Go Slow. The Life of Julie London
ISBN: 9781613738573 Chicago Review Press
"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 audienceespecially malesaw 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.