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Joe Mooney: Greatness and Happiness

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If you dig jazz with a swinging pop feel, you need to know about Joe Mooney. The singer, who had four different recording careers (one in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s) isn't well known today. But Mooney remains an inspiration and favorite of jazz legends who have made a career out of good taste. Just last week, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli told me that he still thinks about Mooney before he plays a chord. Yesterday I spoke with guitar legend Mundell Lowe, who arranged two of Mooney's best albums in the mid-1960s. More with Mundy on Mooney and these recordings in a minute. [Pictured: Joe Mooney in New York in 1946]

Blind since age 10, Mooney grew up in Paterson, N.J. As a teen he sang and recorded in the early 1930s with the Sunshine Boys, a vocal group. He played piano in several big bands in the late 1930s and early 1940s before forming a quartet in 1942. Not long afterward, Mooney was in a terrible auto accident that left him with a fractured hip. After 18 months recuperating in the hospital, Mooney returned to Paterson and worked local clubs as a singer, accompanying himself on accordion, organ and piano.

In the mid-1940s he formed a Nat King Cole-ish pop quartet that featured a clarinet, guitar and bass. Mooney's vocals were relaxed and savvy, and the group had great success on 52d Street, eventually recording for Decca and touring. In the late 1940s Mooney recorded briefly on piano with Georgie Auld and Red Rodney.

In 1951 Mooney formed a trio with Pizzarelli and Bob Carter on bass that played clubs and recorded. Mooney moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but a year later, he joined the experimental Sauter-Finegan Orchestra as its male vocalist. Mooney recorded several sides with the band for RCA, including the minor jukebox hit Nina Never Knew.

Despite Mooney's potential, RCA never signed Mooney to an extensive contract, and the singer-keyboardist returned to gigging. In the mid-1950s, Mooney recorded an album for Atlantic that included a revamped Nina Never Knew. But the album did little to advance his visibility or his career. Unsure what to make of Mooney as pop act at a time when rock and r&b were catching on, Atlantic passed.

Back in Florida, Mooney spent the next seven years performing locally. Then in 1963, Mooney staged a comeback of sorts, recording two of his finest albums. These albums for Columbia were The Greatness of Joe Mooney, released in 1964, and The Happiness of Joe Mooney, released a year later. Both albums were arranged by guitarist Mundell Lowe, and they document Mooney's genius for simplicity and cool swing. As Terry Teachout pointed out in his liner notes for the CD release in 2000, Down Beat's John Tynan at the time gave Greatness five stars while Gene Lees in Stereo Review said Happiness was “one of the best pop discs of the year."

(It also should be noted that these sensational Mooney LPs probably would never have seen the light of day on CD had Terry not written an exquisite article on the forgotten Mooney for The New York Times' Arts & Leisure section in 1997. The article caught the eye of Koch Jazz producers, who put out both albums on one CD.)

Unfortunately, the soft-sung Greatness and Happiness had the misfortune of coming out just as the Beatles were coming in and pop was increasingly dominated by belters like Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand. As a result, Columbia never promoted the LPs or Mooney, who retreated disappointed once again to Florida, where he spent the remaining 10 years of his life playing local clubs. Mooney died of a stroke in 1975.

What's instantly clear when you hear Greatness and Happiness are the perfect song selections and hip small-group arrangements. This isn't bland, sticky pop. There's a lot of jazz and sophistication in each tune, thanks largely to Mundell Lowe's writing and the all-star jazz ensemble gathered for each album.

While listening to the fabulous CD yesterday, I hit the pause button and called Mundy Lowe to ask about Mooney and the two 1963 masterpieces...

“I first met Joe at Frank Dailey's Meadowbrook in Cedar Grove, N.J. in the mid-1940s. I was with Ray McKinley's band. At the Meadowbrook there were these steps leading from the dance floor up to a terrace where people who weren't dancing could listen to the band. Joe was up there.

“When we ended our set, Joe started to come down the stairs but lost his balance and fell, rolling all the way down to the bottom of the stairs. He jumped right up, brushed himself off and came over, asking how we were doing--as though nothing had even happened [laughing].

“Joe was a superb writer. He had arranged for Frank Dailey's orchestra. He was blind, of course, but had an assistant who would take down the notes he wanted. She would then have the parts from the score copied.


“I first heard Joe live in 1951, when he gigged and lived in Florida. The first time I met him was in a restaurant down there that I think he partly owned. It was a steakhouse called The Grate. He was playing piano with another blind pianist from Australia. I was down there with my then wife, visiting her family in Miami. We went over to hear Joe, and he was so good we wound up going every night he was there.

“In 1952 he joined the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra as the band's boy vocalist. Kay Finegan, Bill Finegan's wife, and I put the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra together. We did a couple of tours together, and Joe had a hit with Nina Never Knew.

“Joe was a very soft human being. Big smile and so kind. I don't know why he didn't record more sides with Sauter-Finegan or why he wasn't signed by RCA. Probably some kind of political thing. I just don't know.

“In the early 1960s, Kay Finegan wanted to do something for Joe. So she went to John Hammond at Columbia and sold him on the idea of having Joe record two albums. Joe called me and asked me to arrange the dates. He had chosen the songs and wanted woodwinds and a rhythm section.

“When we got together we discussed what keys the songs would be in and how long the arrangements would be. We decided to keep each song to about two minutes. This would make them more attractive for radio airplay. Joe hoped these records would finally put him on the map.

“We started out with seven woodwinds doubling on reeds on the first album. But we soon decided we needed a little more in the rhythm section, to offset the sound. So I brought in [guitarist] Barry Galbraith. We also wanted a vibes player for the same reason, so we got Gary Burton . They joined George Duvivier on bass and Ed Shaughnessy on drums.

“Whenever I write, I listen carefully to what's in my head and get into the mood of the singer or situation I'm writing for. Once I had a sound, then everything else fell into place. In this case, I needed a sound that would match Joe's gentle feel. I couldn't put a loud shouting brass band behind Joe. He was too intimate for that. I remember the first chart took me about a week, to get the feel. The rest took a total of three weeks.

“Joe wasn't a picky musician, but he knew what he wanted. The first album was originally going to be called Joe Mooney with Woodwinds. Instead it wound up as The Greatness of Joe Mooney. My favorite song on the album was Michel Legrand's Once Upon a Summertime. Having traveled to Paris a great deal, the song hits me right in the heart.

“Thinking back, I'm constantly amazed at what a superb musician and instrumentalist Joe was. He had a great sense of swing. He was that kind of musician. He even played beautiful accordion, and I don't even like that instrument.

“Frankly, I don't know why Columbia didn't push those two albums. I don't think they ever believed in Joe. He was too subtle for them. And the timing was wrong, too. By the time the first album came out [1964], everything in the music business changed."

Tomorrow, I will post on Joe Mooney's all-too-few Sauter-Finegan recordings--and an interview with the music executive who brought Nina Never Knew to RCA in 1952 and recommended Mooney sing it. Plus, the long-missing track Mooney sang with the band that has never been released on CD. It's so rare that even seasoned pop experts didn't know it existed. Tomorrow you'll be able to hear it for free.

JazzWax tracks: The two albums Joe Mooney recorded in 1963 were remastered on CD in 2000. The album, The Happiness of... the Greatness of... Joe Mooney, is no longer available at Amazon, which isn't a good sign. But there are a few copies here from independent sellers. You'll also find copies of the CD at eBay. No matter how many times I listen to this CD, I constantly find new things to love and admire about Mooney's singing and playing, and Mundell Lowe's small-group writing.

Mooney's hip bop-tinged recordings from 1946 and 1951 can be found on The Joe Mooney Quartet: Do You Long for Oolong? and Joe Mooney Quartet Vol. 2: Joe Breaks the Ice. Both are available as downloads at iTunes.

After recording his sides with Sauter-Finegan between 1952 and 1954, Mooney recorded an album for Atlantic in 1956. He was joined by Lee Robinson on guitar, Milt Hinton on bass and Osie Johnson on drums. The album, Lush Life, can be found here as a CD.

JazzWax clip: Here's a taste of the Joe Mooney-Mundell Lowe collaboration from The Greatness of Joe Mooney. Dig Mundy's arrangement of flutes on top of guitar, vibes and woodwinds--and how they all perfectly frame Mooney's intimate vocal. And dig Mooney's organ in there...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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