When Julie London died on October 18, 2000, fans of all generations mourned her passing. She became famous for her sultry delivery of jazz standards like “Cry Me a River” and “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” during the 1950s, while simultaneously performing in movies like The Great Man and The Third Voice .During the late ’60s, London took a break from her career to raise a family with husband Bobby Troup. She returned to television in 1972 as nurse Dixie McCall on the television series Emergency! When the series ended in 1977, she returned to the public spotlight only briefly during the next 13 years.
London was born on September 26, 1926, in Santa Rosa, California, to vaudeville and radio entertainers. She made her radio debut at the age of three, and sang on a local radio station when her family moved to San Bernardino, California. She left school at the age of 15 to work as an elevator operator in a department store in Hollywood, where a chance meeting with talent agent Sue Carol would help start London’s movie career. She received minor roles in Jungle Woman in 1944 and Nabongna in 1945, but gained more prominence after her performance in The Red House in 1947 with Edward G. Robinson. She also sang with the Matty Malneck Orchestra. Her singing career was put on hold during a brief marriage to Jack Webb (1947-53). Once Webb became a star on Dragnet, she also stopped acting.
After her divorce, London avoided public performance. But that changed in 1955. She had befriended Bobby Troup, a songwriter and jazz musician who had written the hit “Route 66.” After hearing London sing at a private party, he encouraged her to restart her singing career. London began working at the 881 Club in Los Angeles, California, accompanied by guitarist Barney Kessel. These club arrangements worked perfectly for London’s subtle delivery. She recorded “Cry Me a River,” a song written by childhood friend Arthur Hamilton, and also sang it in the film The Girl Can’t Help It. This single sold three million copies worldwide and helped make a big success of London’s first album, Julie Is Her Name, Vol. 1. “Backed only by a jazzy guitar and bass,” Kenneth Wright of the Herald wrote, “London’s breathy, soulful performance encapsulated the feelings of a million spurned lovers and their daydreams of romantic revenge.” London was voted Billboard’s most popular female vocalist from 1955 to 1957. On December 31, 1959, London married Bobby Troup.
London’s appeal as a singer can be paired down to one basic essential: her smoky voice. Songs like “I’m In the Mood for Love,” and “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” not only worked well with her voice, but bolstered her image as a sexy, sleek, cocktail singer. Her album covers—which often featured London bare-shouldered or in glamorous poses—further touted this image and became collector’s items. London often joked that the
Born Julie Peck on September 26, 1926, in Santa Rosa, CA; died on October 18, 2000, in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of Jack and Josephine (Taylor) Peck; married Jack Webb, 1947; divorced, 1953; married songwriter and jazz musician Bobby Troup, 1959; children: (first marriage) Stacy and Lisa; (second marriage) Kelly and twin sons Reese and Jody.
Worked as an elevator operator at age 15 in a department store on Hollywood Boulevard; discovered by talent agent Sue Carol; played minor roles in B-movies including Jungle Woman, 1944, A Night in Paradise, 1946, and Return of the Frontiersman, 1950; sang for the Matty Malneck Orchestra; temporarily discontinued career when husband Webb joined Dragnet; sang at 881 Club in Los Angeles and had a hit recording with “Cry Me a River,” 1955; recorded Julie Is Her Name, 1955, Around Midnight, 1960, and All Through the Night, 1965; acted in The Great Man, 1956, Drango, 1957, and The Third Voice, I960-, temporarily retired after a final album for Liberty, 1969; TV actor in series Emergency!, 1972-77; actor in Survival on Charter 220, 1978; recorded “My Funny Valentine” for movie Sharky’s Machine, 1981.
Awards: Billboard magazine’s most popular female vocalist, 1955-57.
record company spent more time on album covers than on recording the music.
Despite a reliance on image, London was a quality singer with a talent for understated expression. As Alex Henderson of All Music Guide pointed out, “London never had the range of Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan, but often used restraint, softness and subtlety to maximum advantage.” She proved perfectly capable of offering good interpretations of standards by Cole Porter and George Gershwin.
It is also of interest that London, in everyday life, was often shy and lacked self-confidence. It took Troup over a year and a half to persuade her to sing publicly, and she always spoke of her own voice dismissively. “It is only a thimble of a voice,” she told Life in 1957, “and I have to use it close to the microphone. But it is a kind of oversmoked voice and it automatically sounds intimate.” The same article features a photograph of London at home, dressed modestly, lying on a bed with her two children. The image of a modest homemaker was one that seemed to mean more to London than that of a lounge singer.
With the success of her recording career, London also began to receive more substantial movie roles. In 1956, she received good reviews playing an alcoholic singer in The Great Man, and in 1958, starred opposite Gary Cooper in the respected western Man of the West.
London appeared in numerous television shows including The Bob Hope Show, The Dinah Shore Show, and The Perry Como Show. By the 1960s, though, London’s opportunities were fewer. The George Raft Story, filmed in 1961, would be her last movie for 17 years. Although she continued to perform and record, what Wright called her “three-in-the-morning music” began to seem dated as the ’60s wore on. To her fans’disappointment, she made her last album, Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, in 1969.
In the early 1970s, London received yet another chance to be in the spotlight. Between 1972 and 1977, she played the role of nurse Dixie McCall on the television drama Emergency! Troup played doctor Joe Early on the same program, and surprisingly, her exhusband Jack Webb produced the show. Many people who appreciated her in this role had no idea that she had been a famous singer at an earlier time. When the series was canceled, she performed in one last film, Survival on Charter #220 in 1978 and recorded one more song, “My Funny Valentine” for the soundtrack to Sharky’s Machine, in 1981.
After retirement, London spent time with her husband and their seven children—the couple’s children together plus children by previous marriages—in Los Angeles. In 1996, London had a stroke and was cared for by Troup until he died in 1999. London died the following year, on October 18,2000.
While London’s use of sex appeal may not be considered politically correct today, her sultriness seems somewhat tame when compared to today’s performers. In the Herald, Wright defended London’s image, explaining “she managed to put across songs of a distinctly risque nature without the slightest brush with poor taste.” At the same time, London is probably more accessible today than when she quit singing in the late’60s, due to the acceptance of retro styles like swing jazz. Singers like Diana Krall have utilized the same classy, elegant look, and have sung the same standards that London would have been familiar with. Others, like Ingrid Lucia, have also placed a great deal of emphasis on sex appeal. While these singers and swingers may turn the critics’ heads today, no one played the jazz diva with more class and style than London. She will be remembered for her smoky delivery of “Cry Me a River,” a song that retains its power 45 years later.
Julie Is Her Name, Vol. 1, Liberty, 1955.
Around Midnight, Liberty, 1960.
Whatever Julie Wants, Liberty, 1961.
All Through The Night, Liberty, 1965.
Wild Cool and Swingin’, Capitol, 1999.
Best of Julie London, EMI, 2000.
All Music Guide to Jazz, 3rd edition, Backbeat Books, 1998.
Daily Telegraph, October 23, 2000, A16.
Herald (Scotland), October 24, 2000, p. 20.
Independent (London), October 20, 2000, p 6.
Jazz Journal International, December 2000, p.18.
Life, February 18, 1957, pp. 74-78.
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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