Hello again, fellow road music lovers! This being the end of the week of Route 66’s 89th birthday, we thought we’d treat you to something special: a rendition of Nelson Riddle’s classic “Route 66 Theme” sung with lyrics. To our knowledge, there is only one vocalist who ever recorded Riddle’s theme: the late Teri Thornton. It was the title track to her third solo album, Teri Thornton Sings Open Highway. And courtesy of our audio clip below, you get to hear it! (Sorry, there is no music video for this track.) It has that just-right rhythm for road music, with Riddle’s swinging, sophisticated style – the epitome of 1960s cool.
One unabashed admirer remarked that Teri Thornton was probably one of the best-kept secrets of her time. I heartily agree. While in her prime, Thornton was no less than Ella Fitzgerald’s favorite female vocalist (that’s what Ella told Down Beat magazine) – and that’s really saying something. Famed saxophonist Cannonball Adderley called her “the greatest voice since Ella Fitzgerald.” Trumpeter Clark Terry worked with Teri on several projects early in her career. Even better, the liner notes for this original vinyl LP album, her third and the only one for Columbia Records, were written by another jazz great and fellow Columbia artist – Tony Bennett. Here’s what he had to say: “Teri sings with life, feeling, intensity, intelligence, and taste. She’s the first singer in years who doesn’t have any gimmicks, any tricks. Instead, she’s endowed with perfect pitch, a three-octave range, solid training, and years of invaluable experience. All this has made her create here a great album.”
With that intro, she sounds almost like Sarah Vaughan, doesn’t she? But Thornton’s life and career, which began decades later in the history of jazz than “Sassy” Vaughan’s did, took a vastly different turn.
Thornton was born in Detroit on September 1, 1934 as Shirley Enid Avery. Although her father, Robert Avery, was a Pullman porter, she was nonetheless surrounded by musicians: her godmother had attended Juilliard, and her mother, Burniece Crews Avery, was a choir director, writer, and singer with her own musical radio show in Detroit. Although her mother had strongly encouraged her in childhood to study classical music, it didn’t take: Teri upset her mother by becoming enraptured with jazz and positively shocked Mama Burniece when she attempted to play boogie-woogie. The young girl taught herself jazz piano and vocals. Burniece remained disapproving even after her daughter sang on national television as an adult.
Teri lived fast and hard, marrying young, bearing two of her three children, and divorcing her first husband by the age of 19. She won a few local amateur contests; but she needed to support her young family and soon began singing professionally at the Ebony Club in Cleveland, her first real gig. That was when she took her stage name. She had a deep, gorgeous natural contralto that was expressive and yet could also scale heights easily and comfortably, which made her a versatile vocalist. When she moved to Chicago, her first champions were saxophonists Johnny Griffin and Cannonball Adderley, who began to spread the word about the amazing new singer in town. Thornton also played intermission piano for the strippers at the Red Garter to supplement her income (back in the 1950s, Chicago still had one or two of those bars downtown, but they didn’t last).
During the 1960s, Thornton decamped to New York to further her career. It was a wise move: she got work singing jingles for TV ads and a chance to record her first solo album, Devil May Care (1961), thanks to Griffin and Adderley. The two urged Orrin Keepnews of Riverside Records, their own record producer, to sign Thornton. He did, and Thornton was backed on the album by an array of jazz all-stars: trumpeter Clark Terry, Count Basie sideman and guitarist Freddy Green, pianist Wynton Kelly, guitarist Sam Herman, sax players Earl Warren and Seldon Powell, trombonist Britt Woodman, bassist Sam Jones, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and arranger Norman Simmons. The result was shockingly good. In the liner notes, an insistent Keepnews remarked with prescient, if bittersweet, irony that “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.” That nasty twist would come soon enough, but first there would be a flirtation with fame.
Her first album had been recorded under another artist’s name: The Doug Lawrence Sextet featuring Teri Thornton. With Devil May Care, however, Thornton began to get Noticed in the jazz world. The album got rave reviews, which led to more gigs. For three or four years, her career skyrocketed. She became a headliner at clubs like Birdland, The Apollo Theatre, New York’s Basin Street East, Chicago’s Playboy Club, Harrah’s, the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, and countless other venues across the country. She toured in Australia, Japan, England, Paris, and Norway.
Above: Teri Thornton sings “Open Highway” (the “Route 66 theme” by Nelson Riddle) on the album of the same name
Her 1962 recording of the theme from the popular ABC-TV series Naked City, “Somewhere In The Night,” was a Billboard magazine Top 10 hit. When she sang that song (from the album of the same name, her second) on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson – who was himself a huge jazz fan – booked her for a string of return appearances on the show. That led to guest spots on other TV talk and variety shows with Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Rudy Vallee, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Martha Graham. Thornton was also one of the guest performers in a two-hour TV special on The Today Show celebrating Duke Ellington’s 40th anniversary in music. The program featured Duke himself and Ella Fitzgerald – who requested that Thornton join them in singing several Ellington songs, accompanied by Billy Strayhorn at the piano. WOW. That’s one hell of an honor. And then there was that all-important Columbia recording contract, a real plum.
You’d think that Thornton’s vocal gifts and that kind of a start would blossom into a major career, but no: bad timing, unfortunately. Jazz was quickly and steadily losing out to rock as the popular music genre of the time, a trend that had surfaced by the late 1950s. The Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion had established a beachhead during the early 1960s and were giving U.S. rock, R&B and Motown stars a run for their money on the pop charts. There would be another momentary blip favoring jazz during the mid-’60s when Bossa Nova and samba suddenly became all the rage, but rock would dominate from that time onward. Most jazz artists really suffered during those years; but as Thornton hadn’t yet made a big enough name for herself, her career faded faster than those of greater stars. Then there was Columbia’s bungled promotion of Teri’s album – or, more correctly, the lack of marketing and promotion.
It didn’t help that the overly commercial, overproduced Open Highway didn’t sell well (the album might have done better had Columbia stuck to straight-ahead jazz arrangements like those on Devil May Care; that was the label’s mistake, not hers). However, Columbia used that excuse to drop her contract. By the late 1960s, Thornton’s career had simply faded away. Difficulties with poor managers, alcohol and drugs also didn’t help. She still needed to support her by now three children, however; so, to find more work, by the end of the decade she moved to Los Angeles and took a number of odd jobs, including driving a cab, to make ends meet; then she gave up singing professionally for more than a decade. Eventually, she began writing songs – some of which were recorded by artists such as Mel Tormé, Al Hirt, Vanessa Rubin, Johnny Griffin (with Thelonious Monk), and others.
Thornton was later quietly ‘rediscovered’ via song-poem albums she’d been recording under the stage name ‘Teri Summers’ for Preview Records, a small, nondescript label. This wasn’t enough to keep her solvent, however, so she returned to singing in local piano bars and small clubs by 1979. In 1982, she played a gig at the Silver Screen, a lounge in the Hyatt hotel on Sunset Strip, and got positively reviewed. “Her sound is vibrant, her intonation assured … [she is] a poised, elegant personality,” jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote for the Los Angeles Times review. Still, she saw she’d never make significant headway in L.A., and in 1983 she moved back to Manhattan. Because she had a large portfolio of standards and could accompany herself, for the next 10 years she made a living between the club scene and restaurant and lounge gigs, finding steady work with small jazz groups. Thornton was a regular at venues such as Tavern on the Green, Zinno’s, Cleopatra’s Needle, Fat Tuesday’s, Michael’s Pub, Barry Harris’s Jazz Workshop, Kobi Norita’s Universal Jazz Coalition, the American Stanhope Hotel, and Arthur’s Tavern in Greenwich Village. This was hardly the hoped-for comeback compared to the early zenith of her career, but Thornton was regaining ground. She also got a new manager – one highly experienced in managing other jazz artists – who also became a friend and guardian angel: Suzi Reynolds.
In 1998 with Arthur’s Tavern as her regular gig, Thornton began touring again. She was performing at the Bern Jazz Festival in Switzerland early in the year when she collapsed and underwent emergency surgery. The unexpected diagnosis was bladder cancer; radiation and chemotherapy treatments followed, and the cancer was beaten into remission. It was at that point, while Thornton was in recovery, that Reynolds decided to jump-start the vocalist’s career again and give her a goal to aim for by entering her into the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition as a vocal contestant. The competition is one of the most prestigious in jazz and can be a career-making event for new artists. Thornton certainly wasn’t a newcomer, but she’d fallen so far into obscurity that she might as well have been. For years, only promising young performers were allowed to apply; only in recent years had the contest been opened to artists of all ages. And there was steep competition in the form of fresh, polished young talent vying for the $20,000 prize (the finalists/runners-up and semi-finalists that year included Jane Monheit, Tierney Sutton, and Roberta Gambarini – all of whom have made names for themselves in jazz since).
The competition was held on September 26, 1998 in the Smithsonian Institution’s Baird Auditorium in Washington, DC. The judges were all jazz vocal veterans and top stars themselves: Joe Williams, Dianne Reeves, Diana Krall, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Nnenna Freelon. No one had any cause to think that someone other than a rising young star would conquer all. Until Teri Thornton got on stage, accompanied by her old friend and arranger Norman Simmons, and sang a song she had co-written with Ray Baker, “I’ll Be Easy To Find.”
She might as well have rendered everyone else invisible, because she blew the room away.
“Teri just came out here and said, ‘This is my stage.’ She just booted everybody else off. I was waiting for the hair on the back of my neck to stand up,” Freelon later told Peter Watrous of the New York Times. “And when she started singing, I got that tingling feeling you get when real music is being made.”
Mike Joyce of the Washington Post wrote that Thornton earned “one of the longest and loudest ovations in the event’s 12-year history.” In fact, she received two standing ovations – and won, at the age of 64! (Take heart, late bloomers.) It was a phenomenon. She landed a new recording contract with Verve Records, her first in 35 years (her debut album with the label, I’ll Be Easy to Find, was released in October 1999 – again, to rave reviews). She got a week-long gig at the Village Vanguard in January 2000, with fans like Wynton Marsalis, Clint Eastwood, and 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley in attendance, and returned there the following month for another stint. Her voice was dark, slightly husky, and worn from a life of hardship, but still powerful and expressive. Her career was poised for a major rebound.
And then the cancer returned. During her remission, Thornton had been living at the Lillian Booth Actors Fund Home in Englewood, NJ. She was scheduled to be a headliner for the “Jazz on a June Night” program at the John Anson Ford Theatre in Los Angeles during the first week of June, along with Nnenna Freelon, the Terrence Blanchard Sextet, and others; but it would end up being a tribute to her instead. On May 2, 2000 at the age of 65, she died of complications from bladder cancer at Englewood Hospital. A memorial was held at St. Peter’s Church in midtown Manhattan, and she was buried a few days later at Detroit Memorial Park East in suburban Warren, MI. Thornton had married three times and left behind three children – two sons, Kenneth Thornton of Detroit and Kelly Glusovich of New York, and a daughter, Rose McKinney-James of Las Vegas – six grandchildren, and five wonderful jazz recordings that are still underexposed and underrated to this day. She died too young, before we could truly appreciate her.
“She was constantly rallying – she made comeback after comeback,” manager Reynolds said of her friend. “I think the fortunate thing is that she lived to see how much people loved and admired and respected her musicianship.”
The Los Angeles Times described her as “a gracious, elegant woman with a wide smile and a smoky voice.” The New York Times wrote of her “husky, keening voice with a muscly vibrato; she was a vibrant performer with a caustic sense of humor, and she was particularly gifted at coaxing harmonic complexity and emotion out of the blues.”
“She was a great singer,” said fellow vocalist Abbey Lincoln, quoted in the Bergen County (NJ) Record. “She doesn’t sound like anybody else. You know it’s her when you hear her. I’m sorry that she’s gone.” Now Lincoln herself is long gone, as is Clark Terry, and there are precious few of Thornton’s contemporaries left to remember that rich, clear, darkly colored, muscular voice of her youth and her uncompromising performances. But her recordings survive, so that we, too, may listen and marvel.
The album Open Highway and its individual tracks are available for download at the Apple store via iTunes. Devil May Care and I’ll Be Easy to Find are available through both iTunes and Amazon. You can listen to a YouTube video of Teri Thornton singing the soulful, melancholic “Goodbye Is a Lonesome Sound” here.
Until next time,
Your own DJ SweetMarie