Dave Lambert: A Life in Jazz

Dave Lambert 1947

Dave Lambert in New York, 1947

Although many of the most important jazz innovations were created by black musicians, there were some that came from white singers and players. David Aiden Lambert, born in Boston on June 19, 1917, was clearly one of these. At a time (pre-1947) when even those black singers who scatted with modern bands were following in the footsteps of Louis Armstrong, Lambert took it one step further. He scatted in bebop rhythm, not swing rhythm, and he improvised up and down the range of his voice like a jazz horn.

Ironically, very little is available about Lambert on the Internet. I could learn nothing of his early influences (although I’m sure that Armstrong was among them), whether or not he played an instrument, if he was married or had children. You’d never know any of this from the Net. The only clue comes from a YouTube comment by his daughter, Dee Lambert, in regards to the 1946 record Gussie G. Dee states that “Dave Lambert wrote this scat tune for his mother-in-law Augusta whom we all affectionately called ‘Gussie’ – her last name started with a G.”  In short, his personal life is pretty much a black hole, but we can trace his professional life pretty easily.

Buddy Stewart

Buddy Stewart

He apparently began his career around 1942 with the big band of Johnny Long, a southpaw violinist whose biggest hit record was It’s Only a Shanty in Old Shantytown, a somewhat cornier version of Tommy Dorsey’s Marie. Meanwhile, his alter ego and amanuensis of the period, Buddy Stewart, five years his junior, started his singing career with Claude Thornhill’s orchestra as part of his vocal group, The Snowflakes. Born in September 1922, Stewart’s parents had show business in their blood; both had been dancers; he first performed in vaudeville at age eight. After serving in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1944, he joined the Gene Krupa band as part of his vocal group, the G-Noters, and this is where he first met up with Lambert.

Krupa What's ThisIndeed, we start our listening journey of Dave Lambert with Krupa’s January 22, 1945 recording of What’s This?, a Lambert tune like so many others that were to follow over the next three years: a fairly conventional harmonic base over which Lambert, frequently with Stewart, would scat in unison, frequently moving a bit outside the tonality while retaining a general trace of the basic chords. In this way, Lambert was able to maintain his creativity while not going so far out as to lose all those jazz listeners who were used to swing scat.

Gussie GThe next session to hear is that of November 23, 1946 for Keynote Records with Red Rodney’s Be-Boppers, an excellent group that included pianist Al Haig, bassist Curley Russell and drummer Stan Levey. The arrangements of the four tunes recorded that day—A Cent and a Half, Gussie G., Charge Account (a contrefact of All the Things You Are) and Juan Tizol’s Perdido—were written by Neal Hefti, at that time trumpeter-arranger for Woody Herman’s First Herd.

On Deedle, another Lambert original which he sings with a quartet headed by tenor saxist Allen Eager (Haig is back on piano), features Lambert with a trio: himself, Stewart, and Blossom Dearie. It was the first time I could track down in which he recorded with a female singer, but for the most part they sing in unison and not in harmony.

The next session was clearly one of his finest of the ‘40s though a real outlier, one selection on which he, Stewart and Dearie are joined by star vocalist Jo Stafford and accompanied by her husband Paul Weston’s Orchestra. Three things stand out on this record: first, the surprisingly good bop phrasing of Stafford, a superb singer but not one known for an interest in modern jazz; second, the use of the Dave Lambert “Vocal Choir” singing in harmony rather than in unison. It was the first of many experiments to come in which Lambert would push the limits of what a group of singers could do in jazz. The third thing is the extremely bizarre title of the song—an algebraic equation in which Lambert incorporated a reference to Stafford as “Jolly Jo.” The title is, if you can believe it, M + H + R + 3ee – oo over 4/4 ee3 X 32= Bop over (Jolly Jo). If you don’t believe me, here’s the record label to prove it:

M+H+R+3ee - oo over 4-4 aa3 4-1-1949

The very next day, April 2, 1949, Lambert and Stewart sat in with Charlie Barnet’s band. Barnet wasn’t as much into bop as were the bands of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, but he took a flyer on Bebop Spoken Here which was written by the strange duo of Matty Malneck, a 1920s jazz violinist who one would think was an anti-bopper, and later television show bandleader Milton DeLugg. This arrangement was turned in by Stan Kenton arranger Pete Rugolo.

Hawaiian War ChantBut just before these recordings were made, Stewart embarked on one of his most ambitious projects of the ‘40s, a Latin-bop arrangement of the old swing tune Hawaiian War Chant which had been a hit for Tommy Dorsey and was more recently lampooned by Spike Jones. Here, Lambert and Stewart appear to be working with not one but two female singers (not sure who the second one is), and for the first time he scores the voices like sections in a big band…the females singing trumpet parts and the males singing sax parts. Apparently, Capitol Records didn’t think this one would sell at all because they only released it in SWEDEN!

In February 1950, Buddy Stewart was killed in a car accident while traveling to New Mexico to see his wife and child. To assist Stewart’s widow, a benefit concert was performed at Birdland in New York. Believe it or not, according to Wikipedia the performers included Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Ventura, Stan Getz, Tony Scott, Al Cohn, Lester Young, Lennie Tristano, Harry Belafonte, J. J. Johnson, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Dizzy Gillespie. A pretty fair band if I do say so myself.

Although Stewart’s death was a severe shock to Lambert, he rallied himself and kept on going. One of his more interesting experiments was a jazzy arrangement of the Bob Merrill pop tune My Truly, Truly Fair, which was a hit for Columbia Records’ pop star of the time Guy Mitchell. Lambert uses a waltz-tempo intro before swinging into the 4/4 tune, and although the first chorus isn’t particularly innovative, it does swing and the harmonies that Lambert uses are quite interesting. Plus, the backup band is pretty good, too: tenor saxist Georgie Auld, young trombonist Frank Rosolino, Harvey Leonard on piano, Curley Russell on bass and Tiny Kahn on drums.

In the Still of the NightOne of the more celebrated of Lambert’s early recordings is the vocal arrangement he did for Charlie Parker on Old Folks, but personally, I can’t stomach the song. It’s not just corny but flat-out stupid, almost is if Parker were improvising to Three Little Fishies or The Old Gray Mare She Ain’t What She Used to Be. But the flip side of that record, which for some reason gets little attention, is a superb arrangement of Cole Porter’s In the Still of the Night. Gil Evans wrote the band arrangement and, for the first time, Lambert used Scottish-born soprano Annie Ross within his Dave Lambert Singers. It’s really a great record, even if here, as in Truly Fair, the singers seem to be “keeping it minimal” in terms of harmony.

Well, at this point it seems only fair that we at last jump to Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Dave formed this trio as part of a multi-track experiment he had in mind for ABC-Paramount records, the only label that would take him up on it: to use a vocal trio as if it were a full jazz orchestra, only adding a real rhythm section to the mix. The resulting album was titled Sing a Song of Basie since all of the tunes selected had been Count Basie instrumentals, and except for the pianist (Nat Pierce) he used Basie’s then-current rhythm section of Freddie Green, guitar, Eddie Jones on bass and the solidly swinging Sonny Payne on drums. As you can see from the image below, the original LP cover did not list the group as Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, but as “Dave Lambert and his Singers, Jon Hendricks and his lyrics featuring: Annie Ross and the Basie Rhythm Section.” ABC-Paramount only switched it to “Lambert, Hendricks & Ross” after they began hitting it big:

Sing a Song of Basie

Ah, but rather than present one of the famous tracks from the album, we need to listen to one of the three non-Basie songs recorded at that session that were not originally on LP or even on the Impulse! CD reissue: Jon Hendricks’ tune Standin’ on the Corner (Whistlin’ at the Pretty Girls) (click HERE and slide cursor to 36:47) and a song they never rerecorded but should have, Jimmy Giuffre’s Four Brothers…nearly a quarter-century before Manhattan Transfer had a surprise hit with their version of it (same link, slide cursor to 30:55). Perhaps one reason it wasn’t released for so long was that Lambert made a mistake by pitching it too low for effectiveness; neither he nor Hendricks really sound very comfortable in their lower registers. Why he didn’t simply pitch it up at least a whole tone, I have no idea. Otherwise, it works splendidly. (Note: The third unissued track from this session was an early version of their later hit, Cloudburst, but this version is a bit too slow and thus less effective.)

I don’t know if this story is true or not, but supposedly there was another female singer in the group, Georgia Brown, but she stopped coming to rehearsals and wouldn’t return Lambert’s phone messages so she was dropped. A few years later, Lambert purportedly ran into her one day and asked her why. She said that Annie had told her that Dave didn’t want her in the group, that she wasn’t good enough, and so she shouldn’t bother showing up. Lambert, furious, went to Ross’ dressing room while she was putting on her makeup and asked her if this was true. “Yeah,” said Annie without stopping to put on her lipstick. “I wanted to be the only girl.”

We now jump ahead three years to LH&R’s prime, when they were the toast of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, having already recorded two of their three famous Columbia LPs. These two tracks are from a performance they gave for Playboy magazine on February 13, 1960. The first is an absolutely enthralling performance of Every Day I Have the Blues in which they are joined by Big Joe Williams; his interaction with the group and Annie Ross’ clever trick of hitting that one high note in the last chorus over and over as if she were a parrot or a robot is just too funny. The second is their version of Horace Silver’s Doodlin’, a song recorded commercially by Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan but not by LH&R. The reason becomes apparent in the last chorus, where they drop the “F” bomb (an R-rated jazz tune!). Well, after all, this was for the Playboy crowd.

From about the same time (maybe a year earlier) is a live performance with the Basie band of Avenue C, one of the tracks they recorded on Sing a Song of Basie but NOT on the follow-up album, Sing Along With Basie, which featured the Count himself along with his full orchestra. This scintillating performance has it all over the LP recording, with a great drum break by Sonny Payne near the end.

Sing and Swing AlongBefore we get to the last two LH&R performances, I recommend that you listen to the one and only solo LP that Lambert ever recorded. Made for United Artists in 1960, it was titled Sing / Swing Along with Dave Lambert, the apparent goal being for amateur Jon Hendricks’ and Annie Ross’ to join in and create their own singing group. Somehow I doubt that UA recouped the losses from this one, even though Lambert is in excellent voice, as you will hear, and gets to scat up a storm. Part of the problem is that they used a generic jazz piano trio to accompany him and never bothered to identify them on either the front or back of the album! But as I say, the singing is terrific and you can access the entire album HERE. My favorite tracks are All Alone, The Best Thing for You and Lover, Come Back to Me.

Now we move ahead to 1961. First, there is an excellent performance of Miles Davis’ Four by LH&R and after it, an absolutely mind-boggling version of Sonny Rollins’ Airegin. LH&R had recorded both songs on their one Pacific Jazz LP in 1959, just before Columbia signed them, but this one is a real sizzler, with Hendricks and Lambert singing multiple scat choruses, then trading licks for another chorus.

In the spring of 1962 Ross, feeling poorly, left the group and went back to England where she stayed for a few years. Her initial replacement was Canadian jazz singer Anne Marie Moss, but although she was good she just didn’t fit into their style. Fortunately, Lambert was able to procure the services of Yolande Bavan (1942 – ), a Sri Lankan-born singer and actress who had sung with Graeme Bell’s Dixieland orchestra. Bavan could not only match Ross’ brilliant high range, she also knew several of the group’s repertoire pieces and fit in quickly and easily. By September 1962 they were clicking so well as a unit that the new group landed an RCA Victor contract to make three albums, the first of which, recorded over three days that month, was Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan recorded live at the Village Gate, but for me their greatest album was their second, At Newport ’63, recorded on June 5 with Clark Terry on trumpet and the legendary Coleman Hawkins on tenor sax. You can access the entire album starting HERE, but I particularly recommend Watermelon Man, Deedle-Lee Deedle-Lum and especially Yeh-Yeh!, a rock-inspired piece to which Hendricks added lyrics. This is the recording that inspired British pop star Georgie Fame to record his own version of the song the following year.

LH&B lpIronically, by the time Fame’s cover version of Yeh-Yeh! was released, Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan were no more. For reasons that have not been disclosed, Bavan left the group in early 1964 and, not wanting to search for another replacement, Lambert did the same. But he wasn’t done. By the spring of that year, he was back at the RCA studios to audition yet another version of the Dave Lambert Singers which included Leslie Dorsey, Sarah Boatner, Mary Vonnie and David Lucas. Interestingly, Boatner was just a high school senior with no professional experience, but when she heard that Lambert was auditioning singers for a new group her classmates strongly urged her to go because she was famous for singing several of Annie Ross’ numbers to her friends.

Lambert & Co 1964

Lambert & Co., 1964. L to R: Leslie Dorsey, Sarah Boatner, Lambert, Mary Vonnie, David Lucas

Famed filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker made a 14-minute film of the audition, which you can view HERE, but although the film is interesting and the last on-camera glimpse we get of Dave Lambert, none of the songs in it are presented complete. For that we had to wait until 2016 when the long-lost tapes of the audition finally showed up. Of the five songs recorded that day, I think the most interesting were Comfy Cozy, Individualist Waltz and Think of Me, all of which you can hear by clicking the links. These are entirely different from the solo-oriented styles of LH&R and LH&B, an ensemble concept with no solos. The songs are melodically rather conventional but with some interesting twists of harmony and particularly wry lyrics, but RCA wasn’t interested and so Dave Lambert faded from the scene.

In the early morning of October 3, 1966, Lambert was driving along the Connecticut Turnpike when he spotted a disabled car and stopped to help, but the other car was not fully off the road, its lights were turned off, and it apparently had no flares. Lambert was struck and killed by a tractor trailer whose driver didn’t see him. Thus ended the life of one of the most likeable and talented men in jazz at the age of 49.

Yet how much he accomplished in a mere 20 years in the business! And what a legacy he left us. His like will not be seen again.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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3 thoughts on “Dave Lambert: A Life in Jazz

  1. Hi Lynn, thanks for your hard work of research on my Uncle. Love it! I have a Facebook page dedicated to him. I didn’t get to meet Dad’s family though, I was on the other side of the world, and there were various estrangements throughout the family… including my parents’ breakup.

    On Sarah Boatner as I understand, she was the daughter of a famous gospel singer.

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    • Dear Sally Anne, thank you for your kind comments. I grew up loving the music of LH&R, had always heard that Dave Lambert was a pioneer in bop jazz singing, and finally had the means to investigate him online. Also thank you for the info on Sarah Boatner.

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  2. I personally wrote to Pennebaker long ago, I think it was somewhere close to year 2000… either in New Zealand, or in China perhaps after 2004. He sent me a disc of the recording. Actually as I recall, it was someone who worked with Pennebaker. Then I started sharing it a bit.

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