She was born Gayle Peck in California, the only child of vaudeville parents who hosted their own radio show on which, aged just three years old, Julie gave her first public performance. When she was 14 the family moved to Hollywood where she attended the private Hollywood Professional School, whose alumni included the likes of Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Betty Grable.
As a teenager in the Forties, she began singing jazz in local nightclubs, until she was barred for being under age. She took a job as a department store lift operator, a humdrum occupation that belied the fact that by this time she’d blossomed into a quintessential all-American glamour girl, naturally blonde with large blue eyes and a stunning hourglass figure.
She was spotted by Sue Carol, a former silent movie actress turned talent scout, and the wife of actor Alan Ladd. Carol renamed her Julie London and began casting her in B-movies. She stood out from the crowd: like a “young Bette Davis, provocative and decisively different.”
Acting was Julie’s real love in terms of her professional life, and her Hollywood career embraced over 20 films including the rock’n’roll classic The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), starring Jayne Mansfield and in which Julie took a rare singing role — appearing as herself — and Man Of The West (1958) starring Gary Cooper.
In 1947 she married actor and occasional jazz singer Jack Webb, who would later become famous for his role as the terse Sgt. Joe Friday in the US radio/TV/movie franchise Dragnet. Jack and Julie shared a love of jazz, and Julie made her first few recordings for the New York label Bethlehem, although the handful of tracks were only released on the back of her success with ‘Cry A River’.
Following her divorce from Webb she met jazz composer and pianist Bobby Troup, best known for writing the standard ‘Route 66’. At this point, Julie hadn’t sung in public for a decade, but she wasn’t averse to informal performances at private parties, and it was at one of these that Troup first heard her. Bowled over, he convinced her she could appeal to a mass audience, and arranged a nightclub showcase to which he invited several key recording industry figures. Despite crippling stage fright that dogged her entire career, she triumphed on the night and was snapped up by producer Simon Waronker, who’d recently founded Liberty Records.
Waronker, too, was struck by Julie’s remarkable singing voice. “The lyrics poured out of her like a hurt bird,” he said. But he saw a huge marketing potential in her appearance as well, and he wasn’t shy about it either — “Her face was beautiful, and her cleavage unbelievable.”
Julie’s sensual glamour and pin-up appeal was put to provocative effect on her album covers, beginning with Julie Is Her Name in 1955. The photograph of her in an off-the-shoulder dress was cropped to draw the eye to her bosom, but so tightly that at first glance she looked as if she could be naked. The effect was instant. Disc jockeys — all red-bloodied males — would discuss her sleeves on air, but thankfully her musical talent was of a calibre high enough to outshine the sexploitation.
When asked in a TV interview about how much her packaging mattered, Julie replied “Terribly.” Commenting upon her third LP Calendar Girl (1956) on which she’s depicted in a series of bikinis and basques she said: “You really have to work on your covers. It took longer to shoot the pictures, to do all the art, than it did to cut the album, all the music itself.”
Even when she was dressed in an ostensibly more modest fashion, such in a high-necked sweater on Julie Is Her Name, Volume II (1958), the tightness of the fit, the choice of lighting and again, the cropping of the photo, ensured that very little was left to the imagination. Over the course of her discography she was rarely depicted as anything less than a sex symbol, which in reality was a persona at odds with her love of domesticity as a devoted wife — she married Bobby Troup in 1959 — and mother of a large family.
Her stage fright and general lack of confidence meant that she was happiest when expressing herself in the recording studio rather than in front of an audience. But there was one exception: In Person At The Americana, a live album recorded in New York in 1964.
She was often at her best after dark, and many of her best works were cut in the small hours, when her vocal cords had warmed up naturally via speech throughout the day. An inveterate smoker, her voice got lower as the years progressed, which only added to its already husky appeal.
Musically, jazz was her first love. She was passionate about it and would throw all-night parties to play her favourite LPs to friends. In 1960, she recorded Julie…At Home in the living room of her palatial house in California. The natural acoustics of the high ceilings and her preference for the small combo over a full band resulted in an especially warm, intimate collection, on which the backing quartet of guitar, bass, vibraphone and drums really shines.
Much of her output focused on Great American Songbook standards by luminaries such as Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Kern and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, Jimmy Van Heusen, and Johnny Mercer. Cole Porter was a particular favourite, and 1965’s All Through The Night was devoted to 10 of his classics and subtitled (somewhat clumsily) Julie London Sings The Choicest Of Cole Porter. Bobby Troup — whose ‘Daddy’ had been recorded as early as 1941 by Glenn Miller, and which Julie cut in 1957 and again in 1961 — provided her with a string of homegrown originals, for which two of her albums were named: Lonely Girl (1956) and Nice Girls Don’t Stay For Breakfast (1967). Troup’s ‘Meaning Of The Blues’ on About The Blues, issued in 1957, became a standard itself following Miles Davis’s exemplary version issued the same year.
Commercial pressures ensured that she recorded with full orchestral backing on many occasions. See both her albums of 1959, for example, Swing Me An Old Song and Your Number Please — with André Previn arranging and conducting the latter — and she went all big band on 1965’s Feeling Good. But she always preferred the minimal approach. Debut Julie Is Her Name featured just two musicians, Barney Kessel on guitar and Ray Leatherwood on bass, while the follow up Lonely Girl (1956) simplified matters further with only guitarist Al Viola for accompaniment.
Julie’s sophisticated lounge / nightclub sound gave way to a more middle-of-the-road approach during the early Sixties, and The Wonderful World Of Julie London (1963) is bona fide easy listening. There’s a pinch of spice in the exotica of Latin In A Satin Mood from the same year, and a return to ensemble jazz on All Through The Night (1965) with a trio arranged by bassist Don Bagley.
Julie London’s recording career ended in 1969, and in the Seventies she resumed acting with a vengeance. She starred in the hugely popular US TV hospital drama series Emergency! which had been created by husband No. 1, Jack Webb, as a spin-off from his police series Dragnet. She starred as Head Nurse Dixie McCall alongside husband No. 2 Bobby Troup, who played Doctor Joe Early.
Her final album was a surprising anomaly in her 14-year catalogue and it’s one that’s since found a new audience in lovers of all things kitsch. Yummy, Yummy, Yummy is a soft rock/easy listening pick’n’mix of contemporary covers including Laura Nyro’s ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’, The Doors’ ‘Light My Fire’, Bob Dylan’s ‘Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)’ and the garage rock stomper ‘Louie Louie’, which Julie turns into a slow, sexy vamp. There are gender-corrected takes on The Beatles’ (‘And I Love Him’) and Harry Nilsson (‘Without Him’), and a bizarre choice in Ohio Express’s bubblegum title track, ‘Yummy, Yummy, Yummy’. It’s a testament to her talents as a singer and interpreter of song that she could take such a throwaway original and turn it into something voluptuous that radiates with all her usual irresistible, inscrutable allure.
Sample highlights from the wonderful recording career of Julie London on the 2-CD compilation Cry Me River — The Collection, released in October 2015.
This is a pleasant enough album, and London makes a valiant effort -- supported by arranger Ernie Freeman and producer Snuff Garrett -- to re-create the mood of "Cry Me a River" on the title track, and that's a mistake, as it simply seems a pale imitation. The rest is more interesting, but more because of the arrangements than due to London's singing. The original album is one of those classic stereo showcases, with Garrett and Freeman giving the lead instrument in the accompaniment, whether strings or organ or guitar, a very close and directional presence.
Words: Bruce Eder
For a time, Julie London was as famous for her sexy album covers as for her singing. Her debut is her best, a set of fairly basic interpretations of standards in which she is accompanied tastefully by guitarist Barney Kessel and bassist Ray Leatherwood. "Cry Me a River" from this album, was her biggest hit, and her breathy versions of such numbers as "I Should Care," "Say It Isn't So," "Easy Street," and "Gone with the Wind" are quite haunting.
Words: Scott Yanow
Julie London released nearly 25 albums for the successful label Liberty Records from 1955 to 1965, the best of which are represented on the CD two-fer Julie...At Home/Around Midnight. The success of her 1955 hit "Cry Me a River" put Liberty into overdrive and London responded by making some of the strongest records of her career. Her ability to interpret a song was at its strongest in the late '50s and early '60s, as is evidenced on 1959's intimate Julie...At Home and the sophisticated 1960 album Around Midnight. The two albums have a decidedly different feel (one late evening, the other being after hours). The first half (actually recorded in London's living room) is a warm and relaxed evening of romance and longing, beginning with her other signature song, "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." The latter half is decidedly cooler, both in mood and instrumentation, evoking a much darker and more nocturnal feel. The drowsy "Black Coffee" and lazy "Lush Life" typify the late-night feel of the album, leading right into "The Wee Small Hours of the Morning." This underrated collection of standards was re-released through EMI in 1996, and could stand alongside any of Johnny Hartman's romantic ballads and Chet Baker's cool recordings of the same era. Words: Zac Johnson
Nice Girls Don't Stay for Breakfast was a rather late-in-the-day effort by Julie London and producer Calvin Carter, with Don Bagley arranging. Words: Bruce Eder
Julie London wasn't really a jazz singer, but she possessed a definite jazz feeling and many of her finest albums (such as Julie Is Her Name and Julie...At Home) feature small-group jazz backings. About the Blues was aimed at the 1950s pop market, but it may just be her best orchestral session. Since downbeat torch songs were London's specialty, the album features an excellent selection of nocturnal but classy blues songs that play to her subtle strengths instead of against them. Likewise, Russ Garcia's clever arrangements bleed jazz touches and short solos over the solitary strings and big-band charts. Like June Christy, London usually included a couple of new songs in with a selection of standards, and her husband, Bobby Troup, wrote two excellent numbers for the album. One of them, the emotionally devastating "Meaning of the Blues," is the album's highlight, and was turned into a jazz standard after Miles Davis recorded it the same year for Miles Ahead.
Words: Nick Dedina
Pop standards vocalist/actress Julie London was definitely at a transitional phase in her career when she cut Yummy, Yummy, Yummy (1969) -- the final entry in her decade-and-a-half long relationship with Liberty Records. Modern listeners will revel in the obvious kitsch factor of a middle-aged, old-school female who is crooning rock & roll. Rightly so, as the two musical universes rarely collided with a lucrative outcome. However, just below the genre-bending veneer lie interesting interpretations of concurrently well-known selections with the occasional sleeper gem thrown in. The lush and admittedly antiquated orchestration doesn't mask London's smoky and smouldering pipes, and some scores definitely work better than others. The opening cover of Laura Nyro's "Stoned Soul Picnic," the adaptation of the Beatles' "And I Love Her," and the remarkably evocative "Hushabye Mountain" from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) are each superior matches of artist with repertoire. Less successful is Harry Nilsson's "Without Him" [aka "Without Her"] as it lacks the urgency of Blood, Sweat & Tears' rendering or the pithy of Nilsson's original. The remake of Spanky & Our Gang's "Like to Get to Know You" is similarly short on soul, although it lends itself to the middle-of-the-road (MOR) feel, as does "It's Nice to Be With You." That said, the latter is infinitely more tolerable in this context than it was on the Davy Jones' warbled Monkees' single. The seeming incongruity of London's take on the Doors' "Light My Fire" isn't all that odd until she lets her hair down (so to speak) and slips into something right out of The Graduate's Mrs. Robinson. There are several instances of 'What were they thinking?,' such as the practically surreal "Mighty Quinn (Quinn, The Eskimo)" which sounds like it was the result of a Quaalude-related encounter. By the time we roll around to the title track, one can't tell if London is trying to be sexy or is simply hung over. "Sunday Morning" -- the second nod to Spanky & Our Gang -- also makes London come off as either bored or sleepy, either of which will be the effect that a majority of the album will inevitably have on 21st century ears.
Words: Lindsay Planer
After 1959's excellent Julie...at Home, a small-group West Coast session cut in her own living room, Julie London's albums became increasingly orchestral and less jazzy during the first half of the '60s. While many of these albums are excellent (particularly Around Midnight), most weren't up to her best recordings from the 1950s. Then, in 1965 something changed, and stripped-down jazz backings reappeared on her albums until her notorious final disc went soft rock with a vengeance in 1969. For this album, the West Coast arranger and bass player Don Bagley combines an excellent jazz trio with subtle string charts that never swamp the intimate feeling of the disc. London came to fame by recording stripped-down sessions with just guitar and bass, so it makes sense that on For the Night People, an unidentified jazz guitarist gets to solo throughout the album. A typically low-key and melancholy session, standout tracks include a languid reading of the usually manic "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey" and two songs made famous by Frank Sinatra -- "Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night in the Week)" and "I'll Never Smile Again." This album is a must-have for Julie London fans and thankfully she worked with Bagley again on the more upbeat but no-less-languid Nice Girls Don't Stay for Breakfast, which keeps the guitar heard here, but after the title track replaces the strings with a jazz organ and horn. Words: Nick Dedina
It doesn't get much better than this, either for the recording career of Julie London or the whole concept of a vocalist doing standards with a good jazz combo providing backup. Listeners who like these sorts of songs but don't enjoy the over-arranged sounds of studio big bands and orchestras will no doubt take an immediate liking to having players such as Joe Pass and the terrific drummer Colin Bailey swinging away instead. Most of the room is left to London, who is in great form here. It is a tribute to Cole Porter, who wrote enough good songs for at least five albums such as this. The ten songs chosen run the gamut from the most familiar to a bit less, although most of this composer's work has received memorable outings via the vocal pipes of one saloon singer or another. Bud Shank does his Stan Getz thing, nicely pumped up. Greatly aided by a superb studio sound and mix, London really does convincing interpretations of these songs. In fact, she may be too convincing, and one might wind up packing one's bags as she eases into the first chorus of "Get Out of Town."
Words: Eugene Chadbourne
This is a strange compilation, awfully strange. First, there's the photograph on the front. When the title says The Best of the Liberty years, one would assume that the material it is talking about is from the entire period. But the photo looks pre-1955. It looks like it was taken long before she ever recorded "Cry Me a River." And that's the other strange thing: that track is the only pre-'60s cut on this set. It opens the collection, being recorded in 1955, and then everything skips to her last moment at Liberty, which was "Fly Me to the Moon." The rest of the material dates from 1961 and 1963 -- very odd indeed. The 1964 selection is arranged in a soft bossa nova style with strings, and while melodically it resembles the classic, its arrangement sounds like it was written for either Astrud Gilberto or Wayne Newton. This is not to say there aren't fine tracks here, there are many, including: "Desafinado," "Love for Sale," "Why Don't You Do Right," "Please Do It Again," "The End of a Love Affair," "An Occasional Man," "There'll Be Some Changes Made," and at least eight others. But the sequencing, listing, and selection is so strange it's hard to reconcile that this is a best of Julie London collection, better yet a best of the Liberty years. This is dodgy and suspect work on the part of some compiler at EMI.
Words: Thom Jurek