Jackie & Roy: Musical Joie de vivre
Saluting one of jazz's most dynamic singing duos
How do you define joy? How do you know when you feel it? And, even more importantly, how do you know when joy is real and not manufactured?
Thoughts of joy come to mind when listening to Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, a wife-and-husband singing duo who blended cheerfulness with jazz to create an intoxicating brew. Think Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé but just a little hipper.
An interview with Jackie Cain by Marc Myers for his blog, JazzWax, is a good initiation for those who unfamiliar with Jackie & Roy. They first gained fame in Charlie Ventura’s band in the late forties, were one of the pioneers of vocalese—treating the human voice like an instrument—and had a musical and marital partnership that lasted over half a century. Yet today, Jackie & Roy are almost entirely forgotten, their records and music hard to find. This despite them being an integral part of the golden age of pop singing of the mid-fifties into the sixties.
Go to Spotify and you’ll find a confusing web of information with no less than eight (!) artist entries. We have Jackie & Roy, Jackie and Roy Kral, Jackie Cain & Roy Kral, Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, Jackie Cain (twice) and Roy Kral (twice too). Finding one of their albums while crate-digging is akin to discovering hidden treasure.
Jackie Cain was a young, aspiring singer when she crossed paths with pianist and arranger Roy Kral one night at the Jump Town club in Chicago in the mid-forties where Kral was appearing with a jazz quartet. A musician friend of Cain’s suggested she sit in. Kral’s reluctance dissipated when it became clear that Cain knew her stuff. She went up to the bandstand, sang ‘Happiness is a Thing Called Joe,’ the audience went wild and you had the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Cain then taught Kral how to sing and something more than friendship was born.
The intricate interplay of a Jackie & Roy performance is something to behold. Never forced or formulaic, it often brims with playful sophistication, boundless cheerfulness and a sly sense of humour. There is a spontaneity that comes from an intimate understanding that only forms between two people destined for each other, one anticipating the other perfectly. But above all, there is warmth, optimism and an affirmation that every day can be a good day because we are here, called to participate in the dance of life. To hear Jackie & Roy is to experience musical joie de vivre.
Double Take, an album they released in 1961 during their time on Columbia, is a prime example of all this. Backed by just a trio with Kral on piano and revisiting several songs they had previously recorded, it is Jackie & Roy in their heyday, it’s hard to find but a few copies are awaiting you on eBay.
The absence of an orchestra or horn soloists on Double Take helps one focus entirely on Jackie & Roy as singers as well as Kral as a pianist, whose piano tees up the tempo for the album opener, ‘Cheerful Little Earful,’ which includes their signature vocalese on the second chorus as well as the first half of the third.
It is a brisk table setter for one of the album’s highlights, ‘You Smell So Good,’ which suggests that the way to one’s heart may actually through the nose as opposed to the stomach. Jackie & Roy’s impeccable sense of timing is on full display here, from Kral’s opening line to how Cain hangs way back from the beat when singing, “how I love that aphrodisia” in the middle of the second chorus. There is playfulness and charm to spare here and a chemistry that rivals Hepburn and Tracy, right down to the final sniffs that close out the song. It is an endless give-and-take between Jackie & Roy with them often trading lines or singing in unison or exchanging a quick quip—all demonstrations of their versatility.
For ‘Let’s Get Away From It All,’ Matt Dennis and Tom Adair’s ode to the rejuvenating elixir of travel, there is a brilliantly sung opening verse—first Cain, then Kral—and an abundance of musical humour, including a jibe that the 48 American states mentioned in the original lyrics had grown to 50 by 1961. Humour is also central on ‘Season in the Sun,’ by frequent collaborators Fran Landesman and Thomas Wolf, especially when the song takes a calypso turn.
Jackie & Roy’s original, ‘Glasses and Ashes and Bottles and Cans,’ features Kral’s chiming piano punctuating things throughout, plenty of the interplay that can only found between lovers and an earworm-quality melody you’ll not want to lose. It also illustrates another hallmark of the Jackie & Roy sound: arrangements that often play or shift with the rhythm and tempo. ‘Glasses and Ashes and Bottles and Cans’ begins with Kral and Cain singing accompanied by just Kral on piano and then by the full trio, a stop-and-start section in the bridge and an eventual return to the opening section. It’s all so inventive, interesting and infectious.
‘Could You Use Me,’ written by George and Ira Gershwin, was one of Jackie & Roy’s showpieces with Kral a persistent suitor to Cain’s hard-to-get object of affection who eventually succumbs to his charm. A two-person play set to song that shifts from a straight rhythm to a galloping two-step and is also full of Ira’s literate wordplay, ‘Could You Use Me’ contains all that made Jackie & Roy unique: two distinct voices, Kral’s light-as-air piano and a flawlessly executed arrangement.
Their version of ‘The Continental’ is an ever-changing journey that compensates for the song’s often-stilted lyrics and also contains a vocalese section plus a funky solo by Kral with shades of Horace Silver.
Jackie & Roy’s facility at taking a standard and fashioning it almost anew is on full display in the triple threat of ‘Let’s Take a Walk Around the Block,’ which is taken at an amiable stroll, ‘Side by Side,’ fashioned almost as a march with a gasser of a shout chorus and ‘I Wish I Were in Love Again’ which features a cycle of rhythms including rubato and a toe-tapping uptempo section. It also contains a great moment of musical banter with Kral’s scatting punctuated by piano chords cushioning Cain’s repeating of “in love again.”
Clifford Brown’s ‘Daahood’ returns Jackie & Roy to their vocalese roots and is the song on Double Take that best features Kral’s pianism. During a solo that stretches a chorus-and-a-half, he unleashes a dizzying burst of chords on the bridge of the first chorus and a Silver-esque episode in the final eight bars of his statement. He was the real deal.
The album closer is a fitting summation of Jackie & Roy: a blistering run-through of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Together, Wherever We Go’ from Gypsy.
After Double Take, Jackie & Roy continued on for 41 more years (Kral passed away in 2002 and Cain in 2014), weathering the changes in popular taste and the record business as well as personal tragedy with the death of one of their daughters in 1973 yet remaining true, as hard as it may have been, to bringing joy through the art of making music.
As Kral once said in an interview, “Music has taken us all over the world, put just a little jingle in the pocket and has given us a very happy life.”
Here’s to joy. And to Jackie & Roy too.