I’m not sure what year I became a June Christy fan, but it must have been during her later years with the Stan Kenton band. I liked Kenton’s innovative approach to jazz. I first saw the band perform at Philly’s Academy of Music in the early 1950s. Christy was a member of the band at the time, but I don’t remember seeing her that night. At that time, almost everyone went to see Kenton’s trumpet virtuoso Maynard Ferguson—whose high notes on the instrument threatened to bring rain.
I had heard Christy before that night, but I suppose whatever she was singing didn’t register with me at the time. I really began to pay more attention with her 1953 recording of “My Heart Belongs to Only You.” About a year later came her bittersweet offering, a very hip recording of “Something Cool.” The song’s lyrics were super cool and super hip, and the uninitiated wanted to know to whom the laid-back, smoky, come-hither voice belonged.
Christy had been recording under her own name while still with Kenton, but her success as a single inspired her to go completely on her own. So, with “Something Cool” Christy was introduced to a much wider audience, and a stellar career in jazz and standard-pop interpretation was launched.
Before she became the sultry-voiced June Christy, she was Shirley Luster, from Springfield, Illinois, born November 20, 1925. The family moved to nearby Decatur and Christy, who always wanted to sing but had no formal training, began singing with local bands. With the ambivalent blessings of her family she later changed both her name and location, and as Sharon Leslie began singing with society bands in Chicago, about 150 miles from home.
While still in her late teens, Christy landed her first big job. It was with the progressive Boyd Raeburn band, which was playing at Chicago’s Band Box Theater. But she contracted scarlet fever and had to leave the band, which completed its engagement and left town without her. She was heartbroken and about to quit the business and return home, but hung in there.
How she became a member of the Kenton band is up for grabs—stories differ. She somehow learned that Kenton’s girl singer, Anita O’Day, was leaving the band, and that Kenton was looking for a replacement. The reasonable assumption is that she applied for the job and was hired. Fortunately, the same year, 1945, she and the band recorded the tune “Tampico,” and it became a million seller.
June Christy, “Tampico,” with the Stan Kenton Band:
She and the band proved to be a good match, and a second hit—another novelty tune, “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy”—followed. Christy and the band’s multi-instrumentalist Bob Cooper married in 1946, and remained thus for more than 40 years.
The Kenton band was under contract to Capitol Records, and upon leaving Kenton Christy also signed with the label, joining Peggy Lee, Dakota Staton, Nancy Wilson, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and others. Disc jockeys sometimes came up with nicknames for favorite artists. In Christy’s case, a Chicago DJ started calling her “The Misty Miss Christy.” Christy liked it and so did Capitol, and released an LP in 1956 with that sobriquet. It fit because she arrived in a “cool era” of modern music.
The music of the Kenton band was on the loud side, different, and strangely cool. Christy had a voice that was eggshell thin. Sometimes her timber and vibrato were so weak, one might think she would not make it through a song. But it was this vocal vulnerability, combined with the unique way she interpreted the words of a song, that made her the singer that she was—and the eggshell never broke. She could work magic with a song and, although she never learned to read music, could navigate the most challenging arrangements.
June Christy sings “Taking a Chance on Love”:
Anita O’Day, whom Christy followed into the band, shared with her a similar off-beat but successful approach to vocalizing. There was a similarity of voice and vocal style, but Christy was unlike O’Day in that she seldom if ever changed her hairstyle—she was known for her bangs across the forehead hairdo. And although blond and petite, she did not dress or do anything out of the ordinary to attract attention. There may even have been a mystique surrounding the Misty Miss Christy, who was friendly and usually upbeat, but not overly so.
She enjoyed great success from the mid-1950s through the ’60s. She and husband Bob Cooper collaborated on many of her recordings, as he, too, was a fine talent. They had one child, a girl named Shay. Christy retired from the music business and worked only when her failing health would allow. She passed away in 1990 at 64.
Oddly enough, the song most associated with Christy, “Something Cool,” did not go over with her. She once said that it was “the only thing I’ve recorded that I’m unhappy with.”
If you’d like to hear the lady at her best—which was almost always—try Off Beat, with the Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields gem, “Remind Me.” Christy sings it like she may have written it. The song is also on a compilation, The Best of June Christy. Both are on the Capitol label.
Jazz host Bob Perkins, or “BP with the GM,” brings WRTI listeners the “good music” every Monday through Thursday, 6 to 9 pm, and Sunday 9 am to 1 pm.
This article is from the June 2015 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment.