Singer, composer, piano
Hailed by the legendary Cannonball Adderly in the 1960s as “the greatest voice since Ella Fitzgerald,” as quoted in People magazine, singer and pianist Teri Thornton appeared destined to become a star. Likewise, in the liner notes for her debut album Devil May Care, Riverside Records producer Orrin Keepnews wrote, “This girl has got to make it. If she doesn’t, something’s very wrong. If Teri doesn’t quickly soar to the top, it will surely be only because of some external, unlooked-for, and unfair twist of fate.” And unfortunately, various external factors—namely alcohol problems, trying to raise a family, marital difficulties, a self-imposed exile to California, and physical illness—did arise and contributed to her disappearance. Thornton soon fell out of popular sight just as her career took off. In the late 1980s, however, Thornton decided to attempt a professional career for a second time, and in 1997 recorded her first album in nearly three decades. After defeating cancerto take first prize at the Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition in 1998, Thornton signed a contract with Verve Records, which released I’ll Be Easy in 1999.
Thornton has worked with such jazz luminaries as Clark Terry, Johnny Griffin, Cannonball Adderly, and Duke Ellington. Her singing style bears similarities to legendary jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Carmen McRae, but Thornton herself insisted that the voices of her idols could never be replaced. “You don’t fill those places, like you don’t fill Babe Ruth’s place,” she cautioned, as quoted by Boston Globe correspondent Bob Blumenthal in February 2000. “Some one else will come along with a new talent—but it will be new. And I’ll just keep doing what I do.”
Teri Thornton was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, the same city that produced the late Betty Carter and Aretha Franklin; later on, both singers became huge fans of Thornton. Throughout her childhood, Thornton was surrounded by music, especially gospel, jazz, and the blues. Her grandmother was an evangelist at the local Methodist Episcopal Church, while Thornton’s mother served as a choir director, performed with a local opera company, and even hosted her own radio show. “I heard a great deal of music in the house and in church,” Thornton said, as quoted by the Jazzchool website. “My mother made sure that I was exposed to music right away, taking me to shows in town. I used to pick out songs on the piano from the time that I was three. I tried to play boogie-woogie even though my hands did not reach very far at the time!”
A mostly self-taught player who loved listening to bebop pianist Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan (a Detroit native who became famous for accompanying Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald) when they performed near
Born c. 1934 in Detroit, MI; daughter of a choir director, opera singer, and radio host; three children.
Started playing piano and singing at age three; won amateur contests in Detroit during teens; moved to New York City, 1960; released debut album Devil May Care, 1961; signed with Columbia Records and released Open Highway, 1963; released first album in over 30 years, I’ll Be Easy to Find, 1999.
Awards: Winner of the 12th Annual Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition, 1998.
Addresses: Record company —Verve Records, 825 8th Ave., 26th Fl., New York City, NY 10019, (212) 333-8184.
her home, Thornton always preferred developing her own interpretations of songs rather than playing straight classical music. By the time Thornton reached her teens, she was already gaining attention for her singing and musicianship. “Someone in the neighborhood discovered I could sing and called me up onstage one day. My knees shook but I sang a couple of songs my mother liked. Then it was just going to Monday night jam sessions and entering amateur contests,” recalled Thornton to Blumenthal.
Soon after she started entertaining live audiences, Thornton “got lucky” and won a couple of amateur shows, prompting her decision to try and sing professionally. In 1956, she landed a job performing at the Ebony Club in Cleveland, Ohio, where she honed her skills, before moving to Chicago, Illinois in the late 1950s. It was in Chicago where jazz saxophone legends Cannonball Adderly and Johnny Griffin heard her singing at a club. Recognizing Thornton’s talent, Griffin immediately took Thornton under his wing. “I worked with Johnny a couple of years in Chicago and then he preceded me to New York, paving the way for me,” she noted for Jazzchool. “I moved to New York in 1960 because it was the best place for me to get the energy and feedback I needed in order to grow musically. Johnny and Cannonball Adderly were soon responsible for my first record deal with Riverside Records.”
Upon Thornton’s arrival in New York City, Griffin and Adderly convinced Orrin Keepnews of the now-hallowed Riverside recording label to sign the promising new singer for her first album, 1961’s Devil May Cale. Earning considerable praise and seemingly destined to become a star, Thornton returned in 1962 with her second album entitled Somewhere in the Night for the now-defunct Dauntless label. An instant success, the album included Thornton’s first number one hit, the title track “Some where in the Night,” the theme song for the television show Naked City that later became a jazz standard. She also reprised the song for her 1998 return release I’ll Be Easy to Find.
During this time, Thornton’s career skyrocketed. She headlined at the top venues of the era, including the Birdland, the Apollo, and the Basin Street East in New York, as well as the Flamingo in Las Vegas, Nevada. She also toured Australia, Europe, and Japan, and appeared on several television variety shows, including The Tonight Show. A dynamic entertainer with a clear, interpretive strength, Thornton captivated audiences wherever she performed. “Yet I suffered from stage fright for many years,” she confessed to Blumenthal. “I think it was genetic, just like my singing ability, because my mother who was a singer on the radio and in opera productions, needed smelling salts before she would go on. But you can develop confidence from sheer desire, and from wanting to be different.”
With her rising notoriety, Thornton signed with the larger label Columbia Records and recorded and released her third album, Open Highway, in 1963. The title cut became the theme song for Route 66, and singer Tony Bennett wrote rave liner notes, but because Columbia marketed Thornton as a pop singer, as opposed to a performer open to the influences of jazz, rhythm and blues, and even rock and roll, Open Highway failed to sell as well as anticipated. Following another recording for Riverside in 1964 that went unnoticed, in part because a new generation of record buyers began to favor rock and soul over jazz, Thornton disappeared from the mainstream music business, retiring and settling in Los Angeles, California, to raise her family. She had three children, the last of which was born in 1968.
“It basically involved my domestic scene, and a custody battle with my husband over my third child,” she told Blumenthal. (According to other sources, Thornton was also battling alcohol problems.) “Not to mention that I was living in California by then, and there was not much jazz going on out there. I gigged where I could, and the fact that I knew standards kept me working far more than would have been the case if I had been doing jazz tunes exclusively. Composing became my primary out let when I couldn’t find places to sing, trying to come up with a tune that might sneak into the Top 10.”
In 1987, with her children grown, Thornton returned to New York, hoping to renew her recording career. Although she performed on a regular basis, major label interest continued to elude the once-promising star. In the 1990s, however, Thornton finally started generating attention again. In November of 1995, after Thornton had returned from a concert in Berlin, Germany, sponsored by the Jazz Foundation of America, she was approached by manager/producer Suzi Reynolds, a longtime fan of the singer, after a performance at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York. Reynolds offered to help and hooked Thornton up with jazz giants such as flutist/saxophonist Jerome Richardson and cornetist/tuba player/clarinetist/saxophonist Howard Johnson, who both played on Thornton’s earlier albums. Along with Richardson, Johnson, and notable others, Thornton independently recorded her comeback effort entitled I’ll Be Easy to Find in June of 1997.
However, circumstances intervened in Thornton’s career again in October of 1997 when doctors diagnosed the singer with bladder cancer. Thus, with her health in decline, her first studio album in over 30 years was put on hold for release, and Thornton underwent cancer surgery at the Englewood Hospital in New Jersey. “I remember walking into her hospital room and seeing Teri with tubes down her throat, having lost 50 pounds,” Reynolds informed Jason Koransky of Down Beat. “I had to give her something to get better for, so I entered her in the competition.” That event was the 12th Annual Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition, dedicated to vocals, that was held in December of 1998 at the Smithsonian Institution’s Baird Auditorium in Washington, D.C. Driven by her manager’s proposal, Thornton felt well enough by April of 1998 to travel to Switzerland to sing with the all-female big band, Diva, at the Bern Jazz Festival. Although she returned to the hospital after the trip because of exhaustion, Thornton was free of cancer by June of 1998.
In past years, Thornton would not have been eligible to participate at the Monk International Jazz Competition, which formerly limited the age of singer to 33. “Vocalists often develop their voices later in their careers, so we felt we had to drop the age limit,” Shelby Fischer, the executive producer of the Monk Institute, informed Koransky. Viewing the event as a chance to put on a show for the crowd as well as to impress a distinguished panel of judges, comprised of Joe Williams, Dianne Reeves, Nnenna Freelon, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Diana Krall, Thornton “turned the three songs she performed into a theatrical vignette tracing the course of a love affair, from first blush to final longing, displaying an alternately warm, lively and sassy voice,” wrote Mike Joyce for the Washington Post. Utilizing her skills as a pianist to complement her vocal talent, Thornton won the first-prize scholarship of $20,000. “I knew she was real,” said host Thelonius Monk, Jr., after her performance, as quoted by Joyce. “And tonight she came out and proved it.”
In October of 1999, Thornton’s 1997 recording was released on Verve Records. I’ll Be Easy to Find featured 12 songs, including swing numbers, rarely chosen ballads, and seven blues-inspired originals, and won considerable praise. Bob McCullough of the Boston Globe, in February of 2000, called Thornton “an old-fashioned jazz diva in the best sense of the word, using her husky, sultry contralto to grab a tune by the throat and make it her own, and the arrangements are first-class from start to finish.”
Tours across the country, including a performance in Brooklyn, New York, in front of a 70-piece orchestra led by Skitch Henderson, followed Thornton’s studio comeback, and she looked toward more successes in the future and making up for lost time. “There are many people who I would love to record with” she told Jazzchool, “particularly having Herbie Hancock play behind me and recording a few songs with the Basie band…. I’d like to work on jingles, compose some movie themes and sing on some movie soundtracks. I also look forward to recording more in the future. Through public performances and recordings I want to be in contact with as many people as I can. My main goal is that they leave happier after hearing me than when they came in.”
Devil May Care, Riverside, 1961; reissued, Fantasy/Original Jazz Classics, 1999.
Somewhere in the Night, Dauntless, 1962.
Open Highway, Columbia, 1963.
I’ll Be Easy to Find, Uni/Verve, 1999.
Billboard, September 25, 1999.
Boston Globe, February 17, 2000; February 18, 2000.
Down Beat, December 1998, pp. 18-19; March 1999; December 1999, p. 65.
New York Times, October 6, 1998; January 20, 2000.
People, December 20, 1999, p. 43.
Washington Post, September 28, 1998.
Amazon.com, http://www.amazon.com (March 15, 2000).
Jazzchool Artists, http://www.jazzchool.com/newartist/left.cfm?contact_num=1040&session_num=48 (March 15, 2000).
Verve Music Group, http://www.verveinteractive.com (March 15, 2000).