September 26, 1926– Julie London:
“In this business, it’s difficult to make plans. I think the plans follow you and find you.”
In decades past, in the early autumn, The Husband and I would traditionally travel a bit. This year we are too broke to even travel to other Portland neighborhoods, plus The Husband works too much. But in the day, we have had major, marked, momentous, meaningful journeys in late September/Early October including to Northern Italy, NYC, Vancouver BC, San Francisco. But, even in the lean times we would pack up the dogs and rent a cabin at the Washington Coast.
Those trips to the coast were rather perfect. We would bring books, magazines, whiskey, pot and a big stack of perfect beach CDs. There was nothing as sexy, seductive and special as playing the music of Julie London on the sound system as waves crashed and the wind rattled the little WPA-era cabin that we always rented and we would get a little drunk and a little dreamy while listening to London’s singing.
Now, in the 21st century, I also hear her songs as the perfect soundtrack for my mind wrapping around the ending of the television series Mad Men (2007-2015). It could be that the phrase “bedroom community” was coined especially with London in mind.
I love the economy of London’s singing. Her phrasing is spot-on and yet surprising in its nuance. With her throaty, smoky sound, playfully seductive as any voice I have heard, London is a skilled temptress. Yet, she never played the total sex bomb. Her appeal wasn’t like that of the unattainable Rita Hayworth or Lauren Bacall. She cleverly cast herself as the not-quite-wholesome, available non-Doris Day girl. She was the chick at cocktail parties who would send every man in the room fumbling for his lighter whenever she reached for a cigarette.
As a recording artist London was entirely a product of her time. No wonder her career began in the mid-1950s, just as the USA was starting to discover sex as recreation, and it ended in 1969 when the revolution was hitting a few bumps.
The character London played on her albums was not a pushover. Songs like My Heart Belongs To Daddy, An Occasional Man, and Take Back Your Mink could reduce even a gay guy to mush. When suggested in the song that Nice Girls Don’t Stay For Breakfast, her closing line was “pass the jam”.
If you only know London for her 1955 gigantic hit Cry Me A River (despite hundreds of cover versions, London’s remains the definitive one for me), or for her role as nurse Dixie McCall on the long-running NBC series Emergency! (1972-79) you would be surprised by the depth and breadth of her recording career from 1955-1969. Cry Me A River was written by her high-school friend Arthur Hamilton. It sold more than a million records. London performed the song in the film The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), and her version was used to great effect in the films Passion Of Mind (2000) and V For Vendetta (2006). Her recording of Yummy, Yummy, Yummy was featured on the HBO series Six Feet Under (2001-05) and it is on its soundtrack album. Her final recording was My Funny Valentine for the soundtrack of Burt Reynolds’ film Sharky’s Machine (1988).
London released 29 studio albums, plus a live session and two greatest hits compilations. Among the adult Pop Music singers, she rivaled the biggest sellers of the day: Francis Albert Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, and even Barbra Streisand, in terms of output. She easily out sold the Jazz artists of the era: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Mel Tormé.
I was slightly scandalized and somewhat aroused by the covers of my parental unit’s Julie London albums. To my confused childhood self, they seemed to have some relation to my father’s Playboy magazines. There was Julie (1957), featuring a seemingly naked London reclining in a wire mesh chair and Whatever Julie Wants (1961) with London wearing only a mink coat.
London appreciated her vocal limitations and her ability to make the most of them:
“It’s a thimbleful of a voice, and I have to use it close to the microphone. But it is a kind of over-smoked voice, and it automatically sounds intimate.”
Billboard named her the most popular female vocalist for 1955, 1956, and 1957. She was the subject of a 1957 LIFE Magazine cover.
As a civilian, she was shy and somewhat of a recluse. It says something of her character that London always remained close friends with her ex-husband Jack Webb. In 1972, Webb hired both London and her actor husband Bobby Troup for lead roles on Emergency! where he was an executive producer.
London began singing under her real name, Gayle Peck, in her teens. She was discovered by talent agent Sue Carol, the wife of actor Alan Ladd, while working as an elevator operator. Her early film career did not include any singing roles. Her 35-year acting career began in 1944, and included playing opposite Rock Hudson in The Fat Man (1951), Gary Cooper in Man Of The West (1958), where she is the only female in the cast, and Robert Mitchum in The Wonderful Country (1959).
London, who had been a chain smoker since 16-years-old, suffered a stroke in 1995, and left us in 2000. She was 74-years old.
I guess I don’t understand the vetting process; why is Julie London not a major Gay Icon or the basis for a drag persona?