3. The Tragic Talent of Miss Joy Marshall

3. The Tragic Talent of Miss Joy Marshall

Part Three: ‘… a very human person’

Gordon Beck’s association with Joy Marshall had begun back during his stay with the Tony Kinsey Quintet, the pianist having, by the middle-1960s, become the premier vocal accompanist in London, a musician whose skills at the subtle and difficult art of MD’ing for a singer made him one of the most in-demand players of the era (those seeking a more complete documentation of Beck’s own musical ambitions during this time are directed to the boxed set ‘Jubilation’, Turtle Records, 2017).

Like Marshall, he was also something of an artistic paradox: jazz was his first love but his own musical persona only really blossomed when he extracted himself from the rather blinkered purist mindset of many of his older, bebop-apprenticed employers. Through various associations with other jazz-fringe vocalists (and a period as musical director for pop poppet Susan Maughan), he grew ever more intrigued by the potential to be found in current popular music, a fascination that led to the masterly ‘Experiments With Pops’ LP cut in late 1967, in which he and regular trio confrères bassist Jeff Clyne and drummer Tony Oxley were joined by the young John McLaughlin for a programme taking in themes made famous by performers including Nancy Sinatra, The Beach Boys and The Who.

A few months after the ‘Pops’ session, the same Beck line-up accompanied Joy Marshall on a series of studio recordings which had, up until their release on the Turtle CD ‘When Sunny Gets Blue’ I 2018, remained commercially unissued. They are, without doubt the best (and sadly now the only currently available) way to reassess her considerable talent.

Rescued from Beck’s own tape archive, their value is several-fold: first, they provide what is the at times revelatory experience of hearing a band that, in other circumstances, was to be one of the most free-flowing, exploratory and adventurous of its kind, playing the part of vocal accompanists as if to the manner born (Tony Oxley plays bossa-nova, anyone?); secondly, they contain some brief but choice contributions from the burgeoning McLaughlin, adding yet more to our understanding of how varied (and musically accomplished) was his work as a ‘session man’ pre-’In A Silent Way’.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, they gave Joy Marshall another, much overdue, moment in the sun, creating, in effect, a ‘final’ album for her, a valedictory look at where she saw herself musically in the months just before her untimely death.

Cabaret artist

Peter King once characterised Marshall as ‘more a cabaret artist than a pure jazz singer’ (hard to argue against since she had regular slots at such London clubs as the Playboy and the Latin Quarter) and it is this very same cross-over musical persona that is found on these recordings. Repertoire-wise, her choices are a veritable encapsulation of the quality-end of popular female vocalising of the day, forming a programme as strong and affecting as any then being put out on LP by, say, Nancy Wilson and Carmen McRae, the two contemporary voices to whom Marshall comes closest to in terms of timbre and delivery.

A track-by-track analysis is rather redundant here, doubly so since these are in the main, concise, unambiguous and direct slices of jazz-framed pop music rather than extensive improvisational treatises.

However, there is subtlety as well as pure showbiz oomph. Take the opener, ‘Come Back To Me’, a piece of sheer-kitsch 60s cabaret, into which the arrangement (borrowed almost verbatim from Dusty Springfield’s 1967 Philips LP ‘Where Am I Going?’) cleverly weaves a quote from Sigmund Romberg’s ‘Lover Come Back To Me’.

Marshall also plays the optimistic lyrics of ‘He Loves Me’ for all they’re worth, squeezing every ounce of innuendo into the line ‘my teeth ache from the urge to... touch him’, the split-second delay betraying her ability as a fine comic actress.

Her take on Dave Frishberg’s über-standard for jazz-divas across the ages, ‘Peel Me A Grape’ (on which Beck shows his George Shearing roots) is also her own and comes on more like a list of orders than an invitation to please.

It’s not all stridency and strut though. While the faster-tempo items on this album all feature that distinct rasp that played around the edge of Marshall’s voice on more hard-swinging material, the ballads are another thing altogether. ‘When Sunny Gets Blue’ is a perfect jewel of a performance, set from the outset by one of Gordon Beck’s most beautiful introductions, after which Marshall plays storyteller supreme. ‘Blame It On My Youth’ is a tender delineation of a song whose lyric is wholly impervious to bluster.

Indeed, it’s somewhat awkward to square the soft, yielding manner in which Marshall unfurls this most beautiful of tales with the folk-image of the bawling, fierce and downright formidable woman who’d think nothing of coming to blows with the men in her life. And yet, maybe within these moments of calm lies the key to why those men loved her so: ‘Joy was, above all else, a very human person,’ one obituarist wrote of her. Accordingly, the story she sings here is one of genuine vulnerability and confession, and she does so with a directness that is totally affecting, minus all the false histrionics and melisma that many a present-day vocalist would unload on such material.

There are also items that smack strongly of an unearthed time-capsule. Dig the groovy zip through ‘Bewitched’, theme song to a then current American TV series, and the cloud-clearing blast all hands make of ‘On A Clear Day’, a mandatory inclusion for any female singer in the 1960s.

‘Goin’ Out Of My Head’ is pure 60s pop too, with Marshall really opening up on the song’s catchy hook, while Anthony Newley’s OTT production number ‘What Kind Of Fool Am I?’ is redressed as a battened-down bossa-nova, its philosophical, uncertain lyric making the perfect match for the incessant tick of the Brazilian rhythms (this was, of course, an intrinsic part of the success of the whole bossa-nova movement: that it married fragile, dreamy words to a beat that suggested life’s underlying, inevitable forward progress).

A genuine bossa, Luiz Bonfa’s ‘The Gentle Rain’ (arranged by Tubby Hayes, as no doubt were many of the other items heard on the album) hits another emotional bullseye and to her credit Marshall even makes something credible from ‘The Telephone Song’, a whimsical little piece once the property of Astrud Gilberto, whose delivery was a world away from that heard on this version. Where Astrud sounded like a disappointed child (‘got to get him and there must be a way’) Marshall sounds like she doesn’t really give a damn if the feckless sap picks up or not – there’ll be another along soon enough.

Feel good

In a set that consistently captures Marshall – quite literally – on song, it’s hard to nominate one performance as superior to those around it. It is, however, easy to spot the track that reveals most about her roots though. The raunchy, down-home ‘Dr. Feelgood’ strips Marshall down to her musical bedrock, exposing the importance of blues and gospel – the two biggest shaping forces in black American popular music – within her overall style. If she sounds more than a little like Nancy Wilson here, then it’s a comparison not just made out of convenience. Both had begun singing in church choirs and both had, by the late 1960s, worked out the perfect way in which to blend the candour of the blues with the more sophisticated lyric demands of the post-Broadway popular song. The words here, though, are harder hitting – this is Marshall really telling it like it is – and there is a chilling irony to her mentioning ‘all those pills’.

Within a few short months, no doctor – good or bad, real or fictional – could save her.

As a bonus to these 1968 sessions, the Turtle album also includes three tracks taken from an earlier Marshall/Beck broadcast performance, these featuring the pianist’s first trio line-up with Clyne and drummer Johnny Butts. Recorded during spring 1966, when all four were sharing the stage at Ronnie Scott’s opposite Ornette Coleman, they reveal an already hand-in-glove understanding between trio leader and vocal guest, the gem of this session being the vocalist’s glowing rendition of Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill’s ‘My Ship’, on which Beck reveals his heavy debt to Bill Evans.

‘But the pearls and such/they won’t mean much/If there’s missing just one thing’, Marshall sings in the song’s yearning middle-eight. But for her, there was missing more than just one thing. She’d had career opportunities aplenty, that was true, and there could be no doubt that having been signed to various labels and worked with regularity she’d had genuine forums in which to hone her art, but what had really eluded her was the one thing she’d so hoped for when interviewed by ‘Melody Maker’ back in 1962 – ‘personal satisfaction from my work – that means a lot to me’.

Alas, that particular ship never was to come in for Marshall.

Songs from a sad lady

In her last interview, she spoke openly about her dislike of being tagged as just a ‘jazz singer’.

‘I’ve been trying to live it down’, she said with no little cynicism. Indeed, one can’t help wondering if the J-word ultimately did more damage to her than good, pigeon-holing her into working arenas, fiscal compromises and possibly even relationships that did nothing less than cheat her out of the wider appreciation she so clearly deserved.

Would she have done better had she lived on into an era when the stylistic boundaries that had for so long railroaded British jazz came tumbling down? What might she have done next? Would she still be with us and, if so, singing what exactly?

Such postulations are now academic, of course, and what we’re left with is the most important thing of all – her music, to which the ‘When Sunny Gets Blue’ album now forms a substantial new addition.

Often talked-down for her volatile, chaotic personal life, overlooked even within the most forensic of major label reissue programmes, all too frequently thought of as ‘just’ the woman who pushed Tubby Hayes into his final, all-out round of self-destruction, it’s high time Joy Marshall was given a reappraisal.

In fact, if there can be said to be any sort of by-product of the release of her final recordings, let’s hope it is that, finally, she is lifted from her damning legend as a dark, disturbing force in Hayes’ life and is appreciated as an artist in her own right. For all their ups and downs together, it was clear that Hayes himself certainly considered her as such. Soon after her death, which had hit him like a sledgehammer, he dedicated another of his compositions his muse, titled with unreserved honesty, ‘A Song For A Sad Lady’.

However, Marshall was much more than a sad, tragic figure who in the end failed to truly master her own destiny. Isn’t about time we took off the blinkers to see her for who she was, not solely for the pain she vicariously caused others? We can’t mitigate all her behaviour, of course, but we can appreciate her talent for what it truly was – open-minded and versatile, perhaps even more so than that of many other vocalists of her era who continue to be lionised.

Yes, as a person she was flawed – deeply flawed – driven all too often by selfish motivations, but as an artist she always saw the bigger picture, which is why she required a far broader canvas than could be furnished by one single style. Jazz vocalist per se she may not be, but classy, stylish, subtle and sassy exponent of the high-end of popular singing she most certainly was.

Surely then she deserves a fate better than being merely a footnote in the stories of those who outlived her?

Photo: happier days: Joy Marshall, circa. 1962

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