences (and musicians) loved her. Her early albums on Liberty sold well. Just listen to Julie at Home, recorded at her beautiful home in Encino with Rowles, Viola, Richards, and Bob Flanigan of the The Four Freshmen. The cover photo, significantly, is of the girl next door. Her voice, still fresh and light and not yet coarsened by years of heavy cigarette smoking, conveyed what author Owen calls "swinging sensuality," a good example of what London could do when relaxed and happy. To all appearances, she was neither relaxed nor happy very often.

As an actress, London had her problems. She suffered from severe stage fright when working in clubs, and her movie career did nothing to improve her self-esteem or reduce her anxiety. Cast in a dreary succession of B-movies with dubious scripts, lots of horses (Westerns were a staple) and the occasional unappetizing leading man, London's reviews were lukewarm, her performances uninspired, but her appearance, as usual, sensational. Not all the films were bad. One or two, "The Great Man," or the British film "A Question of Adultery" are worth watching. Especially in "The Great Man," London had a brief role as a boozed-up band singer that basically let her play a version of herself, down to the alcohol on which she evidently depended. None of her films were big box office successes and work eventually dried up. Other than in her sensational looks, she would remind no one of actress Elizabeth Taylor.

With the opening of the 1960s, London was in a bit of a fix. She had an apparently happy home life with Troup and a loving family, but her commercial prospects were dim. Since she was the principal support of her parents, a large family, probably Troup, and a luxurious home, she had a lot of overhead and needed to work. London did make a lucrative series of cigarette commercials for television (permissible in those days), was a headliner in Las Vegas, did foreign tours, and performed incessantly to make ends meet. As it did for so many other "aging" talents, television came to the rescue, not only in variety show appearances, but especially in the form of a successful series on NBC, "Emergency!" that ran for 120 episodes from 1972 to 1977. The money was good, the work was steady, and London was even nominated for a Golden Globe for her role as Nurse Dixie McCall. More to the point, she had largely stopped singing, made no more movies, and spent increasing amounts of time at home. For the last twenty years of her life, from 1979 through 1999, she was plagued by health problems. London declined quickly after the death of husband Bobby Troup in 1999 and she died in 2000.

Michael Owen has written an interesting book that fans of London or people interested in the popular culture of the 1950s will want to read. London was an enigmatic figure: cast as the definition of voluptuousness, she never viewed herself that way. If anything, she became increasingly uneasy with the nudity and open sexuality of films in the 1970s, whose scripts she wouldn't consider. She loved to sing, but she was afraid of performing, and medicated herself with alcohol, which, if not unusual, was still sad. London was a better singer than she ever gave herself credit for, although she thought her late Easy Does It was her best album. She was influenced by Jo Stafford, and admired Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Tony Bennett (she also did the Venetian Room in San Francisco, where Bennett introduced "I Left My Heart") and Ray Charles, but was horrified by any comparison to them. Significantly, there was no actress for whom she professed admiration. London was basically a retiring person who could be acerbically and even profanely self-assertive if she needed to be, but that wasn't very often. She was probably too good looking to have to do much more than look good, which prevented her from becoming the jazz singer she could have been had she really worked at it. In the not uncomplimentary male jargon of my youth, Julie London was some kind of broad. Her type is, for better or worse, now largely extinct.


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