Photos: Kay Starr and Count Basie’s band wraps around bluesy: Video

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Count Basie fans tend to focus on his hard-driving “Super Chief” bands of the 1940s and his stylistic “New Testament” bands of the 1950s. And rightly so. But often overlooked is Basie’s output during the 1960s, when he recorded more than 30 albums, many of them slam-bang swingers.

Coming off his Roulette Records contract in the summer of 1962, Basie began to record for Reprise, starting with his first of several albums with Frank Sinatra, in October ’62. Then he alternated between Reprise and Verve until 1966, when he recorded one-offs for ABC-Paramount, Command, Columbia, Brunswick, Dot and MPS.

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Over the past few days, I’ve been listening to virtually all of Basie’s output during this underappreciated decade, rediscovering forgotten gems. Worthy albums include String Along With Basie (with string arrangements by George Williams); Easin’ It (Frank Foster); This Time By Basie (Quincy Jones); More Hits of the ’50s and ’60s (Billy Byers); Straight Ahead (Sammy Nestico); Basic Basie (Chico O’Farrill); and Basie on the Beatles (Bob Florence). And these are just a start. Pop Goes the Basie, Basie Meets Bond, Hollywood Basie’s Way, Back With Basie, Standing Ovation and so many others are impossibly great as well.

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One album that came as a big surprise was How About This, featuring vocalist Kay Starr with the Basie band, with arrangements by Dick Hyman. The album was recorded in December 1968 for Paramount and featured Al Aarons (tp, flhrn) Oscar Brashear, Gene Goen and Sonny Cohn (tp); Richard Boone, Steve Galloway and Grover Mitchell (tb); Bill Hughes (b-tb); Bobby Plater (fl,as); Eric Dixon (fl,ts,p); Charlie Fowlkes (fl,bar); Marshal Royal (cl,as); Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis (ts); Dick Hyman (org,arr,cond); Count Basie (p,celeste); Freddie Green (g); Norman Keenan (b) and Harold Jones (d).

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The album is a surprise because many of Basie’s albums backing singers in the 1960s came up short. The flops that come to mind are those with Sammy Davis Jr., Arthur Prysock, Jackie Wilson, Irene Reid, the Alan Copeland Singers and the Mills Brothers. Of course, albums with Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams remain solid, albeit tired, since you’ve probably listened to them endlessly over the years.

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How About This
 is superb because the song choices were smart and pop giant Starr (above) was really a closet jazz singer, as evidenced on Capitol’s Jazz Singer (1960) and I Cry By Night (1961). Like Patti Page, Starr was a tremendous singing talent who wound up entangled in pop’s netting and, for personal economic reasons, worked for bland producers charged with making treacly easy-listening hit singles and albums for suburbia. When she occasionally escaped pop’s cage, Starr proved herself to be as good as any jazz belter.

On this album, Basie’s band wraps around Starr’s bluesy, after-hours phrasing like a stole. In addition, Starr is firmly in charge; Dick’s band arrangements wisely just tag along. What I love most is that Starr and Basie speak the same bluesy language. Starr had a voice that sounded similar to Dinah Washington’s but it was a little more pleading in tone than brashly demanding. Starr, like Washington, also could swing without thinking about it.

The songs are I Get the Blues When It Rains, God Bless the Child, Baby Won’t You Please Come Home?, Ain’t No Use, Keep Smiling at Trouble, If I Could Be With You, My Man, Hallelujah I Love Him So, I Can’t Stop Loving You and Good Time Girl.

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If I could go back to be at one Basie vocal recording session in the 1960s, this would be it. As good as the Basie-Sinatra albums are, there’s something very down-home going on here between Basie and Starr that only a gal singer from Oklahoma and a piano player who made his bones in Kansas City could understand. You can hear it between the lines. I just wish I had interviewed Starr years ago.

Kay Starr died in 2016; Count Basie died in 1984.

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