Jon Hendricks, Part One:
Little Johnnie, the James Joyce of Jive
What do you mean by jive, you ask? Well, if you look it up you’ll find that the number one definition is “swing music or jazz,” not jive talk. Jon Hendricks is one of the masters of jazz jive songwriting.
We met Jon Hendricks at his club gigs in San Francisco in the 1980s. Jon was a Californian by then, living in Mill Valley, teaching at Sonoma State University and writing for the SF Examiner. He liked to circulate among the club crowd where he performed. He was very approachable, friendly to everyone, always looking for opportunities to fulfill his mission of helping the audience learn more about jazz. We admired Jon’s songwriting; had learned some of his compositions for our own nightclub act: “Centerpiece,” “Gimme That Wine,” and were working on the lyric to Ellington’s, “In a Mellotone,” so it was a thrill to meet and talk with him.
I remembered a song from the British Invasion years, “Yeh Yeh” a hit for Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames in 1965. I loved the record then, and learned much later that Jon wrote the lyric for it, the first Jon Hendricks song I ever heard. More recently, the Pointer Sisters of Oakland, California, performed “Little Pony” (1974) and “Cloudburst” (1973), on their first two albums, both Hendricks’ lyrics. Chappell saw the Pointers girls blow the audience away performing these tunes in Santa Rosa, CA, in those early years.
So, here is the early story of “vocalese” master, Jon Hendricks.
Jon was born September 16, 1921, in Newark, Ohio, the ninth child and seventh son of Reverend and Sister Willie Carrington Hendricks, of the African-American Episcopal Church, a “preacher’s kid” as they’re often called. By the age of nine, Little Johnnie, as he was nicknamed, was singing secular songs around Toledo, Ohio, bringing home money to help feed the family of seventeen during the Great Depression of 1929.
In the 1930s, trains coming out West from New York stopped in Toledo to switch engines, Toledo being one of the main “switch towns” at the time. It was a lively city in those days; somewhat like Kansas City. The hippest, most active music club was The Waiters and Bellmen’s Club. One of the Hendricks family’s neighbors were the Tatums. Their famous son, Arthur (Art) Tatum, played the piano. Art got Little Johnny the job as vocalist in the shows at the Waiter’s and Bellmen’s Club, and he performed twice a week when he was only age 14. Jon met all the traveling jazz players; Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, Jimmy Lunceford, Fats Waller, Claude Hopkins, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nathaniel Cole (not yet become “King” and still a non-singing jazz pianist), and Jay McShann with the young Charlie Parker.
World War II interrupted his jazz career and Hendricks was drafted into the United States Army in 1942, serving 3 years and four months in The European Theater of Operations. It was on the Victory ship bringing him back home that he first heard a recording, “Salt Peanuts,” by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and it knocked him out. The first thing he did on disembarking was to buy as many Be-bop records as he could find, because he knew he had “heard the music he wanted to sing the rest of his life.” In one version of the story, Jon visited the radio station as soon as he was off the boat, and paid the disc jockey $20 to play that “Salt Peanuts” record over and over again.
He later put a lyric to “Salt Peanuts,” “Vote Dizzy, Vote Dizzy, Dizzy for President,” for Dizzy’s semi-serious campaign during the civil rights era. There is a live recording from the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1963. “Your politics oughta be a groovier thing/so get a good president who’s willing to swing/Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!”
Back home after the war, Jon began gigging steadily around Northwestern Ohio and Southern Michigan. He enrolled in law school at the University of Toledo under the G.I. Bill. During this time Charlie Parker, known as “Bird,” brought his Quintet through Toledo. Someone suggested to Bird that he let Jon Hendricks sit in. Bird agreed. After the set, Bird suggested that Hendricks come to New York and when Jon told him, “I don’t know nobody in New York,” Bird replied, “You know me.”
Jon asked, “Where will I find you?” Bird replied without hesitation, “Just ask anybody.”
(to be continued in part 2 next week)