Saturday, February 28, 2009

Helen Grayco cont'd

“I was singing at the Hollywood Palladium in Hollywood and that’s where Spike heard me in 1946. He asked to see me after the show and offered me a job. He was already established. A huge star. He was going on tour. I was in direct contrast to what he did. I was terribly insulted when Spike first asked to hire me. He had just done “Cocktails for Two” and all that stuff that he was known for. “I don’t know where I could possibly fit in in your group. I‘m not a comedienne,” I told him. He said, “No, you’ll do your own thing. You’ll have your arrangements. You’ll do 15, 20 minutes entirely separate from the show.” They needed something to calm people down. And that’s how we always worked from then on.” On the Spike Jones TV show, even there I was the contrast.”

And in fact, in a 1947 review of the Jones live act, that is the very word the writer uses to describe Grayco‘s contributions to the proceedings: “For contrast, an eyeful called Helen Grayco warbled “Ca Ca Carumba” and a very spicy ditty or two.”

But by the time she had joined the Jones band, Grayco was already a seasoned pro. Here is some of what she also told me about her private and professional life before then.

“I was born in Takoma, Washington. I’m one of eleven children. Six girls and five boys. I was second to the youngest of a good Italian Catholic family. I got a job when I was eight years old singing on KHJ Radio in L.A. on a show called “The Carnival Hour.” Bing Crosby and his brothers had heard me sing on a variety show on the radio in Seattle and they said [sings] ‘Holly-wood!’ And so two of my brothers and my sister moved here and I did the show and then all my family migrated here. It was during the Depression., so it was a very hard time for my family. Actually, I was the breadwinner. My father was in the grocery business and what had happened during the Depression was that he gave out so much credit and food in the area they lived in---he had a great market and a restaurant all combined---and no one could pay. He couldn’t pay whoever he owed and so he went out of business. He lost everything. But I was earned fifty, sixty, seventy-dollars a week. That was a lot of money during the Depression.

“Then, I was put under contract when I was thirteen years old, to Universal Studios. Producer-director Joe Pasternak signed me. Deanna Durbin was their big star at Universal and she had outgrown everything and was going into adult roles and they wanted someone young to be the new Deanna and they hired me and I was put under contract and that year they were paying me a hundred dollars a week and so I was really moving up in the world. I was going to do a film called “Little Lady” and Norman Taurog was going to direct it, but a new regime came into Universal and the group that hired me left. So I never made the film and consequently my contract expired. But I was an extra in the Marx Brothers film , “A Night at the Opera” and you see a little girl go up to the piano and Alan Jones is singing, that’s me. [That's Grayco second from the left in the Chico photo below.] No speaking part, though.” Grayco also had a small part in a Universal movie, “That Certain Age” (1938) billed as “Girl.”

“Before I ever joined Spike Jones, I worked with Stan Kenton. I was in high school at the time and he was going on a tour during the summertime. I was going to Hollywood Professional School and that summer my sister Teresa went with me and we traveled by bus from L.A. and made stops, all one-nighters, all the way to New York to the Roseland Ballroom. But prior to Stan I worked with the bands of Chuck Cascalas, Chuck Cabot, and Red Nichols. But I never recorded with any of these bands. This covered a period of about two or three years.”

Nearly all the while Grayco was with the Spike Jones band, she continued to cut a lengthy list of singles; but alas none were as memorable as the two albums she recorded in 1957 (“After Midnight“) and 1958 (“The Lady in Red“), the former of which has an especially strong standing among critics and fans. Of her singles, she said, “When you’re with a record company they just call you and you come in and record what they want. ‘Ooop Shoop’ and all those songs were picked out for me by the record companies.”

Shortly after hiring Grayco to be a part of his regular band in ‘46, Jones became determined to show the world that he was also capable of producing legitimate, "pretty" music, And so he formed his so-called “Other Orchestra,” which featured Grayco. While this group recorded a number of transcriptions, it was a financial failure and lasted less than one year. The band didn’t want to hear that Spike Jones. But the relationship between Jones and his singer was far more successful and they married in 1949. It was one of their eventual three children, Leslie, who had the pleasure of informing her mother of the ongoing popularity of her albums in Japan.

“My daughter Leslie Ann Jones is a marvelous sound engineer who works for George Lucas in San Francisco. And she’s recorded Michael Feinstein, Rosemary Clooney and won several Grammys. She had just finished a session with Michael Feinstein about three years ago and he said “Leslie, I just bought your mother’s album, “After Midnight” in Japan.” And Leslie said, “My Mother hasn’t recorded in a hundred years.” And he said, “No, it’s very popular in Japan.” She didn’t believe it. And he called Japan and had them send a copy to Leslie. That’s how I found out about my albums in Japan. Through Michael Feinstein.”

In the course of my interview with Grayco, I read to her part of a retrospective rave review of “After Midnight” that appeared in Japan’s Swing Journal a few years back, and which contained the following observation:

“When one encounters such a rare and refined recording, one comes to realize that the established versions of certain songs are not necessarily the last word on the subject. Hopefully the reissue of this work will lead to a re-evaluation of Helen Grayco.”

She was pleasantly surprised:

“WHAT! You’ve got to be kidding. I took great pains with album, unlike the singles that were given to me to do. I never would have chosen any of the singles to do if I had a choice. In those years you recorded what they wanted you to. I took a lot of time. . .saloon songs, nice listening, hopefully rather sexy at times. I think the album got that across. When Tony Curtis heard the album he said, ‘Oh I’ve got to do the liner notes.’ Our budget wasn’t that huge. We could have used a forty piece orchestra. I thought he [Russ Garcia] brought the proper mood to the album. We had all the top players in L.A.“ (She’s right. They included alto sax Les Robinson, alto; Gerald Wiggins, piano; Alvin Stoller, drums; Joe Mondragon bass, Barney Kessell, guitar; and Larry Bunker, vibes. It was arranged by Russ Garcia and conducted by Judd Conlon).

Grayco’s next (second and final) album was recorded for Verve the following year. Like several others of that period on the label, Mel Torme, Anita O’Day Frances Faye, it was a Latin session. “Latin music was hot at the time, she recalls. “It had come into its own. Everybody had to get into the act, including record companies.”

“I continued my singing professionally for a few years after Spike died in 1966,” Grayco tells me, “the Copa in New York, the Dean Martin TV show. . .. Then I met Bill Rosen who ran a restaurant out of New York called Gatsby’s, we married, and after that I gave up my career to concentrate on my marriage. I moved to New York. Then he opened a Gatsby’s in L.A. [in its Brentwood area] and I moved back here.”

Much like when she met Jones, her life took a similar unexpected turn when, in 1976, Gatsby’s hired a piano player by the name of Bob Millard mostly for background atmosphere playing. But it quickly became apparent that he was also a wonderful accompanist for singers. Soon, all the top singers in town came to drop by and jam. “One night,” Grayco says, “Tony Bennett would come in to sing, or Vic Damone would drop by. Just sitting around the piano bar singing. Just a casual thing.”

Then Grayco got caught up in the proceedings at the restaurant and she too began to sing at the restaurant on a semi-regular basis. The “scene” at Gatsy’s lasted for several years until Millard was hired away by the competition, Jimmy’s in Beverly Hills, but the Rosen’s venue remained a hot “in” spot until the early-1980s when Rosen retired (he died in 2002).

After talking with Grayco, I phoned Millard, an friend of mine as well, and he confirmed what Grayco had told me, “Even Sinatra would come in from time to time,” he recalled, “but never to sing, just to watch.” The pianist was also quick to point out that his departure from Gatsby’s did nothing to affect the ongoing (to this day) good feelings between himself and Grayco.

Grayco says that she has no strong interest in resuming her career. As for how she spends her time these days, she says: “I’m very social. A lot of lunches, dinners, a lot of friends, my children, my grandchildren.” She adds: “Just the other day I ran into [fellow singer] Jane Harvey at the Café Roma here in L.A. She came with her dog.” In addition to the Café Roma, currently you can also “catch” Helen Grayco on the various DVDs of the Spike Jones TV shows and on the CDs culled from the bandleader’s radio shows and transcriptions now in release. And, of course, on the current Japanese issues of both her wonderful CDs, “After Midnight’ and “The Lady in Red.”

Non-commercial air checks and radio transcriptions

To construct a complete listing of Helen Grayco’s recordings, including radio and TV air checks, radio transcriptions, is outside the scope of this discography. However, here is just a small part of the non-commercial Grayco material that exists (a complete commercial listing follows).

* With the Spike Jones Other Orchestra on Program #Z-213. Standard Program Library (1946) singing: "I've Got the World on a String" and "E-Bob-O-Lee-Bop." These 16-inch records were made only for radio stations, although they were reissued to the public by Wally Heider on a Hindsight LP in the 1970s.

* Grayco also performed "live" with the Other Orchestra in 1946 at the Trocadero in Hollywood. Several titles featuring Helen were carried on radio KHJ, including a version of "Personality." Presumably air checks of this broadcast exist.

* Grayco made a pilot for radio show (without Jones) for NBC, Greetings From Helen Grayco w/ the Tune Toppers and an interview with Bob Waterfield -15 min.

* There is also a 32-track transcription series with a performer known as Wayne Fair. It is not known which songs are performed by Grayco.

* She was a regular on nearly every Spike Jones television show, including the 1950 "Wild Bill Hiccup" pilot. Several broadcasts of the regular series are now available on DVD and feature Grayco’s singing. She also appeared in the summer of 1958 on the “Club Oasis” TV series. It is to be hoped that either audio or video recordings of this series exists. She was also a guest on a 1968 episode of the Dean Martin NBC TV series.


Singles through 1951 are 78 rpm only; her 1950s singles were issued on both 45 rpm and 78 rpm (the numbers here are for the 45s.

Diga Diga Do / Or No Dice by Manny Klein Orch w/vocals by Helen Grayco - London L -761 (1949)

Red Silken Stockings / A Hundred Years From Today - London L-1022 (1951)

'Twas Brillig / I Don’t Want to Go Home - London L-1005 (1951)

Ev’ry Baby Needs a Da Da Daddy / Don’t Send Me Home - Mercury 5818 (1952)

Walkin’ To the Mailbox / To Be Loved By You - Mercury 5838 (1952)

Oop Shoop / Teach Me Tonight - “X” 4x-0051 (1954)

Please Don’t Freeze / Say the Word - “X” 4x-0089 (1954)

I Love You Yes I Do / What Do You See in Her ? - “X” 4x-0139 (1955)

Love and Marriage / When You’re in Love You Believe - “X” 4x-0168 (1955)

I’d Better Be Careful / Night Train - “X” 4x-0180 (1955)

Lily’s Lament / Rock and Roll Wedding - Vik 4x-0199 (1956)

Fool For You, A / C'est La Guerre - Vik 4x 0219 (1956)

They Can’t Take That Away From Me / Year Round Love - Vik 4x 0236 (1956)

Them There Eyes / Temptation Verve V10129X45 [from lp “The Lady in Red“] - (1959)

If That’s How Nature Made Him / When a Woman Loves a Man - label ? (1977)

A Wrong Kind of Love / San Francisco Heartache - United Artists (ca. 1985)

Note: Ms. Grayco is heard on only two RCA recordings with husband Spike Jones and his City Slickers: None But the Lonely Heart (RCA 47-2992) and "Rhapsody from Hunger(y)" (RCA 47-4055). Both are spoken parts. She made no recordings with Jones on any other commercial label, i.e. Verve, Liberty, etc.


After Midnight - Vik LX-1066 (1957) currently available on RCA CD releases from Spain, France and Japan (?)

Lady in Red - Verve MGV 2099 (1959) currently available on Universal Music CD Verve UCCU-3094.

(My thanks to Spike Jones expert Ted Hering for his assistance in compiling the non-commercial part of this discography.)

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