In 1949, Teresa Brewer – born Theresa Breuer in Toledo, Ohio – released a 45 on the London label with the A-side “Copenhagen.” But the A-side, performed with the Dixieland All-Stars, failed to launch Brewer to stardom. That honor went to the flip – Stephen Weiss and Bernie Baum’s “Music! Music! Music!,” and soon, everyone was singing along to Brewer’s plea to “put another nickel in/In the nickelodeon.” The perky Brewer returned to the million-selling chart-topper numerous times throughout her career, singing it on The Muppet Show and re-recording it in rock-and-roll and disco styles (just to name two!). But there was more to Teresa Brewer as a vocalist than just her signature hit. Ace Records, through its Boplicity imprint, has revisited two of Brewer’s albums, both from 1973, on one CD. The Songs of Bessie Smith paired the singer with Count Basie and Thad Jones, and It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing found her singing with the orchestra of another bona fide legend: Duke Ellington.
Following her London Records triumph, Brewer continued racking up hits at Coral Records. With the change in musical tastes, however, the hits began to dry up for her in the late 1950s. Still, she moved in 1962 to Philips, remaining there for eight albums even as she concentrated on raising a family with husband William Monahan, whom she married in 1949. By the early seventies, though, Brewer’s marriage had soured. Following her divorce from Monahan, she rekindled her recording career with her former A&R man at Coral, Bob Thiele. After his pioneering work taking over from Creed Taylor at Impulse! Records, Thiele departed the jazz giant in 1969 to form his own group of labels including Flying Dutchman Records for jazz and progressive music. At Flying Dutchman, Thiele continued to curate an impressive roster including Count Basie, Gato Barbieri, Leon Thomas and Gil Scott-Heron. He took an interest in Teresa Brewer on both a personal and professional label. He signed the singing star to his pop-oriented Amsterdam label and later married her.
After releasing two albums capitalizing on nostalgia (including Music Music Music, with another remake of her hit), Thiele and Brewer decided to embark on a new musical path at Flying Dutchman in 1973. Brewer had never been considered a jazz singer, but Thiele paired her with the legendary Count Basie and arranger-conductor Thad Jones for The Songs of Bessie Smith. The songbook of The Empress of the Blues (1894-1937) was hardly expected fare for a singer associated with novelty pop records. But Brewer rose to the occasion, finding new colors in her expressive voice and range for such songs as “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home,” “After You’ve Gone,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and the venerable “St. Louis Blues.” Basie, of course, brought his flawless and elegant flair to the piano, adding another new dimension to the blues standards.
The album had at least one major fan – that of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, who asked her, “When are we going to make a record?” And so producer Thiele returned to the studio in September 1973 with Duke on piano supported by Thiele’s first-call rhythm section of Joe Beck on guitar, Bernard Purdie on drums, and Mtume on percussion. Ellington and Ernie Wilkins orchestrated a selection of Duke’s classic tunes including “Satin Doll,” “Mood Indigo,” “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” and Brewer was even gifted with two Ellington compositions to premiere: “Poco Mucho” and “It’s Kind of Lonesome Tonight.” Tap dancer Bunny Briggs joined in the Ellington celebration on background vocals, and even tap-danced with Brewer on “I’ve Got to Be a Rug-Cutter!” Alas, It Don’t Mean a Thing turned out to be Duke Ellington’s final studio recording, as he died in May 1974. But the felicitous collaboration with Brewer certainly turned out to be another artistic triumph for the legendary bandleader.
Teresa Brewer continued to explore new musical avenues with Thiele until his 1996 death. Though there were occasional journeys into country, disco and other styles, she most frequently recorded in the jazz idiom she found suited her so well on this pair of 1973 gems. Brewer died in 2007 at the age of 76 in New York.
Boplicity’s reissue of The Songs of Bessie Smith/It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing includes a 20-page booklet with original album artwork, new liner notes by Dean Rudland and the original notes for both albums penned by Nat Hentoff. Nick Robbins has handled remastering chores. Fans and collectors of classic pop and jazz can order this title, available now, at the links below!
- Trombone Cholly
- Gulf Coast Blues
- Down Hearted Blues
- Baby Won’t You Please Come Home
- Louis Blues
- After You’ve Gone
- I Ain’t Got Nobody
- Gimme a Pigfoot
- I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle
- It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing
- I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues
- Satin Doll
- Mood Indigo
- Don’t Get Around Much Anymore
- I’m Beginning to See the Light
- I’ve Got to Be a Rug-Cutter
- I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good
- Tulip or Turnip
- It’s Kinda Lonesome Out Tonight
- Poco Mucho
Tracks 1-10 from The Songs of Bessie Smith, with Count Basie and Thad Jones, Flying Dutchman LP FD 10161, 1973
Tracks 11-20 from It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing, with Duke Ellington, Flying Dutchman LP FD 10166, 1973