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The Curious Case of Marcy Lutes

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Marcy Lutes' first solo recording as a vocalist was her last.

After 10 years toiling in the big bands of Ray McKinley, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Herbie Fields, Lutes finally was given a shot in late 1956. The album was called Marcy Lutes: Debut, and the LP might have been forgotten if it wasn't for the arrangers Decca brought in for the date--Gil Evans, Ralph Burns and Marion Evans (no relation).

I stumbled upon this little-known album while researching Helen Merrill several weeks ago in advance of our interview. In early 1956, Helen had an idea for an album and asked Gil Evans to write the arrangements. The result was Dream of You, recorded in July of that year. The album remains exciting and one of the most inventive of its time. For Evans, Dream of You was one of several test canvases leading up to his orchestral masterpieces with Miles Davis starting in May 1957.

Curious about what else Evans may have scored for female vocalists between Dream of You and Miles Ahead, I turned to Evans' discography. It turns out there were two other sessions sandwiched in--Debut for Lutes followed by This Is Lucy Reed in January 1957, which incidentally also is Evans' first recording on piano.

So I ordered the Lutes CD from Japan. I've been listening to it with great delight for the past two weeks. It's a marvelous recording on so many levels.

There are 12 tracks. Three were arranged by Gil Evans (Cheek to Cheek, Travelin' Light and Aren't You Glad You're You), four were by Marion Evans (Prelude to a Kiss, What Is There to Say?, Make the Man Love Me and Lucky to Be Me) and five by Ralph Burns (The Gentleman Is a Dope, Laughing at Life, Buds Won't Bud, I Got It Bad and I Didn't Know About You).

Little is known about Lutes. Born in the Midwest, Lutes sang with a variety of big bands in the late 1940s. In 1948, her vocal on Ray McKinley's A Man Could Be a Wonderful Thing was a brief hit in May of that year. Lutes was married to guitarist Barry Galbraith [pictured] in the early 1950s. Shortly after their divorce in the mid-1950s, Lutes recorded Debut. But the album mysteriously ends her discography--and her whereabouts.

I spoke to three musicians who played with Lutes at different points in her short career--trumpeter Al Stewart, trombonist Eddie Bert and saxophonist Hal McKusick. None of the legends knew much about her then or what happened to her since. Says Hal:

“Gosh, I can't even remember the session, which is unusual. I think it was one of those fast dates where I came into the studio, read down the charts and was wrapped in a couple of hours. There were so many of those back then."

But Debut is more than an arranger's field day. Lutes' voice is lovely (think Annie Ross and Doris Day), and she effortlessly takes charge of the radically different arrangements with impeccable phrasing.

On the writing side, the Gil Evans charts are inching closer to the style he'd use with Miles Davis months later--with all of the modern pushing, pulling and sighing of his instrumental machinery. Marion Evans' string arrangements have this wonderful early 1950s studio sensibility (think Charlie Parker with Strings). And the Ralph Burns [pictured] combo charts are yearning and give Lutes' cheery momentum.

After Hal gave several listens to Debut, he said:

“Great charts! Good performances, too. I had forgotten how good Marcy was. Her vibrato's a little fast, but impeccable intonation and nice feeling for each tune."

What's not clear is whether the entire date was captured in one day or several days. The only known personnel from the liner notes is Harold “Shorty" Baker (trumpet), Hal McKusick (alto sax) [pictured], Al Cohn (tenor sax), Oscar Pettiford (bass), Nick Perito (piano) and Don Lamond and Osie Johnson on drums.

According to the original liner notes, the three orchestras were completely different. Hal can be heard clearly on the Gil Evans session (a tentet) while Al Cohn is the lead tenor on the Ralph Burns material.

Why three different arrangers for one album? That's unclear. Perhaps the songs were originally intended as a series of singles for jukebox and radio play, with Burns taking on the tune that the notoriously tardy Gil Evans couldn't finish on time. Or with the advent of the 12-inch LP in 1956, three arrangers were needed to complete the 12 tracks for a tight deadline. Or perhaps Decca didn't quite know in which direction to groom Lutes and A&R wanted to hear different settings.

Whatever the reason, Debut was a crossroads album for all involved. After Debut, Evans arranged the Lucy Reed album and then Miles Ahead. For Ralph Burns, this was another in a string of 1956 dates for singers Chris Connor, Lee Wiley and Jeri Southern. As for Marion Evans, Debut's tracks were sandwiched between albums for Tex Beneke and Helen O'Connell.

All in all, Lutes' voice becomes more and more appealing with each listen, and the different mix of arrangers and instruments keeps you firmly engaged throughout.

Debut was a false start for Lutes' singing career, which is rather strange considering how good her voice is here. Perhaps she became a jingle singer. Or married and retired. Or moved to Europe. No one seems to know.

JazzWax tracks: You can order Marcy Lutes: Debut from a variety of online import sites. The Universal/Japan CD is now going for around $37. The remastering is fabulous, and the intimate 1950s studio sound jumps right out at you. But if you want to dig just the Gil Evans tracks (or sample them to see how good this recording is), you're in luck. They're hidden on Priceless Jazz: Gil Evans as downloads at iTunes and here. Again, the three Evans tracks are Cheek to Cheek, Travelin' Light and Aren't You Glad You're You.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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