Ernie Andrews, charismatic Central Avenue jazz singer, dies


Other than veteran jazz and blues singer Ernie Andrews, who died Monday at the age of 94, few artists could claim to credit legendary film star Betty Grable for their big break, and fewer still could boast that their music teacher was the famed jazz trumpeter Bunk Johnson from New Orleans was .

Those were two of many memorable moments that the casually confident, velvety-voiced singer Andrews experienced in his musical life. His death was confirmed in a statement from his family. No reason was given.

“All I’ve ever known in life is singing. I sing and sing and sing and sing,” Andrews said in Blues for Central Avenue, a 1986 documentary about Los Angeles’ historic Music District and his place in it.

Described as the “crown prince of the blues” in a newspaper advert in the late 1940s, Andrews made a name for himself in post-war music clubs up and down Central Avenue, filled with instrumentalists such as Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Erroll Garner. In the bustling community of South Los Angeles, the young singer began working to entertain legions of jazz and R&B fans from the area.

The singer was so good on the songwriting scene that he met songwriter Joe Greene when he was a teenager. Andrews recalled a stroke of creative genius when he told Greene he needed a quick turnaround song for a recording session. Andrews said that Greene “went home and wrote ‘don’t let the sun catch you crying’.”

Andrews gained his most prominent platform after bandleader Harry James, then married to Andrews fan Grable, asked him to join the Harry James Orchestra in 1959. The singer accepted and toured nationally and internationally with the orchestra for the next decade. It was a musically conservative performance, but one that didn’t particularly match Andrews’ ability to flourish with octave-spanning expressions of individuality.

“Ernie Andrews was one of the most versatile singers I’ve ever heard – and certainly ever worked with,” jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell said after learning of Andrews’ death.

Burrell, whose extensive credits include backing luminaries James Brown, Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin, said Andrews “could sing so many different things and do an amazing job at it. He could sing the blues. He could sing jazz. He could sing ballads and he could sing rhythm and blues.” Burrell and Andrews worked together in both the studio and club gigs in the LA jazz scene.

“I’ve sung all my life,” Andrews told Leonard Feather of The Times in a 1987 profile. The singer then added a succinct autobiography: “I was born in Philadelphia on Christmas Day 1927; My parents sang in the Baptist church. We moved to New Orleans and in junior high I played drums and studied music with legendary trumpeter Bunk Johnson. I was baptized down in the bayou, in alligator infested waters.”

When the family arrived in Los Angeles in 1945, Andrews was already well trained in live performance. “We went to stage shows and I saw all the greats there: Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmie Lunceford, Earl Hines,” Andrews told The Times in 1994. “I saw so many shows that I knew I wanted to be a part of all of that, but didn’t know how to do it.”

He settled in South Los Angeles and enrolled at Jefferson High School, where he continued his music education. Andrews’ classmates included saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Sonny Criss. At night he and his friends would go to Central and record jump blues and bop at places like Downbeat, the Gayety Jungle Room and an upstairs club called Lovejoy’s.

After winning a talent contest, the singer released his first solo record – a 10-inch single – in 1945 on a small Los Angeles label called G&G. The A-side was a gritty Greene-penned song called “Wrap It Up, Put It”. Gone (until dad gets home from the army).” The B-side “Soothe Me” soon became the singer’s calling card, selling more than 300,000 copies.

Despite his distinctive performance, Andrews never managed to break the blitz-in-the-bottle record to propel him into the big time.

On the other hand, in the mid-’50s, the timing wasn’t right for a versatile young jazz and blues singer looking for big hits. “Rock ‘n’ roll came along, and after that it was rhythm and blues,” Andrews said in Blues for Central Avenue. “I was really trying to change something — just to try it. But it just didn’t feel right to me.”

The Central Avenue scene had seen better days by then. “There were cops and some of the authorities didn’t like the idea of ​​people — especially young white ladies — coming down and mingling in the clubs,” Andrews recalled. “Once it started falling, it fell very quickly.”

By the late 1960s, Andrews had released five solo or collaborative albums for labels including GNP and Dot. He teamed up with Capitol Records’ in-house producer, David Axelrod, on two classic .45 crate haulers, “Where Were You (When I Needed You)” and “Fine Young Girl.” Neither made a dent, and Andrews gradually moved away from a record business that never fully supported him. He earned his living in clubs, both on stage and behind the scenes.

Andrews was still in good voice when band leader Rickey Minor burst onto the scene in the mid-1980s, Minor told the Times after Andrew’s death was confirmed. While exploring the city’s jazz and session music scene, Minor was impressed by Andrews’ skill and presence. “As he entered the room, he commanded your attention. He had his cap on his side, maybe he had a cigarette in his hand, and he came in and knocked everyone down with his singing.”

Andrews, Minor added, “not only understood the music he sang, he also understood the story. He was a storyteller. He had you as soon as he started the first line. you would go ‘I need to hear the rest of this story.’” Minor noted that Andrews had high expectations of his backing players and could be outspoken in his criticism. “But at the end of the night he would always pull me to the side and say, ‘You know, we’re hard on you because they’re not going to be easy on you out there in the real world.'”

In all, Andrews released at least 19 solo and collective albums. Not fitting into the pantheon of classical recordings never suited Andrews, who was nonetheless sure of his talent as a singer. But he didn’t blame anyone for the lack of mainstream applause.

“I might be a little angry, but I don’t feel like anyone did anything to me,” he said in the 1986 documentary. “Whatever happened to me, I did it to myself. I allowed it because I didn’t have a moxie, you know?”

Burrell, who until recently spoke weekly with Andrews, expressed frustration that “critics didn’t see his greatness. It’s almost like it’s too much for her to comprehend – whereas he would have been easier for her if he was just a blues or jazz singer.”

Indeed, this lack of attention was expressed in a 2000 review of an Andrews set. “One could only wonder, given Andrews’ skill, why he has had such a relatively low profile career,” wrote Times jazz critic Don Heckman. “Fortunately, at 72, he’s still fully in control of his skills.”

Andrews was preceded in death by his 52-year-old wife Delores Benemie Andrews. He is survived by a daughter, Stephanie Andrews Williams; sons Dueal Ernie Andrews, Dana Andrews, Daryl Andrews and Mark Andrews; a companion from 22 years until her death in 2020, Miss Bernice Delany; 12 grandchildren; and 29 great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.

“I’ve had a stigma throughout my days of being arrogant and cocky, argumentative,” Andrews said of his approach to music. “But I just love being free. I don’t owe anyone anything.” Ernie Andrews, charismatic Central Avenue jazz singer, dies

Caroline Bleakley

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