Last month, for school I had to write a long research paper about 17th century Flemish flower paintings, which was a bit outside my comfort zone. So, I needed writing music and a lot of it. After listening a bit to Amazon Music's playlist "Big Band Christmas", I came across the song "Warm in December" by Julie London. It was a name I'd heard before, but I knew next to nothing about her. But the song was good enough to send me to Wikipedia, where I learned that London released 30 albums in the 14 years between 1955 and 1969. Most of the material she recorded was standards, the kind I spent most of 2020 listening to, so I decided that listening to London's entire discography (in order) would be perfect for writing my paper. Now, the paper's done ( I got an A), and I'm left with many, many thoughts about Julie London.
A film actress before releasing her first album, Julie is Her Name, in 1955, London had a mega-hit single with "Cry Me a River." That song would prove to be the high point of her career, in terms of record sales. Though she made more than two dozen records in the decade and a half after Julie is Her Name, none were as popular. After 1969, she stopped recording music and went on to star in the successful '70s TV show Emergency!. After that show ended, she pretty much stopped working, apparently indifferent to fame and valuing her family over her career. She died in 2000.
A shy and introverted woman by nature, London did not love performing live, and was much more comfortable in a small nightclub than in a large performance hall. She was a jazz fan, and although her music is not what you would consider jazz, it often does have jazz flavoring. She often sang jazz songs that were refitted for a pop audience. She did not possess a particularly large vocal range, she really could only do one thing with her voice. But, like when Chet Baker sings, she could find a thousand shades of sadness within her voice.
Described once as a "melancholy whisper," London's voice sounds best on torch songs and songs that tap into that smoky, nighttime quality. Though her range was limited, I think London was incredibly talented (I wouldn't be doing this otherwise). A certain amount of her narrative in the '50s was about her beauty, as if that was making up for a vocal deficiency. Part of that was due to the cover photos of her albums, often very sexy, almost pin up photos that were cropped in a way to accentuate her cleavage. Though at least part of her success was attributed to those provocative images, the music really holds up more than a half century later. And looking at the album covers today provides a really interesting snapshot of midcentury American sexuality.
Here's my ranking of the 30 albums of Julie London (excluding compilation records).
30. Yummy, Yummy, Yummy (1969)
A sign of the changing times, in her final studio album London ditches Gershwin and Porter for ... the Beatles, the Doors, and Spanky and Our Gang. An ill-conceived career pivot, Yummy, Yummy, Yummy finds London trying to make soft rock songs her own and it just doesn't work. The songs, which include "Mighty Quinn" and "Light My Fire" have been given heavily orchestrated makeovers, which don't suit them at all. An interesting curio from the standpoint of mismatching singer and material, but not all that much else worthy about it.
Best Song: "Hushabye Mountain," a song from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, is done in a actually rather pretty version.
29. Swing Me an Old Song (1959)
28. Our Fair Lady (1965)
27. Love Letters (1962)
Forgettable and blandly orchestrated. Sprightly songs like "Never On Sunday" are a bad match for London's vocal style.
Best Song: I liked "The Second Time Around."
26. Julie London (1964)
These are just so-so pop songs given so-so orchestral arrangements.
Best Song: "Night Life" - a country song - sounds surprising pretty good in this arrangement.
25. Love on the Rocks (1963)
London's voice sounds awesome on these songs, themed around running into an ex. Nothing super memorable about it.
Best Song: "What's New" is a very good song.
24. London By Night (1958)
London by Night. Couldn't that describe two thirds of London's discography? It could, which is perhaps why this particular album of sad songs about lost love doesn't stand out amid all of London's other albums of sad songs about lost love. It's not bad, just not very distinct and maybe a little too depressing.
Best Song: "Just the Way I Am" is sung beautifully by London and was written by her husband, Bobby Troup (who went to star in Emergency! alongside his wife).
23. Latin in a Satin Mood (1963)
As far as Latin albums go, I'm sure this is probably a bit bland. But, it's a pleasant enough stylistic detour.
Best Song: "Sway" is fun.
22. Feeling Good (1965)
Best Song: "I Bruise Easily" is a perfect Julie London song.
21. In Person at the Americana (1964)
The only live album on this list, it's interesting for that reason alone. Listening to it gave me a better of what she was famous for, like when she starts singing "Cry Me A River" and a guy starts clapping. I guess that was still far and away her biggest hit, even though it'd been almost a decade since that song was released. A few times, the chorus of backup singers takes over for Julie too much, and she starts to get a little lost amid the production of the show, which of course, doesn't have the same impact on the album as it would have in person.
20. With Body & Soul (1967)
Late-career London that sees her pulling material from a wide variety of sources. She does everything from "You're No Good" to "Alexander's Ragtime Band." But unlike other attempts to leave her pop standards wheelhouse, she succeeds in this record at creating sonic cohesion between the tracks. There's a jazzy, soulful current running through this album that's a lot of fun to listen to.
Best Song: She does the Mamas and the Papas' song "Straight Shooter" so well, it makes me think there could have been a way for her to adapt with the times and have it not sound as lost as she does on Yummy, Yummy, Yummy.
19. Whatever Julie Wants (1961)
An album themed around a woman treating sex as a commodity. Seriously. The album cover finds London wearing a fur coat (and apparently nothing else) while surrounded by diamonds, champagne, and cash. The songs position her mostly as a vamp, cooing such numbers as "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend". London has always been better playing the lovelorn torch singer than the bubbly sexpot, so these songs don't really work all that well. There's nothing particularly dangerous about how her sexuality is deployed here, it's just kind of misuses her talent.
Best Song: Even on an album as energetic as this, she can't help but sell the sadness of "Love for Sale".
18. The End of the World (1963)
At this point of her career, London slides into a an easy listening/adult contemporary mode that kind of anticipates a lot of what's to come in the next couple of decades for those genres. She doesn't stick with it, but she made two enjoyable, if light, albums of it.
Best Song: This is the best version of "Fly Me to the Moon," if we're being honest.
17. The Wonderful World of Julie London (1963)
My comments on The End of the World apply here too. This one is slightly better just because I like the song selection a bit more here.
Best Song: "I Love You and Don't You Forget It" is the rare cheery London song that really soars.
This is what Julie London does best; singing pop standards with a small band. Is the whole affair relaxed to the point where it becomes sleepy? Maybe, in a couple of spots. But, ultimately, I really enjoyed this record from near the end of her career. However, I will never understand why she subjected us to a slowed down sultry rendition of the Mickey Mouse March. Why, Julie, why?
Best Song: Her voice is incredibly appealing on "You Go To My Head."
15. Send for Me (1961)
There's so much going on here, which is rare for a London album. The arrangement sounds really good, but they just don't sound like they're for a Julie London album. There are background singers! It's not bad, not bad at all, just odd.
Best Song: "What's Your Story, Morning Glory" probably does the best job of incorporating London's vocal style with all these added elements.
14. Easy Does It (1968)
The title is apt. A relaxed, groovy atmosphere pervades London's penultimate album. Best Song: "Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year," the Frank Loesser song.
13. Calendar Girl (1956)
Calling it a theme would. be generous, this album has a straight up gimmick. Every song is about a different month, going through the year in chronological order. And the album cover, accordingly, features many shots of London posing with a variety of seasonal objects. While she sounds well enough, the small jazz combo from her previous recordings is missed. And despite the presence of some beloved standards, like "September in the Rain", other songs seem like they were specially written so London could sing about February. Really?
Best Song: Go ahead and add "Warm in December" to all of your holiday playlists now. You'll thank me later.
12. Julie... At Home (1960)
An LP most notable for the fact that it was recorded in London's living room. She definitely sounds like she's in her element, and the song selection is nice too. Not top tier, but definitely worth a listen.
Best Song: You'll want to say hello to her version of "Goodbye".
11. About the Blues (1957)
Another album with a theme. This time the theme is... the blues. Every song on the album (aside from two) has the word "blues" right in its title. I don't think that's a good enough reason to group them all together, but it's a strong enough album for me not to care. This is her fourth release, and the one that offers definitive proof that London could sound fantastic working with a large orchestra.
Best Song: "The Meaning of the Blues", which distills the idea for this album pretty neatly. Though that song would become more famous after getting recorded by Miles Davis the next year, it was written for London by her husband Bobby Troup and Leah Worth.
10. For the Night People (1966)
Aren't all of her albums for the night people? After her bigger, orchestral pop albums of the early '60s, London returns to what she's best at with this stripped-down, jazzy album. Don Bagely's arrangements never overwhelm her voice, and there are several great moments of guitar. She had previously recorder "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey" on Swing Me an Old Song, but this version, though a lot sadder, has much better atmosphere and plays to London's vocal strengths more.
Best Song: "Am I Blue".
9. Make Love to Me (1957)
Every song on this album is about sex. And as I've said before, London isn't at her best when she's cast as the vamp. Perhaps it's because of her beauty or the way her beauty was played up on the album covers, but it's never an interesting role for her. And cute songs like "If I Could Be With You" and "I Wanna Be Loved" are not really suited to her voice. But, thankfully, she turns most of the songs on this album into the kind of sad, languid songs she's most comfortable with, even if they sometimes feel forced into the arrangements. The best example of this is on "Go Slow", where the sensual and the melancholy coexist in her every word.
Best Song: "Go Slow".
8. Your Number Please (1959)
An album arranged and conducted by Andre Previn, it's a very decent collections of songs. This is also the first album where her voice has a deeper quality that stays with her for the rest of her recording career.
Best Song: "One for My Baby". I'm feeling so bad, she sings. Won't you make the music dreamy and sad?Mission accomplished.
7. Julie (1957)
More upbeat than many of her recordings, this album is perhaps the closest London gets to the jazz sensibility that she often flirts with but rarely commits to. On songs like "Midnight Sun" her vocals almost seem secondary to that incredible trumpet.
Best Song: She pushes her voice in a way that she didn't often, especially on "Back Home Again in Indiana."
6. Sophisticated Lady (1962)
5. Julie is Her Name, Vol 2 (1958)
An attempt to replicate the success of her first album from three years earlier (which was also called Julie Is Her Name), this album has the guitar and bass accompaniment style that London, I think, first popularized to major success. It's not superior to that first album, but it is very good.
Best Song: I'll go with "The One I Love Belongs to Someone Else".
4. Around Midnight (1960)
London works with a large orchestra again on this album, and it proves to be very successful choice. This is the epitome of a nighttime album, with that sleepy, woozy vibe going right through it. Songs like "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" were appropriate choices.
Best Song: Toss up between the title track and "You and the Night and the Music".
3. Lonely Girl (1956)
The lore about London's second album (I don't how true this is) is that it was largely improvised, recorded by London and guitarist Al Viola when she was struggling to record the vocals for the highly orchestrated follow-up album that the label wanted her to make. Thankfully, this album happened and was released before the bland, gimmicky Calendar Girl. Lonely Girl continues what worked so well on her first album. Viola's soulful guitar is the only instrument besides London's voice, and the result is a spare, haunting collection of songs.
Best Song: "Remember" is perfect.
2. All through the Night: Julie London Sings the Choicest of Cole Porter (1965)
As good as music gets as far as I'm concerned. A couple of months ago, I made a playlist of Cole Porter songs and listened to a lot of Porter-dedicated albums to find songs, so I'm surprised I didn't come across this one. London is accompanied by the Bud Shank Quintet, who sound great but also give London enough room to sing. She had done a version of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" on Whatever Julie Wants just a couple of years earlier, but I prefer this one - it's jazzier and her voice is looser. It's really one of the best albums of just Cole Porter songs out there. (Should I do a ranking of the best albums of just Cole Porter songs next?? Let me know down below if that's something you'd like to see on ChannelTim!)
Best Song: Hard to choose, but I'll say "In the Still of the Night."
1. Julie Is Her Name (1955)
London's first album takes the top spot not because I necessarily like it more than All Through the Night, but because it is the quintessential Julie London album. It was huge hit when it was released and it holds up incredibly well 66 years later. Before discovering London, I've always had a preference for music played by large orchestras, though I can't really say why. But now I fully understand the joys of a small jazz combo, especially for voices like London's. Give it enough room and it'll do magic.
Best Song: This has to be "Cry Me A River," doesn't it? It's the Julie London song.