“Too Many Tears” (1969) Maxine Sullivan with Bob Wilber

“Too Many Tears”

Composed by Harry Warren (music), and Al Dubin (lyric).

 Recorded by Maxine Sullivan and Bob Wilber for Monmouth-Evergreen on June 11, 1969 in New York.

Maxine Sullivan, singing, with: Bob Wilber, soprano saxophone; Bernie Leighton, piano; George Duvivier, bass; Gus Johnson, drums.

The story:

Maxine Sullivan – at CBS – 1940.

Maxine Sullivan (May 13, 1911–April 7, 1987), born Marietta Williams in Homestead, Pennsylvania, was an American jazz vocalist. She was active for half a century, from the mid-1930s to just before her death in 1987. She is best known for her 1937 recording of a swing version of the Scottish folk song “Loch Lomond.” Throughout her career, Sullivan also appeared as a performer on film as well as on stage. A precursor to better-known later vocalists such as Ella FitzgeraldBillie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan, Maxine Sullivan is considered one of the best jazz vocalists in the period from the late 1930s into the late 1950s, when she took a hiatus from performing.(She returned to singing in the late 1960s, with considerable success.)

Sullivan began her career singing in her uncle’s band, The Red Hot Peppers, in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area. She also occasionally played flugelhorn and valve trombone. In the mid 1930s she was discovered by pianist Gladys Mosier, who was then working in Ina Ray Hutton‘s all female big band. Mosier introduced her to pianist/arranger Claude Thornhill, which led to her first recordings, made in August of 1937. The labels of the Vocalion records she made then bear the legend: Maxine Sullivan and Her Orchestra…(Under the direction of Claude Thornhill).(1) Shortly thereafter, Sullivan became a featured vocalistat the Onyx Club, a small jazz venue on West 52nd St. in  Manhattan. During this period, she formed a professional and personal relationship with bassist John Kirby, who became her second husband in 1938.

Maxine Sullivan at the Onyx Club – 1938: Trumpeter Charlie Shavers is hiding under the hat; John Kirby is on bass, and Buster Bailey on clarinet.

Ms. Sullivan’s early success with “Loch Lomond” type-cast her to some extent, leading her to record similar swing arrangements of traditional folk tunes such as “If I Had a Ribbon Bow” and “I Dream of Jeanie,” all of which were invariable well-performed. But Ms.Sullivan was hardly the only singer who tried to replicate her successes. Nevertheless, a review of her discography indicates that she also recorded a mix of standards, pop tunes and originals, in addition to some folk tunes.

Dedication of the KNX-CBS studios – Columbia Square, Los Angeles, April 30, 1938. L-R: Skinnay Ennis, Mannie Klein,Maxine Sullivan,announcer Bill Goodwin,Frank Trumbauer,Les Lieber,Johnny Mercer.

Her early popularity also led to a brief appearance in the 1938 Warner Brothers film Going Places, with Louis Armstrong. Together, she and Armstrong introduced the great Harry Warren-Johnny Mercer novelty tune “Jeepers Creepers” in that film. She also appeared on Broadway in late 1939 with Armstrong and Benny Goodman in a jazz version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream called Swingin’ the Dream. Ms. Sullivan introduced the song “Darn That Dream” in that show.

Louis Armstrong and Maxine Sullivan – 1938 – filming Going Places for Warner Brothers.

In 1940, John Kirby and Maxine became the first black hosts of a national radio series, Flow Gently, Sweet Rhythm, a weekly Sunday afternoon broadcast on CBS. During the 1940s Sullivan performed with a wide range of bands, including John Kirby’s sextet, and groups headed by Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, and Jimmie Lunceford. Sullivan also performed at many of New York’s better night spots, such as  Le Ruban Bleu, the Village Vanguard, the Blue Angel, and the Penthouse. In 1949, Sullivan appeared on the short-lived CBS Television series Uptown Jubilee, and in 1953 starred in the play, Take a Giant Step.

In the mid-1950s, Ms. Sullivan collaborated with trumpeter Charlie Shavers, who was a member of the famous John Kirby Sextet (2), in a series of excellent LP albums. Among these was A Tribute to Andy Razaf; which featured her interpretations of a dozen tunes having Razaf’s lyrics. The album also highlighted the music of Fats Waller, including versions of “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” “How Can You Face Me?,” “My Fate Is in Your Hands,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and “Blue Turning Grey Over You.” On this album, Maxine Sullivan was joined by other musicians who were also members of the original John Kirby band.

Starting in  1958 Ms.Sullivan worked as a nurse before resuming her musical career in 1966, performing in jazz festivals alongside her fourth husband pianist Cliff Jackson, who can be heard on the 1966 live recording of Sullivan’s performance at the Manassas Jazz Festival. Sullivan continued to perform and record throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Maxine Sullivan – 1970s.

She received the 1979 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her role in My Old Friends, and participated in the film biography Maxine Sullivan: Love to Be in Love, shortly before her death in 1987.(3)

Maxine Sullivan was a long-time civic leader in her neighborhood in Bronx, New York.

I had the pleasure of hearing and seeing Ms. Sullivan at one of the late Joe Boughton’s jazz fests in the mid-1980s. She was a tiny person, about five feet tall, and by then, she was past seventy. But she was still a beautiful and spirited woman. She had a booming personality that paradoxically came through strongly in her understated singing. One of my everlasting memories of Maxine is of her walking up to the table where I was sitting with a couple others for one of Joe’s wonderful brunch sets with a baseball cap on her head and a thousand watt smile on her face. As she reached our table, she said: “May I join you”, I’m so hungry I could eat a horse!” We were elated of course that we would be the lucky ones to share a few moments of quality time with her. She did sit, and eat with gusto, but also regaled us with many stories, most of which were quite funny, of the great musicians she had worked with during her long career.

Bob Wilber and Maxine Sullivan – 1969.

Bob Wilber, (1928- ),was born in New York City but grew up in Scarsdale, New York.He began playing the clarinet when he was 14, and soon thereafter organized a band of teen-aged musicians called “Wilber’s Wildcats.” He played at Sunday afternoon sessions at Jimmy Ryan’s in NYC in the mid-1940s, and recorded for Commodore Records in 1947. He began studying with clarinet and soprano saxophone legend Sidney Bechet in 1946, and continued this until 1948, when he substituted for Bechet at the Nice Jazz Festival in France. From 1948-1950, Wilber played at the Savoy in Boston, then in 1950 opened Storyville in Boston with a band including Sid Catlett on drums, and Wilbur and Sidney DeParis. After military service (1952-1954), Wilber moved to New York, and played at jazz venues like Eddie Condon’s. He worked with cornetist Bobby Hackett in 1957-1958, and Benny Goodman in 1958-1959. Wilber free-lance in New York throughout the 1960s. Bob Joined trumpeter Yank Lawson and bassist Bob Haggart’s World’s Greatest Jazzband in the late 1960s. Over the last four-plus decades he has had a fruitful career as the leader of many musically rewarding groups.

Accompanist supreme: pianist Bernie Leighton – 1969.

The music: This song was sung by Dick Powell (in his film debut) in the 1932 Warner Brothers feature “Blessed Event,” which was based on a Broadway play of the same name. Its chord structure is complex and clever. The sheet music for “Too Many Tears” was published without any advertising for the film, with a portrait of Guy Lombardo on the cover. (Lombardo made one of the earliest recordings of it.) Within a few months of the film’s release, the song was a hit and Al Dubin and Harry Warren would soon be Warner Brothers’ most celebrated song writing team.

In this performance, Maxine Sullivan sings the song’s verse, accompanied only by pianist Bernie Leighton.(4) When Ms. Sullivan goes into the main melody of the song, bassist George Duvivier and drummer Gus Johnson (a bandmate of Bob Wilber’s then in the World’s Greatest Jazzband), fall in behind Leighton’s piano. Bob Wilber, on his curved soprano saxophone begins to add tasty obbligati behind Ms. Sullivan’s singing as the second chorus begins. Through most of this performance, Maxine sings in her attractive, understated way, being supported in magnificent fashion by Leighton and Duvivier. Both of these musicians were extremely busy (and obviously gifted) free-lance players in New York throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Bernie Leighton’s piano accompaniment is something any singer would deeply appreciate. Here, it not only supports Ms. Sullivan’s wonderfully subtle singing, it enhances it.

Bob Wilber – 1980s.

Bob Wilber takes a soulful 16-bar solo on his soprano saxophone, making sure to keep this difficult to play in tune instrument precisely on pitch. After his solo, he adds colorful asides to Maxine Sullivan’s singing.

This is intimate music, beautifully performed by master musicians.

(1) The sidemen on the August 6, 1937 recording date that produced “Loch Lomond,” (and a second date on October 22, 1937),  were basically musicians from what would eventually become John Kirby’s Sextet, with 1930s New York studio ace Babe Russin added on tenor sax.

(2) Here is a link to a fine recording and the story of the John Kirby Sextet:   http://swingandbeyond.com/2016/11/23/swing-and-swing-redux-dawn-on-the-desert/

(3) This summary of Maxine Sullivan’s career is based on the Wikipedia post for her.

(4) Bernie Leighton appeared often in the films of Woody Allen throughout the 1970s and 1980s, playing the role, appropriately enough, of a pianist.

The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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3 Comments

  1. Mike Zirpolo is clearly the best “Musicologist” of the swing era and lesser known Jazz Artists, because as seen in this new article there is more here than just a review of Maxine Sullivan and Bob Wilber. Its a detailed look at how it all comes together to make a musical moment. Mike’s ability to remaster the recordings while keeping the integrity of the original separates his series of articles from the rest of the historians. As a vocalist and vocal coach I have used Mike’s articles to demonstrate the effort and subtlety that separates true Jazz from “pop” music. Another eye opening article!

  2. Mike and Larry, congratulations! You took me back many years to my album of Maxine paying tribute to the lyrics of Andy Razaf. It started with “Keepin’ Out Of Mischief Now”, composed by Fats Waller. Great stuff on there. You are my musical blood brothers!!!

  3. Another Monmouth-Evergreen album featuring Maxine Sullivan I highly recommend is “The Music of Hoagy Carmichael as Conceived and Arranged by Bob Wilber,” recorded in 1969. In addition to Bob Wilber, the personnel on the album includes Yank Lawson, Bernie Privin, Lou McGarity, Buddy Morrow, Bud Freeman, Bernie Leighton, George Duvivier and Gus Johnson. It was reissued on CD in 1993 on Audiophile Records (ACD-220).

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