Sue Raney is a direct link to America's golden age of pop and jazz singers. Yet she remains one of the most underrated female vocalists still on the scene today. Sue has recorded exquisitely with every major arranger—Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Ralph Carmichael, Bill Holman, Bob Florence, Jack Marshall, Billy Byers and others. She also has been teamed with Buddy DeFranco, Page Cavanaugh, Shelly Manne, the Four Freshmen, Supersax and her husband, French hornist Carmen Franzone.
So why isn't Sue Raney better known? She came up a little late—in the early '60s, when the music changed and pulled the rug out from under young pop singers. Lacking hits, she found recording increasingly difficult as pop-rock and soul began to dominate the charts and studios. But that didn't stop her. Sue recorded jingles in the '70s before turning to jazz in the 1980s and beyond. Earlier this year she released Listen Here (Rhombus), a collection of ballads accompanied only by pianist Alan Broadbent. If you're in New York this week, Sue will be appearing with the Alan Broadbent Trio at Feinstein's.
In Part 1 of my two-part conversation with Sue, 72, the singer with the intimate tone talks about her start and how she wound up in Capitol's Studio A with Nelson Riddle in 1957...
JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Sue Raney: I was born in McPherson, Kansas, but we moved to Wichita soon after. My mom wanted either my sister or me to be musical. She got lucky. When I was four, I started singing to the dolls we played with. That's when my mother realized I could sing. But when she took me for voice instruction, the teacher said I was too young. So my mother took the lessons and passed them on to me.
JW: Did you sing locally?
SR: I sang at all the local luncheons and events. After World War II, we moved to Albuquerque, N.M., where my mother's brother lived. He was a drummer. My parents were looking for work and there wasn't much available in Oklahoma. Once we were situated there, we began going back and forth to Los Angeles. [Pictured above: Sue Raney, in her pre-teens]
SR: At age 14, I was already at a professional level. I had my own radio show and was recording demos. On one of those trips West, my mother and I went to a publishing company that Mo Miller, Nan Grey's mother, ran. Nan was Frankie Laine's wife.
JW: How did you wind up moving to Los Angeles?
SR: One day Frankie Laine [pictured above], his Columbia producer Mitch Miller, and actor and radio host Jack Carson were playing golf. Carson needed a teen singer for his radio show. He already had the King Sisters and guitarist-singer Tony Romano. Laine recommended me. In November 1954 I auditioned and got the job on Carson's show. Then I moved out there to live with Frankie Laine's mother-in-law before my family moved, too, in 1955.
JW: A radio show in 1956?
SR: I know [laughs]. Jack Carson was one of the last celebrity radio hosts. It was the tail end of the radio-show era thanks to television's strong gains nationwide. CBS was one of the last networks to have shows where audiences were invited in and applauded after you sang. But it was radio, and I was really lucky to be a part of that. At the time, I was 15 going on 16. The show didn't last long.
JW: What did you do?
SR: I needed another show. Mo Miller, Laine's mother-in-law, became my manager. I was all set to debut on Columbia recording a duet with Frankie Laine.
JW: What happened?
SR: My mom was tenacious. She wanted her little girl to do everything. She took me to Marty Melcher's office. Marty was a producer who was married to Doris Day. That day, talent agent Pierre Cossette was in the office. He had been at MCA, the talent agency, and by then was managing artists on his own. Pierre called after my audition at Marty's office and offered me a shot on The Ray Anthony Show, on tV. [Pictured above: Doris Day and Martin Melcher]
JW: What did you do?
SR: We chose Ray Anthony instead of recording a duet with Frankie Laine.
JW: Was Laine upset?
SR: Yes, a little. And he should have been. It wasn't really right. My folks were novices at this, and sometimes they made the wrong decision. Because of Ray Anthony, I wound up auditioning at Capitol. Lee Gillette came over to the audition and signed me to the label. I was 17 years old, and it was all overwhelming and wonderful. What a blessing for me. [Pictured above: Sue Raney with Ray Anthony]
JW: Did you have any professional training?
SR: I was a natural when I was young. When I began traveling out to California at age 14, Laine wanted me to go to Lillian Goodman, a vocal couch. Frankie Laine had always touted her. He had voice problems, and so did Betty Hutton. Goodman had resolved those problems for both of them and others. Lillian became my guru. Everything I learned from her has stayed with me.
JW: What did she teach you?
SR: She provided classically oriented training as well as breathing and good stability. I was with her for a year. At first I couldn't afford the lessons, which were $15 an hour, an unheard of sum back then. But my mother had convinced my Aunt Marie to pay for them, which she did, thankfully. [Pictured above: Sue Raney with Nat King Cole]
JW: Your first session was with Nelson Riddle?
SR: I know. Amazing—at age 17. That album began as a series of singles. I was taken aback to be in his company. Nelson used to work with me and he took me to John Kennedy's Presidential Inauguration. My gracious, to be in his company—I was overwhelmed. Everyone was there at the recording session. After I recorded the first song, the string players all tapped on the their instruments with the base of their bows to applaud me.
JW: What did you think?
SR: Producer Lee Gillette told me that they rarely did things like that. Today I don't remember much about the session. I recall I was in a booth with three acoustic panels and that Bob Bain was behind me on guitar. But that's about it.
JW: You also recorded with Billy May in 1960—Songs for a Raney Day.
SR: That was another unbelievable session. It was funny: My dad was never particularly musical, but he just loved Billy May and how he always arranged those bending saxophones on singers' albums. You know what I mean? Billy had them wail and drag notes. But on my album, May didn't score that sound, which my dad sure would have loved.
JazzWax tracks: Sue Raney's latest album, Listen Here(Rhombus), is available here.
Sue's initial albums are sensational and should not be missed. They include...