Thursday, 11 November 2010

Drinka Lita Roza: Johnny Keating and the Prospect of Witby session

My friend Ben Aaronovitch's novel, Rivers of London, features a hero whose father is a jazz musician. I'm the jazz advisor for the books, so there's a scene in Rivers where Peter Grant recalls an historic gig his father almost played, featuring Johnny Keating and Lita Roza at the Prospect of Whitby. The Prospect is a history-drenched pub overlooking the Thames in London's East End. Lita Roza was a talented and stunningly beautiful singer of the 1950s. Johnny Keating is one of the noteworthy jazz composer-arrangers I got into through his movie soundtracks (the scores for Robbery and, especially, Hotel). Both Lita and Johnny worked with the great British band leader Ted Heath in the early 1950s, but the Prospect of Whitby gig which reunited them took place considerably later, on 4 May 1960. It was a classic performance featuring versions of Don't Get Around Much Any More and Lush Life which would have made Duke Ellington proud. (Ellington seemed to disdain vocalists and seldom worked with one of Lita Roza's caliber). There is also a scorching version of Cole Porter's Love for Sale. The trumpet work, by Ronnie Hughes, is outstanding throughout (and sometimes very Ellingtonian) and Johnny Keating on trombone also distinguishes himself. There's also a very nice reading of I Love You Porgy which features some cheerful contributions from a cash register in the background, like the typewriter in a Leroy Anderson composition. Ah, the joys of live recording in a working venue. The original Pye LP of the session is now a collector's item. So is the Japanese vinyl reissue I just enjoyed listening to on this rainy afternoon. The record is a small classic and worth seeking out. It is also the source of one of the most cryptic puns in the history of music. Back in Britain in the 1950s there was a celebrated ad campaign to encourage the populace to drink more milk.The slogan was Drinka Pinta Milka Day. So, when the Prospect of Witby recordings were released, under the singer's name, some wag came up with the idea of entitling the album Drinka Lita Roza Day (yes, they'd gone metric). Unsurprisingly, this title drove the translators for the Japanese reissue berserk. Apparently they couldn't work out what the hell it meant, and tried to tame it into some kind of coherence. Which is presumably why the Japanese release was (perhaps inadvertently) retitled Drinka Lita Roza Days (plural). If you're intrigued by the recording, which is an outstanding jazz vocal session, you can acquire it cheaply on this double CD. Be warned, though, that it is surrounded by other material, much of which is not jazz, and some of which is dodgy pop. (For a more jazzy side of Lita, check out the compilation of her work with Ted Heath on this CD). Lita Roza was no stranger to dodgy pop. She hated it and resisted it, but those were the days when the artist didn't have much choice in the material they recorded. Which is why she was forced to record a UK cover version of (How Much is That) Doggie in the Window, a strong contender for the worst popular song of all time, and one which Lita reportedly roundly despised. This ditty was first popularised by Patti Page who was saddled with it on the other side of the Atlantic. (Like Lita Rosa, Page was a singer with jazz chops who hated the canine ballad; she would have been better employed making some more of her excellent recordings with Peter Rugolo.) We have now lost Lita Roza, but Johnny Keating is still with us and is a national treasure. Someone should book him at Ronnie Scott's or the Royal Festival Hall.