The voice of singer June Christy took the jazz world by storm in the late 1940s. Spending six years with Stan Kenton’s orchestra, Christy became an integral part of the progressive jazz sound. Few other vocalists were as well-blended with their band as was Christy, who even beyond her time with Kenton was guided by the style he championed. But just as Kenton’s music was divisive, so was Christy’s singing. Jazz fans adored her, but she confused the average listener and thus never managed the same level of success as did other more mainstream vocalists such as Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald.
Born in Springfield, Illinois, Christy grew up in nearby Decatur, landing her first professional singing job at age 13 with a local band led by Bill Oetzel. After spending four years with Oetzel, she made her way to Chicago, where she attempted to sing with a society orchestra but quickly found out that she wasn’t suited for that type of work. Her break finally came in September 1943 when, under the stage name of Sharon Leslie, she joined Boyd Raeburn’s popular jump orchestra at the Band Box, replacing Ginnie Powell. Raeburn’s band had resided at the club since January and had earned itself a reputation as one of the best dance groups in the country. Raeburn, however, wasn’t happy with his success and set about reorganizing at the beginning of 1944, turning his outfit into a progressive jazz orchestra ahead of its planned opening in New York that February. Unfortunately, according to Christy, she came down with scarlet fever, and the band headed east without her.
Early Kenton Years
Christy struggled to find work over the next year. She briefly sang with Benny Strong and took whatever club dates came her way, including a stint at Ye Olde Cellar with Nicky Bliss and his combo. She was just about ready to call it quits in February 1945 and head back to Decatur when she heard that Stan Kenton was coming to town and needed a new singer to replace Anita O’Day, who planned to leave. According to Christy in a 1946 interview, she ran into Kenton by chance at the local offices of his management company, and after listening to her test records he hired her on the spot.
Following in O’Day’s shoes was not an easy task. O’Day had won Down Beat magazine’s poll for best female band singer just a month earlier, and her addition to Kenton’s band had been the spark that put it over the top. O’Day’s first recording with the band, “And Her Tears Fell Like Wine,” had produced the band’s first hit song. Christy, however, turned out to be every bit as talented and as capable as O’Day, scoring a big hit with her first recording, “Tampico.” Like Kenton’s music, however, Christy’s voice and style were often a source of contention. People either liked her or were bewildered by her. She might receive an enthusiastic reception at one location but just polite applause at another, depending on the audience. Christy was also often criticized for singing out of tune. Even Kenton himself noted this in a 1948 interview, saying “June doesn’t have a great voice, but she has the potentiality of being a great singer.” Even as late as the mid-1950s, critics complained about her intonation and lack of swing.
Capitol Records took early note of Christy’s popularity, bringing her into the studio for solo recordings in late 1945. In late 1946, the label signed her for more, and that December she announced her departure from Kenton. She hesitated, however, and changed her mind before the end of the month. Many speculated that she got cold feet, worried that she couldn’t make it on her own. Part of the reason might also have been her romance with Kenton sax player Bob Cooper. The couple married the following month, January 1947.
In April, Kenton suddenly disbanded due to physical and mental exhaustion, leaving Christy with little choice but to try her luck solo. Kenton planned to reorganize in August, and the band’s manager, Carlos Gastel, asked that everyone take temporary jobs so they could rejoin. Gastel quickly lined up work for Christy, who made her first appearance as a single at Bocage in Hollywood that May. She spent June and July in Chicago at the Sherman Hotel’s College Inn and August in New York at the Troubadour. The public reception to her solo act proved generally positive, and questions arose as to whether she would rejoin Kenton. She returned, however, when the reorganized band made its debut in September.
Christy was extremely popular with jazz fans, winning Down Beat magazine’s poll for best female band singer three straight years in a row, from 1946 to 1948. She also topped Billboard’s 1947 DJ and college polls. She appeared on the cover of Down Beat three times, on January 15, 1947, April 8, 1949, and June 14, 1950, the latter shared with Kenton. She made the cover of Billboard on December 17, 1949.
Solo Career and Later Kenton Years
In December 1948, Kenton unexpectedly disbanded and quit the music business, once again forcing Christy out on her own. Early in 1949, she went into the studio backed by a band put together by her husband. It wasn’t until June 1949, though, when she worked her first club date. When Kenton returned to music in early 1950, forming the 39-piece “Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra” for a series of concert dates, Christy and many of Kenton’s former musicians rejoined. The concert tour proved successful, with Kenton using the opportunity to showcase his more experimental works. The orchestra also made several recordings before breaking up in June. Christy’s participation in the tour earned her a record fourth win in Down Beat’s poll.
After the Innovations tour, Christy finally decided it was time to go her separate way from Kenton. When he formed a new 19-piece dance band immediately afterwards, she didn’t return as his vocalist for the first time in six years. Her solo work continued to receive mixed results however. At the Hollywood Mocambo in October, a Down Beat reviewer noted that the audience, which contained many film stars, seemed confused by her singing, and she was asked to leave after only two nights. In other locations, where the audience was more “hip,” she packed the house.
In 1952, at Capitol, Christy began working with former Kenton arranger Pete Rugolo, with whom she had first collaborated in the studio during late 1949. Rugolo had also left Kenton after the Innovations tour, taking a staff job at the label. It proved a fruitful relationship. Rugolo provided Christy with the types of arrangements that she had become familiar with and had built her vocal style around. Christy also began appearing on television in the early 1950s, making the variety and talk show circuits throughout the decade.
Kenton announced another series of Innovations concerts for late 1951, but Christy indicated she wouldn’t take part, saying that she needed to establish herself as a personality outside of the band. Kenton initially tried to get Peruvian singer Yma Sumac, but when negotiations broke down Christy stepped in to help out. Reviewers noted that her part in that year’s tour seemed out of place, with standard songs nestled in between Kenton’s wilder arrangements. When the band recorded, Christy was given equal billing with Kenton. Christy returned to Kenton a few more times over the next few years. She subbed with the band on weekends after vocalist Kay Brown left in early 1953, and she joined the band’s European tour later that summer. She joined Kenton one last time in early 1954 as part of his touring unit.
1954 marked a change in Christy’s career. After giving birth to her first child, a daughter, she began to focus more on recording than touring, not wanting to be away from her husband and daughter. Late that year, she released her first album, Something Cool, a collection of recordings she had made with Rugolo over the past two years. The album reached the Top 20 and sold 93,000 copies in its first year. In 1955, Christy recorded an album with Kenton titled Duet, which featured his solo piano accompaniment, and also her second solo album, The Misty Miss Christy. She went on to record 16 more albums over the next ten years.
Christy suffered from alcoholism in her later career, recording her last album in 1965 and semi-retiring in 1969. She occasionally performed during the 1970s and 1980s, reuniting with Kenton one last time in 1972. She made her last album in 1977. June Christy died from kidney failure in 1990 at age 64.
In her autobiography, Anita O’Day claims that she was the one who arranged for Christy to audition for Kenton, though there are some discrepancies in her story. O’Day, who had agreed to remain with the band until Kenton could find a replacement, stated that she heard Christy singing with Raeburn’s band and convinced her to audition. If her story is true it is obviously mis-remembered. Raeburn had long since left Chicago by then, and Christy was not his vocalist at any time that year. Christy doesn’t mention O’Day at all in her interview. O’Day and Christy didn’t get along very well. The two singers were often compared to each other, a comparison they both disliked. ↩︎
Cooper also rejoined the band. Had Christy left the band at any time, Cooper would have followed, and vice versa. ↩︎
Something Cool was released in three versions. The original 1954 album contained a compilation of seven songs from 1953 and 1954, all recorded in mono and released on a ten-inch disk, with a second mono release the following year adding four more songs. In 1961, Christy and Rugolo re-recorded all eleven songs in stereo for a new version of the album. Various other versions have been released and re-released over the years, sometimes with as many as 24 songs during the CD era. ↩︎
Something Cool has attained cult status among modern day jazz fans and is often seen as far more important than it actually was at the time. Wikipedia, for instance, as of the date of this writing, describes the album as launching both Christy’s career as a solo artist and the “cool” movement in jazz singing. Neither is true. Christy was already a well-known solo star before its release, and she was far from the only artist singing in the “cool” style, which had been around since the late 1940s. Chris Connor, for one example, rivaled Christy’s popularity in 1954. Most of those buying Something Cool were Christy fans happy to get a collection of her recordings on one disk for the first time. Its main significance is that it marked a shift for Christy from releasing singles to releasing albums, a transition many jazz vocalists were making at that point in time. Modern audiences tend to think of albums as signs of success, but albums as we know them today were a fairly rare phenomenon until the mid-1950s. Something Cool was barely mentioned in the trade press when it was released, with Billboard giving it a rating of 70 out of 100. ↩︎