By Ken Bloom
Way back when (and you know how long ago that was!) the film The Cotton Club was in production. Bill Rudman and I knew for sure it was going to be a big hit. Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler were the most prominent composers for the Cotton Club shows and I knew Harold Arlen’s biographer, Ed Jablonski. I had produced and directed a Harold Arlen revue in Washington, D.C. that was a big success and which featured a lot of extremely rare songs from the Cotton Club.
We then went upon the task of finding someone to interpret the songs, someone who could give the songs their jazz due without overdoing it but staying vaguely in the spirit in which they were written. Bill suggests that it was he who came up with the solution. I recall being the brains behind the idea. Whomever did think of Maxine Sullivan came up with the perfect person. Not only was Maxine a child of the period just after the Cotton Club’s heyday she had actually sung at the Cotton Club back when it had moved from Harlem to Broadway and 48th Street. In fact, Maxine’s costar during her appearance was none other than Louis Armstrong. Now, wouldn’t you like to rev up your time machine and see that!
But how to get in touch with Maxine? Bill recalled that he knew Maxine’s pianist, Phil Fortenberry and set up a meeting in a Greenwich Village coffee shop. The meeting went terrifically. Phil was as enthusiastic as we were. Back and forth the conversation went: “Maxine will do great by ‘Ill Wind.’” “Yeah, and the song ‘Primitive Prima Donna’ will show Maxine’s comic chops.” We were in heaven. Everything was falling into place. At the end of the love fest Bill stated, “And the album will be titled, ‘Maxine Sullivan Sings the Great Songs of the Cotton Club by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler!’” Phil dropped his fork and looked up at us with a puzzled look on his face, “Maxine Sullivan!?” “Yes!,” we replied. Phil averred, “But I’m the accompanist of Maxine Andrews!” Yes, Maxine Andrews of the famous Andrews Sisters.
After Phil left, Bill and I regrouped. How to get in touch with Maxine. Bill made a wild suggestion, “Why don’t we look in the phone book?” Yes, kids, years and years before you were born there was a book and everybody’s phone number and address was listed. And there was Maxine’s number. With trembling hands Bill dialed the number. Yes, phones had dials then not push buttons. And Maxine herself picked up.
Bill gave her the spiel and Maxine replied, “Why not?” Whew! That was so easy. We then called Maxine’s real accompanist/arranger Keith Ingham and off we went. Maxine was a dream to work with and we were thrilled with the recording.
In fact, it was so good we got the “Best Female Vocal Album” award from NAIRD, the National Association of Independent Record Distributors. And then we found ourselves nominated for a GRAMMY Award!! Yes, our first studio recording was nominated for a GRAMMY!
Well, we didn’t win but the album was a big seller. And now it’s been reissued for your listening pleasure.
There’s a lot of other stories that go along with that album. Like when I took the CD to Moscow before they had CDs in that country. And you won’t believe the reaction from my Russian friend Vitali. But that’s one for another time.
Bill and I went on to record two more albums with Maxine and Keith, each devoted to a giant of American Popular Song. First was a wonderful album of the songs of Burton Lane. And Burton was intimately involved in that recording—the first jazz album ever to feature his songs. And we followed that with a collaboration with the songwriting genius Jule Styne who was especially thrilled with Maxine and Keith’s work on his songs.
All three of these albums are now available on Harbinger CDs. We’ve never been happier with any of our subsequent albums—some of which are also damned good!
The Musical Theater Project's authors include Bill Rudman, Heather Meeker and Joanna May Cullinan - and guest writers from time to time!