“Tenderly” (1957) Ted Heath with Leslie Gilbert on alto saxophone


Composed by Walter Gross; arranged by Johnny Keating.

Recorded by Ted Heath and His Music in London for Decca in October, 1957.

Ted Heath, directing: Bobby Pratt, first trumpet; Herbert “Bert” Ezard, Duncan Campbell and Eddie Blair, trumpets; Don Lusher, first trombone; Wally Smith, Jimmy Coombes and Keith Christie, trombones; Leslie Gilbert, first alto saxophone; Ronnie Chamberlain, alto saxophone; Henry MacKenzie and Red Price, tenor saxophones; Ken Kiddier, baritone saxophone; Frank Horrox, piano; Ike Isaacs, guitar; Johnny Hawksworth, bass; Ronnie Verrell, drums.

The story:

Pianist Walter Gross (1909-1967) was very much a part of the heady, creative musical atmosphere that existed at CBS radio in New York in the 1930s. Born in New York City, Gross, a prodigy on piano, gave his first recital at age 10. In 1923, he had a 15-minute piano program on Manhattan radio station WEAF. He began performing professionally in the early 1930s, and soon became a featured soloist and conductor of pop music ensembles on the CBS radio network. In 1942, Gross led the orchestra on Frank Sinatra’s first radio show as a star, the CBS program Reflections.

After serving in the military during World War II, Gross became an executive at Musicraft Records, where he served as conductor, arranger, and pianist for recording sessions. In 1946, he was approached by lyricist Jack Lawrence who asked permission to add words to an untitled melody Gross had composed, which soon would be titled “Tenderly.” At first Gross was reluctant to cooperate, and after Lawrence presented his finished lyric, Gross expressed dissatisfaction with the words and title. Lawrence eventually succeeded in finding a publisher for the new work, and shortly thereafter “Tenderly” was recorded by Sarah Vaughan. That recording was a modest hit,  and it marked her transition from jazz artist to popular singing star.

Gross relocated from New York to Los Angeles during the 1950s, and made occasional club appearances on the west coast.

Gross died November 17, 1967 in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Burbank, California, after being found unconscious in his apartment in Los Angeles.

Sarah Vaughan’s recording of “Tenderly” was made on July 2, 1947. Shortly after that, on July 14, 1947, trumpeter Randy Brooks made a bravura recording of it on the Decca label that was also fairly popular. Fellow trumpeters Harry James and Charlie Spivak made recordings of “Tenderly” in 1947. The tune entered piano wizard Art Tatum’s repertoire in 1948, and bandleader Woody Herman’s the following year. Les Brown and Ray Anthony began playing it soon thereafter. As the decade of the 1950s began, the floodgates opened: there were literally dozens of recordings of “Tenderly” throughout that ten year span. When vocalist Rosemary Clooney recorded it for Columbia Records in 1952, it became a million-seller and entered the repertoire of pop standards. Clooney later remarked, “Technically, it’s the most satisfying record I ever made.” (1)

I have always through that the melody of “Tenderly” is especially pianistic. It has some unusual intervals and it covers a fairly wide range of notes. That could be off-putting for some vocalists, but not those who had great technique and range like Sarah Vaughan and Rosemary Clooney. Instrumentalists, not particularly concerned with the intricacies of the melody, gave it all kinds of interpretations, from the spectacular to the introspective.

By the time Ted Heath made his recording of it as a showcase for the singing alto saxophone of Leslie Gilbert, it was a firmly established standard.

The music:

One of the many things I like about Ted Heath’s recording of “Tenderly” is that he and arranger Johnny Keating retained its original 3/4 meter. Another is that it is an unabashed celebration of the song’s beautiful melody, played with minimal ornamentation by Heath’s long-time lead alto saxophonist, Leslie Gilbert. Gilbert was not only an impeccable section leader, he also specialized in playing memorable melodies as solos, singing them out with great feeling on his rich-toned alto saxophone.

This performance was a part of a 1958 Heath Decca LP entitled All Time Top Twelve, the concept of which was to gather together a dozen of the most popular standards, and have Heath’s chief arranger of the time Johnny Keating create orchestrations that showcased those great melodies, and in some cases a soloist as well.

This Heath recording is a feast for the ears. There is no introduction for this performance: Leslie Gilbert starts playing the melody alone and then is picked up gently by the various sections: open trombones, Harmon-muted trumpets and the four other saxophones. This scheme is followed through the first eight bars. The second eight has Gilbert repeating the melody, at first with only hushed rhythm supporting him, and then the velvety trombones and Harmon-muted trumpets. On the bridge, Gilbert steps back to lead the saxophones, creating a sound that can aptly be described as sumptuous. He returns to finish the chorus, at first backed gently by open trombones and trumpets, with a few gleaming alto saxophone notes added.

The five saxophones then start the second chorus, blending perfectly. Gilbert emerges once again from the reeds to celebrate the melody, with those open trombones and now open trumpets falling in behind him. The trombone quartet then carries the melody with soft alto saxophone asides added here and there by Mr. Gilbert for a subtle aural contrast. When Gilbert resumes his solo, he is backed by the humming reeds and the glistening Harmon-muted trumpets.

The next chorus begins with a key change and the entire ensemble, with brass open, providing a muscular but warm melodic crescendo – yet another sonic contrast. Once again, Gilbert adds choice notes as a topping for this rich mix. When he returns for the finale, he does so with strength, backed by the dynamically warm ensemble. Then things quiet down as Gilbert plays a lovely, singing downward phrase which leads into the melodically abstract alto finale, played against the humming saxophones, open trombones and Harmon-muted trumpets.

This is a superlative performance of a great melody by a virtuoso big band and a gifted soloist. The colorful arrangement by Johnny Keating provides them with a perfect showcase for their talents. Maestro Ted Heath must get full credit for facilitating the music. (Above left: Ted Heath smelling the flowers.)

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

Notes and links:

(1) The information on Walter Gross and the song “Tenderly” presented in this post are derived from Wikipedia posts on those subjects.

Here is a link to an entirely different treatment of “Tenderly,” as a piano solo played by Art Tatum: https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/10/14/tenderly-1953-art-tatum/

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