Southern and Rivers: High Notes

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Mavis Rivers
Jeri Southern and Mavis Rivers [above]—two important jazz-pop singers who got their start in the 1950s—have just been treated to solid retrospective CD sets. Both collections offer an in-depth overview of each artist and provide insights into how singers were developed back then and routinely re-positioned by their labels in hopes of charting a hit.

Southern [above] was a pianist who added singing to her act and wound up recording steadily just as the LP blossomed and the demand for female vocalists spiked. In her earliest vocals for Decca in 1951 and '52, you can almost hear the basis for Chet Baker's casual, sighing singing style. 

Rivers also had a casual, amiable approach—though her delivery was glossier and more swinging than Southern's. Rivers' marble-smooth intonation was seductive and her held notes shimmered with a slight vibrato. But she resisted belting songs, cooly sending up songs with hip phrasing. In all fairness to Southern, Rivers recorded at the tail end of the 1950s and the start of the 1960s, when the jazz-pop idiom had been perfected, resulting in crackerjack 12-inch LPs. 

Both retrospectives by Fresh Sound provide a well-rounded sense of why each singer was special. In The Warm Singing Style of Jeri Southern: The Complete Decca Years 1951-1957, a five-CD set, we not only hear Southern's voice mature over time but she's also backed by a range of orchestras and ensembles of varying sizes. Her first recording in 1951—You Better Go Now—remains  breathtaking and was never really topped by Southern. Arranged by Tutti Camarata, the song set the stage for an entire generation of jazz vocalists who sounded like they were singing from their beds. Other set gems include When I Fall in Love, Call Me Tonight, Just Got to Have Him Around, The Man That Got Away, An Occasional Man and I'm Gonna Try Me Some Love.

Southern was best when she was committed to the lyric and put her back into it. Too often she was placed in  treacly settings by Decca that made her sound like she was singing Silent Night over and over again. By far, the set's best tracks feature Southern accompanying herself on piano. On songs like It's De-Lovely, I'll Take Romance and Let's Fall in Love, you hear Southern's lush piano introductions and smart chord voicings. Also special are her tracks on piano with the Dave Barbour Trio—including Miss Johnson Phoned Again Today, That Old Devil Called Love and The Very Thought of You. Listening to them now, you realize that a small group was all Southern needed to put her charm across.

Rivers is featured on two double-CD sets—Mavis Rivers: The Capitol Years 1959-1960 and Mavis Rivers: The Reprise Years 1961-1962. Rivers had A-list arrangers like Jack Marshall, Dick Reynolds, Nelson Riddle, Marty Paich, Neil Hefti, Van Alexander and Chuck Sagle. Most of her song choices were upbeat, and her phrasing on up-tempo tunes borrowed ever-so-slightly from Ella Fitzgerald's round, friendly conversational style. Rivers was truly one of the finest least-known singers of the era.

Two singers, two different approaches and two different eras captured by labels trying to find their way.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find The Warm Singing Style of Jeri Southern: The Complete Decca Years 1951-1957 (Fresh Sound) here. Mavis Rivers' The Capitol Years 1959-1960 here and The Reprise Years 1961-1962 (both Fresh Sound) here.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved.

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