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Legendary LA Jazz Vocalist Ernie Andrews Dies at 94

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Jazz vocalist Ernie Andrews died February 21, 2022, at the age of 94. Although he never became famous, his career spanned eight decades. (Courtesy HighNote Records)

Los Angeles vocalist Ernie Andrews was one of jazz’s great ballad and blues men. A suave song stylist whose career spanned almost eight decades, he was one of the last direct links to the glory days of the Central Avenue scene in the 1940s, when LA boasted one of the nation’s most fecund and innovative Black music scenes. While Andrews never quite became a star, he was an indispensable figure in Southern California until his death on Feb. 21 at the age of 94.

Ernie Andrews released the album 'How About Me' in 2006. (Courtesy HighNote Records)

Born in Philadelphia in 1927, Andrews spent several formative years as a teenager in New Orleans, where he started performing professionally. By the time he enrolled at Jefferson High (alongside classmates such as future tenor sax legend Dexter Gordon and trombonist/arranger Melba Liston), he was ready for the big time. After Andrews won a talent show at Central Avenue’s Lincoln Theatre, songwriter Joe Greene approached him about recording some of his material. Andrews wasn’t 18 yet when he scored a minor hit in 1945 with Greene’s “Soothe Me” (a song memorably revived by Shirley Horn in 1991).

Inspired by Billy Eckstine’s suave balladry and Jimmy Rushing’s Kansas City blues, Andrews had his own idiosyncratic sound from the beginning. Tall, lean and dapper, he infused even upbeat tunes with a melancholic air, but without a trace of self-pity. A master of dynamics, he could start a ballad with a supple purr and build to a fierce roar, then bring his volume down again without particularly calling attention to the shifts. He also honed a repertoire brimming with songs few other artists performed. While scatting wasn’t his forte, he could belt the blues with authority, or take a pop tune like James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” and turn it into a jazz epic. Yet for much of his career he was overlooked by record labels and, sadly, under-documented.

The confounding thing about Andrews isn’t that he was underappreciated. That’s pretty much the rule rather than the exception when it comes to male jazz singers. What’s so frustrating is that he seemed to come close to popular acclaim so many times. In hindsight, touring and recording as a member of trumpeter Harry James's band during his prime years from the late 1950s through the mid-'60s undermined Andrews’s ability to establish himself as a solo act. During this time before the British Invasion, jazz still occupied some prime cultural real estate.

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Alto saxophone great Cannonball Adderley made the first attempt at reintroducing Andrews to jazz fans. He’d helped make vocalist Nancy Wilson a star in 1962 and tried the same thing with Andrews two years later with the album "Live Session," which describes the vocalist on the cover copy as “the exciting new voice,” blithely ignoring that he was already a well-traveled veteran with a hit two decades earlier. My favorite track is “I’m Always Drunk in San Francisco,” which could have done for Andrews what “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” did for Tony Bennett, but it never took off.

Guitar great Kenny Burrell featured Andrews on his high-profile "Ellington Is Forever" projects in the mid-1970s, another showcase that briefly raised the vocalist’s profile. At the same time, he also became the go-to vocalist for several big bands around Southern California, particularly the Capp-Pierce Juggernaut and later Gene Harris and the Philip Morris Superband, an all-star aggregation that toured the world underwritten by the tobacco company. The young lions took a swing at elevating Andrews when the Harper Brothers featured him on their 1992 album "You Can Hide Inside the Music," which may have helped change his luck.

Over the next 12 years, he recorded more consistently than ever before, making half a dozen excellent albums for Muse and HighNote between 1993 and 2005. The last valiant effort to document the ageless Andrews was in 2014 when he was 86 years old and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra recorded "The LA Treasures Project: Live at Alvas Showroom." The album also featured the commanding jazz and blues vocalist Barbara Morrison. They both sound magnificent, with Andrews displaying his impeccable phrasing on the classic Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne ballad “Time After Time.” Andrews sounds like he’s a lion in winter gently growling about his devotion, embodying jazz’s imperative to sing what you’ve lived.

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