John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Witty Cool of Jon Hendricks

Hendricks died, age 96, after a fabulous career doing vocalese.

By - Nov 28th, 2017 03:35 pm
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email

Jon_Hendricks [R}. Photo by Professor Bop New England (JAZZ:Jon Hendricks) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Jon_Hendricks [R}. Photo by Professor Bop New England (JAZZ:Jon Hendricks) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Jon Hendricks died last week at age 96 and my long held belief that he was no mere mortal went with him. A wit who toiled in the esoteric field of vocalese, lyrics set to jazz solos or melodies, he was its leading practitioner, creating a catalog of hip wonder that was always wise and funny.

After rehearsing his song “Yeh Yeh,” for a recent gig, I talked with Paul Cebar about him. I was frankly surprised to hear Hendricks was still alive. I guess that happens with a lot with nonagenarians, so I’ll go easy on myself. But did we jinx things a little by speaking his name in hushed tones? I hope not, just as I hope his passage to the other side was a good one. It’s not hard to picture him somewhere where there’s music chatting with other masters of the dry and the droll like Mose Allison, Louis Jordan, Annie Ross or Dan Hicks. Their replacements have yet to show, although Nellie McKay is making a strong case for herself as heir-apparent. In an age of blunt force the rare artist who can say it subtly is sadly disappearing.

Hendricks was best known for his groundbreaking trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. If you haven’t heard these records, you have a first class treat waiting for you. You may have heard others sing their songs, Joni Mitchell did a swell cover of “Twisted,” which was written by Ms Ross. Georgie Fame swung like a banshee on “Yeh Yeh,” which I loved before I had heard of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Vocalese is not at all easy to perform and one can only imagine the kind of mad scientist who not only fitted words to the intricate solos of the bebop era, but made them as smart and satisfying as he did. This man earned his reputation, which preceded him everywhere he went on the planet.

Let’s watch “Gimme That Wine”, the greatest testimonial to fermented grape juice ever written. It’s a good example of his writing and cool stage presence. It features Wynoton Marsalis and his band of young over-achievers. The mood is rambunctious and sly, just like the words:

My wife got tired a’ me runnin ’round, so she tried to keep me home-
Well, she broke my nose and hid my clothes, but I continued to roam.
Then she finally hit my weak spot – threatened to throw my bottle out
Well, from the basement to the rooftop, everybody could hear me shout…

Gimme that wine (Unhand that bottle) (3 times)
‘Cause I can’t cut loose without my juice.
Gotta have hot lucy when I go walkin’ y’know.

Well, one day while crossin the avenue, a big car knocked me down.
While I was stretched out tyin’ up traffic and crowds came from blocks around
Now the po-lice were searchin my pockets, before they sent me to the funeral parlor,
But when one o’ those cops took my bottle, Jack, I jumped straight up and commenced to holler

Chorus: Gimme that wine (Unhand that bottle) (3 times)
‘Cause I can’t get well without Muskatel
I only drink for medicinal purposes anyway

Well, now, one real dark and dreary night as I was staggerin’ home t’ bed,
Well, a bandit jumped from the shadows and put a blackjack ‘side my head.
That cat took my watch, my ring, my money, And I didn’t make a sound,
But when he reached ‘n got my bottle, you could hear me for blocks around

Gimme that wine (Unhand that bottle) (3 times)
Beat m’ head outta shape, but leave my grape.
Watch, ring and money ain’t nothin’ but don mess with my wine, jim.

Well one day my house caught fire while I was layin’ down sleepin’ off a nap
An’ when I woke up everything was burnin’ with a pop an’ a crackle an’ a snap.
Now the fireman chopped up my tv set and tore my apartment apart,
But when he raised his axe to my bottle, I screamed with all my heart…

Gimme that wine (Unhand that bottle) (3 times)
So I can drink one toast before I roast.
No sense goin’ out half baked, Might as well be All tore up

You can take all those Hollywood glamor girls- Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth,
Bridget Bardot, n’ Lucille Ball,
And all them chicks ‘n line ’em upside the wall
Put a gigantic jug beside ’em, n’ tell me to take my choice.
Well, there’d be no doubt which one I chose, the minute I raised my voice.

Gimme that wine (Unhand that bottle) (3 times)
Well those chicks look fine, but I love my wine.
Now some folks like money, some like to dance and dine,
But I’ll be happy If you give me that wine

© Jon Hendricks

If I could steal one line from this song it would be the one about sleeping off a nap. It’s Inspired hoakum for sure, but no harm done. The intention is to entertain and that’s alright by me. Entertainment is generous, it seeks to lighten rather than enlighten and puts the audience, not the artist at the top. Jon Hendricks was an African American and one of 14 children — no doubt he saw things he could have waxed serious about. He did very little of that.

I saw him years ago at the Jazz Gallery, a legendary venue in Riverwest. That performance is enshrined in my memory. Watching him on that small stage was amazing, he seemed to have a visible glow. Heading into winter when the days are short I’ll revisit his luminescent work when I need a shot of energy. As for you, it’s so easy to hop over to Amazon or iTunes (no Spotify please!) and drop a couple bitcoins for something truly pleasurable. Get going!

4 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: The Witty Cool of Jon Hendricks”

  1. Dean J Calin says:

    I very much enjoyed the video. I love the sound of the genre and this reminds me how much more there is to discover.

  2. Barbara Smith says:

    Have loved Lambert, Hendricks & Ross since my jazz-y sister turned me on to them in the ’60s, and I memorized the “Twisted” lyrics of Annie Ross.

  3. Rob Seville says:

    I lived near the SF Bay area in the mid-70’s. Jon had a weekly show in San Francisco I attended several times.

  4. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Somehow that bottle of wine connects him to the rest of the world (good or bad), right?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *