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Gordon Jenkins' taste for lush string orchestrations was a big factor in the development of the easy listening style, but today's listeners may find it hard to understand the attraction. Taken straight, without the benefit of a great vocal by Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole or the dated dramatic narrative of Manhattan Tower, its saccharine shock is tough to digest.
Jenkins started as a jack-of-all-musical trades for a St. Louis radio station in the early 1930s--playing, conducting, arranging. He was hired by bandleader Isham Jones, who encouraged him to develop a tight, smooth ensemble sound that was very much in the "sweet" style of swing. By his mid 20s, Jenkins had become one of the leading arrangers of the day, working with Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Vincent Lopez, Andre Kostelanetz, and many others. Several of Jenkins' originals became swing standards: "Goodbye," which Goodman used for his closing theme; "Blue Prelude"; "When a Woman Loves a Man."
Jenkins moved to Hollywood and worked for Paramount Pictures for six years beginning in 1938, then appeared with singer Dick Haymes on his radio series for nearly four years. Soon after joining Haymes, he also signed with Decca Records and began recording under his own name with a string orchestra and vocal chorus. Jenkins had a number of Top 10 hits in the late 1940s, including "My Foolish Heart," "Maybe You'll Be There," "Bewitched," and "Don't Cry Joe." In 1948, he wrote and recorded a rather innovative piece, Manhattan Tower, which combined mood music, original songs, spoken narration, dialog, and sound effects to tell the story of an ambitious young man making good in New York City business and society. No longer considered quite the work of art it once was (it was redone at least three other times), it's a quaint novelty with a certain amount of Industrial Age charm.
He eventually became musical director at Decca, and in early 1950, he brought a folk music group, the Weavers, to the label. Over the objections of his bosses, Jenkins recorded them doing a few numbers, and their version of Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene," backed with the Israeli folk song, "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena," became a massive hit, much to the amazement of all involved. Jenkins recorded numerous singles with the group, including the South African m'bube tune, "Wimoweh [The Lion Sleeps Tonight]," and the source of many Baby Boomer lyrical improvisations, "On Top of Old Smokey."
Jenkins' next success is quite a contrast to his work with the Weavers. In 1957, he arranged and conducted the album Love is the Thing for Nat King Cole, creating one of Cole's biggest and most beautiful hits, "When I Fall in Love." Love is the Thing also contains a stunning version of "Stardust," one of the few to include the full introductory verse. Director Richard Benjamin used it to good effect in the title sequence of the movie, "My Favorite Year."
Jenkins followed up with what may become his best-remembered work, his collaboration with Frank Sinatra on one of Sinatra's milestone Capitol albums of the late 1950s, When No One Cares. When No One Cares is a deeply morose album, and Jenkins' arrangements greatly enhance the mood: one of the great albums to drink alone by, particularly effective if you've just been dumped. Jenkins went on to record several more albums with Sinatra in the 1960s after Sinatra founded Reprise Records, including one of his best-sellers, The September of My Years, which included the classic piece of male dreck, "It Was a Very Good Year." Much later, when Sinatra recorded his massive late-period piece, Trilogy, he trusted Jenkins to define "the Future" for him. Unfortunately, the resulting soggy mess only served to show that ol' Blue Eyes' best days had passed.
Prevailing styles left Jenkins behind by the late 1960s. Other than stalwart supporters like Sinatra, there were few calls for his lush approach. He released one rather odd album with the "Malibu Voices" that ranged from Blood, Sweat, and Tears and Joanie Mitchell to Jenkins' old standby, "Blue Prelude." It's an unusual melange of Jenkins' signature stratospheric strings, soft-pop vocals, and unexpected flashes of electronics, but the net result is about as appealing than cold hash.
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