Although the Stan Kenton Orchestra was known for its creative writing and innovative soloists, for most of its history a vocalist shared the stage with the instrumentalists. Some became stars and stayed for years. Others came and went so quickly as to elude any permanent record.
Anita O’Day was the Kenton band’s first star singer. Already a box-office draw after her days with Gene Krupa, she added a sassy swinging element that contrasted with Gene Howard’s silky smooth vocals. June Christy was virtually unknown when she replaced O’Day, but soon her star outshone her predecessor, as she garnered first place ribbons, one after another.
Through the 1940s Kenton had a male vocalist sharing duties with the female. Tenor man Red Dorris filled this role admirable for several years before being drafted. He returned to the band briefly after the war, but he was a shell of his former self, and left in short order. Gene Howard didn’t have the grit that Dorris had, but handled sappy ballads admirably. In the early 1950s Jay Johnson was the last full time male vocalist to tour with the band.
In 1952 and 1953 two husky voiced singers, Jerri Winters and Chris Connor, both came and went, leaving their marks and gathering fans. Maynard Ferguson’s wife, Kay Brown, sang with the band for a spell, but didn’t captivate audiences to the degree others had. By mid-decade, Ann Richards, Mrs. Stan Kenton, was the featured vocalist, and a star on the rise.
In the next decade Kenton was showcasing Jean Turner on tours and on a swinging album. Although there were vocalists who appeared with the band after Turner, she is generally considered to be the last Kenton band singer.
Interestingly, the first and last vocal soloist to record with the Stan Kenton Orchestra was Kenton himself, warbling St. James Infirmary in comic fashion in 1941 and later in 1972. With such hard hitting, oft times raucous, sounds emanating from the band, Kenton frequently offered up comic bits to break the tension. Although other light-hearted numbers came and went, featuring part-time vocalists Ray Wetzel, Frank Rosolino, and Shelly Manne, St. James remained in the book from the beginning to the end. Audiences seemed to enjoy the silly banter between the leader and his musicians.
St. James Infirmary (arr. Stan Kenton) 1 September 1941
St. James Infirmary (head arrangement) 22 June 1972
Although there were female vocalists that preceded her on the Kenton band, Dolly Mitchell’s eighteen months place her as the first in a line of singers who were closely associated with the Kenton sound. Read more…
When virtually any Kenton fan thinks of the maestro's vocalist, June Christy pops to the forefront. Sure there were others. But none meshed with the Kenton sound so perfectly as did the Misty Miss Christy. Read more…
In the late fifties, Kenton thought it was time to try his hand at another vocal group. Although he wrote specifically for them, and featured them in performance and recordings, they never caught on with the public. Read more…
In quite a few arrangements, the entire band was asked to provide their vocal skills to the instrumental textures. Read more…