When I was 20 years old (omigod, I can’t even imagine I was that young once!), I discovered Alice Babs on the Fantasy recording of Duke Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert. I was completely blown away. Here was a soprano with a three-octave range, a tone as pure as a mountain stream, and the ability to scat and improvise like a jazz horn. I had already long admired Ella Fitzgerald since I was a child, but what I heard from Babs was not only different but more impressive.
It turns out I wasn’t alone. Ellington said she was the most unique artist he knew, and that when she wasn’t available to sing in his Sacred Concerts he had to hire three different singers to take her place. When the great bandleader-composer died, the only wish he put in his will was to have Babs sing at his funeral at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York. Despite having an ocean between them, Babs flew over from Stockholm and fulfilled his request.
How good was Babs? I once played excerpts from the Second Sacred Concert—Almighty God, T.G.T.T. and Praise God and Dance—for an older friend of mine who was a devoted opera fan. He had heard every soprano at the Metropolitan from the days of Mabel Garrison to the era of Kathleen Battle, and was absolutely floored by Babs’ voice. Of course, he didn’t care much for the music, but I didn’t really expect him to understand what Ellington was doing.
But in the pre-digital download age, recordings by Babs were hard to come by. In addition to the Second Sacred Concert, I was only able to acquire one other disc, Far Away Star on the bluebell label, in the early years of CDs. Much later I came upon Swingtime Again, made by a 75-year-old Alice Babs who, astonishingly, still had the same voice.
It wasn’t until 2005 that I discovered “early Alice” on the internet—recordings she made between the ages of 15 (1939) and 23 (1947)—and two things jumped out at me. First, even as a youngster, working inside Sweden with little or no contact with American jazz musicians except through records, Babs managed to develop an intuitive feeling for swing, a highly developed sense of true jazz rhythm, and the ability to improvise like a jazz horn. And second, much to my astonishment, she didn’t have the extra high register! In fact, as my Alice Babs collection grew incrementally, the earliest I heard her launch her voice into the stratosphere was on a 1956 recording of the old Jim Lowe hit song, The Green Door. Because of this, I became very curious as to how and when she was able to develop her voice up an extra octave, but I never bothered to contact Alice because I thought it rude to bother an old woman (she was 81 at the time and pretty much retired). So I never found out.
A little later, I ran across her classical recordings: songs from the notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach and Mozart’s famous motet, Exsultate Jubilate. Absolutely amazing! Not only could she sing the Mozart motet with perfect style and grace, but she also had a trill! Where did that come from? Still, the most impressive side of Babs’ output were still the jazz recordings and live performances. Eventually I acquired another live concert she did with Ellington in 1974 and, at long last, seven tracks from her most elusive studio album, made with Ellington on piano, a rhythm section, and French horns in 1963. Titled Serenade to Sweden, it was only issued on the Reprise label in Sweden, and later in Europe on the Telstar label, but never in the U.S. either on LP or CD.
More recordings followed, including the album she made circa 1960 with The Swe-Danes, the trio she formed with Swedish violinist-singer Svend Asmussen and Danish guitarist-singer Ulrik Neumann; and when I heard it, I realized that I had heard Alice Babs many years before that Second Sacred Concert. A 45-rpm single by the Swe-Danes, Scandinavian Shuffle, was a minor hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in the early ‘60s, and I remembered hearing it on the radio.
So what was it that made Babs so unique? Cleo Laine, another singer I greatly admired, also had a three-octave range, and I loved her, too (even saw her in person once with husband Johnny Dankworth’s band). I saw and heard Ella in person in the late 1970s. Loved her, too. But there was just something special about Alice Babs: an extra kick to the rhythm, extra imagination in her improvisations, that set her apart from everyone else. Alice’s daughter, Titti Sjöblom, inherited her beautiful vocal tone and was a fine pop singer but not quite like her mother. Listen to the very young Alice swinging joyfully through Swing It, Magistern!, Diga Diga Doo, Some of These Days and I Double Dare You. In these, and so many other recordings, she showed she could hold back on the beat or push it forward, skip a word or a few notes to condense the musical structure or double up the tempo with on-rhythm scat phrases. Her sense of jazz “time” was simply extraordinary, and it was a skill that never left her. Hearing her joyful (and swinging) rendition of (I Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo, I couldn’t help but wonder what a huge star she might have been had she sung with Glenn Miller’s band. At 18 years old, she had the charm and dimples that sold so well in America along with the persona of a hip chick…a combination of Marion Hutton and Anita O’Day.
In 1958, Babs made an LP with the big band of Arne Domnérus, which included American jazz trumpeter Benny Bailey, titled Alice and Wonderband. This, too, was an elusive item but I eventually managed to hear seven tracks from it. Her singing on this, with a purely jazz orchestra, was simply extraordinary, at times mixing wordless vocals in the upper stratosphere with the instruments as if she were a part of the band. This, it turns out, was the recording Ellington heard that absolutely flipped him out and made him determined to work with her. He made one offer but she hesitated since, at the time, she was still touring with the Swe-Danes, but by 1963 she was free to record with him and by 1968-69 available to sing in his Second and Third Sacred Concerts.
Ellington was absolutely elated. Veteran alto saxist Johnny Hodges was more wary. He sat in the band with his usual impassive countenance, listening to her sing. After a particularly felicitous improvised passage that rose into the stratosphere, Hodges raised an eyebrow. Not a big gesture, to be sure, but to the savvy Ellington, who was well familiar with Hodges, he knew that this was his seal of approval. From that point on, she was accepted by the band. If you got past Johnny Hodges’ ice wall, you were in.
After the Sacred Concerts, Babs’ career continued in Sweden. She also flew to London to sing with the Ellington band and made a few more recordings with him before he died. After Duke’s death, she gave a memorial concert in Sweden for him, sang a few more years, and then retired.
Retired for a while, but not forever. In the incredible late autumn of her career came Swingtime Again, A Church Blues for Alice and Don’t Be Blue, the latter recorded in 2001 when she was 77 years old. Amazingly, her voice remained intact: not just the pure tone and crystal-clear diction, not just the ability to swing and improvise, but also the extended high range. She had lost nothing.
You can explore as much or as little of Alice Babs as you like, but I warn you: exposure to Babs is habit forming. Once you start listening to her, you will never be the same again. I guarantee it.
— © Lynn René Bayley 2016