Julie London

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Julie London Pencil Portrait
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Julie London, the sultry chanteuse with the smoky, sensual voice and a gift for lyrical interpretation, never had the chops of an Ella Fitzgerald or a Sarah Vaughn; however, what she lacked in vocal muscle was made up for by a natural sensuality and intimacy that made her popular with serious jazz fans and the public alike. In an interview from the 1950’s, she was quoted as saying, “It’s only 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.”

Julie London died in 2000 but to most people she was dead already; inactive on the recording front from 1969 and absent from television screens from the late 70’s, she seemed to have all but disappeared with little fanfare. Unusually for a beautiful woman, her life was an essentially happy and private one, thereby curtailing any modern day biopic to perpetuate her legacy. In the end, it will all come down to her singing and as long as we need music that captures romance as well as love, her songs will be played.

She is one of those singers that appeal to the jazz cognisenti, and to this day I will occasionally mention her name to someone only to receive back the inevitable look of non recognition. “Well”, as I am wont to say, “When you’ve caught up – then we’ll talk”. Smug bastard, and possibly prosaic as well, when I’m too stupid to appreciate all the things I should be grateful for, but faultless? – no I’ve never suggested that to anyone, so I’ll just continue listening to Julie with a hint of self satisfaction. In any event, there’s always those glorious album sleeves to accompany the listening experience; as London herself admitted to the Los Angeles Times in 1961 : “Just as long as they buy the records, I don’t care why they buy ‘em, we spent more time on the covers than the music.”

In July 1947, she married actor Jack Webb (of Dragnet fame), five years after they had first met at a jazz club in los Angeles when she was only fifteen. Her widely regarded beauty and poise (she was a pinup girl prized by GIs during World War II) contrasted strongly with his pedestrian appearance and streetwise acting technique (much parodied by impersonators). This unlikely pairing arose from their mutual love for jazz and the couple had two daughters, Stacy and Lisa Webb. London and Webb divorced in November 1954 and their daughter Stacy Webb was tragically killed in a traffic accident in 1996.

In 1954, having become somewhat reclusive after her divorce from Webb, she met jazz composer and musician Bobby Troup at a club on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles. They married on December 31, 1959, and remained together until his death in February 1999. They had one daughter, Kelly Troup, who died in March 2002, and twin sons, Jody and Reese Troup. When asked about the secret of her long-term relationship with singer/songwriter, producer, pianist and actor Robert Wesley “Bobby” Troup, she nonchalantly replied: “You can’t build a relationship over the telephone”.


I first became aware of Troup whilst perusing the backsleeve of The Rolling Stones first album and noticed this most unusual surname against one of the songwriting credits. In 1946, Troup, an aspiring songwriter and music arranger, drove from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles to advance his career. During the long trip, his wife, Cynthia, suggested that he write a song about highways, and she thought of the rhyme “(Get your kicks on) Route 66.” Bobby wrote the rest of the words and music as they traveled the famous highway. In Los Angeles he performed the song for Nat King Cole, who made it a hit. The Troups’ song became a monument to long-distance car travel.


London’s cornerstone recording was undoubtedly “Cry me a river”, a popular American torch song, written by Arthur Hamilton and first published in 1953. A jazzy blues ballad, the number was originally written for Ella Fitzgerald to sing in the 1920s-set film, Pete Kelly’s Blues (released 1955) but was dropped at the last moment. The song’s first release therefore, and most famous recording was by Julie in 1955, backed by Barney Kessel on guitar and Ray Leatherwood on bass. A sultry filmed performance of the song by London in the 1956 film ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ helped to make it a million-selling blockbuster, the single peaking at number nine on the Billboard Hot 100 and number twenty two in Great Britain. While some boozers only see pink elephants, Tom Ewell has visions of the alluring chanteuse in an eye-popping variety of chintzy outfits, the lucky dog. Despite my life long aversion, maybe there’s something to be said for hitting the bottle?!


The opening guitar motif by Kessel to “Cry Me a River” is instantly recognisable – [x-x-x-11-8-7 low to high, descending chromatically on the G string to x-x-x-8-8-7, followed by x-x-9-5-5-x descending chromatically on the G string to x-x-6-5-5-x.] Rounding off the intro is [8-10-8-9-8-8 played twice with some interplay between the bottom E string on fret 8 and the top E on the 10th fret before resolving to x-x-7-8-6-7.] Intermediate players will struggle with this last chordal shape as a x-x-7-6-8-7 instinctively resembles a more comfortable change.

For beginners struggling with x-x-9-5-5-x x, followed by x-x-6-5-5-x I can offer the alternative of x-x-x-4-1-x chromatically descending to x-x-x-1-1-x but a cursory listen to Kessel’s recording will suggest that the tonality is wrong, the resonance of the D (4th) string fretted with the pinkie evidently missing.

I have transcribed this opening in tablature form rather than with chordal voice notation to remain popular with those readers who (a) have an interest in the guitar yet 2) have not been trained to read music.

She was not a natural performer, suffered stage fright and went on record as saying : “Before I sing at a club, I feel so awful, and I think, ‘I’m going to get out of this business. Nothing is worth it. I’m terrified of the camera. I don’t like to watch the dailies. When an old movie of mine appears on TV, I crawl under a chair and hide.” The search for self belief is the Holy Grail for many live artists. Troup once remarked that: “She is not a Julie London fan. She honestly doesn’t realise how good she is. She’s never really been a performer, she doesn’t have that need to go out and please an audience and receive accolades. She’s always been withdrawn, very introverted. She hated those big shows.”

By the time her husband Bobby Troup died in 1999, Julie was ailing herself, having suffered a stroke four years earlier. She was reportedly often to be found sitting in her chair staring off into space. Close friends maintained that Troup’s 40-year marriage to Julie was a true work of art, one of the most successful Hollywood marriages ever. She would follow him soon after.

Recommended listening

Julie Is Her Name (1955)

London’s first monaural LP album, released by Liberty Records in December, 1955, under catalog number LRP-3006. It was subsequently reprocessed to produce a stereophonic album, and this version was released on May 25, 1960 as catalog number LST-7037.

Featuring ‘Cry Me a River’, her first chart hit, and intimate versions of ‘I Should Care’, ‘Say It Isn’t So’, ‘Easy Street’ and ‘Gone with the Wind’, and set to the sparse accompaniment of Barney Kessel on guitar and Ray Leatherwood on bass, London’s debut recording has also been remastered for vinyl using Bernie Grundman’s all-tube mastering system. Many of the master tapes from the 50s subsequently lost some of their high frequency information. Following on from the advent of the long playing record in 1948, most of the original pressings from this period rolled off both the high and low end frequencies and compressed the dynamics of the master tape. Thanks to Grundman’s work, we can now hear London at her expansive best.


In the liner notes to the ‘Julie Is Her Name’ album, London was referred to as the “the girl with the ‘come hither’ voice.” Add to that a little cheesecake on the front cover and London’s sultry image was complete; small wonder I elected to use the front cover for my pencil portrait.

Produced by Troup, ‘Julie Is Her Name ‘pushed the singer into the musical spotlight and although she continued to record into the late 60’s, nothing matched the beautiful simplicity and warmth of her first album.

Julie at home (1960)

Undoubtedly, one of her most intimate albums and, at the request of liberty Records, recorded in London’s own living room.

Julie comfortably fronts a small jazz combo featuring vibraphonist Emil Richards and long time Sinatra guitarist Al Viola generating a series of relaxed and casual sessions, the lyrics of many of the numbers slyly slipping from London’s lips, at once sophisticated and sensual.


Recommended viewing

Julie London – The Lady’s Not a Vamp (BBC 2006)

Profile of 1950s singing sensation Julie London, the ultimate in vocal sexiness, with her hourglass figure draped across thirty hit albums.

She was a simmering stylist who phrased torch songs with impeccable jazz timing, and her anthem to female revenge, ‘Cry Me A River’, is still hugely popular. Yet she remains a puzzle – she could be shy and introverted, and with no real confidence in her vocal talent she gave up singing in her early forties

A BBC special narrated by Mariella Frostrup, this unique matching of bewitching female voices was enough to convince me to tape the programme for posterity.

The Julie London Show (1964)

Here are Julie London and husband Bobby Troup in a Japanese TV special from May 28, 1964. Joined on stage at different points by trumpeter Joe Burnett, guitarist Dennis Budimir, bassist Don Bagley and drummer Dee Barton and the requisite big band, London smoulders and sizzles in equal measure, never once overselling the songs – mesmerising really; like most men I’m just putty in her hands.

Set List :

  • Lonesome Road
  • Bye Bye Blackbird
  • Daddy
  • My Baby Just Cares For Me
  • Fly Me To The Moon
  • Send For Me
  • Come Rain Or Come Shine
  • I Left My Heart In San Francisco
  • Route 66 (Bobby Troup)
  • Sweet Georgia Brown (Bobby Troup)
  • Tenderly (Bobby Troup)
  • Medley: My Funny Valentine, Misty (Bobby Troup)
  • Deed I Do
  • Let There Be Love
  • You’d Be So Nice To Come Home
  • Kansas City
  • Cry Me A River

London appeared in approximately twenty Hollywood movies, a combination of cameo and leading roles. When her singing career ebbed, she moved successfully into television roles. I am largely unfamiliar with her screen work and her movies rarely feature in terrestrial schedules. The following link provides details of her screen career.


Recommended reading

Sadly nothing to date on the consummate cocktail siren. London may have been the perfect physical type for conveying aerodynamic glamour in the American new age of frigidaires and television sets, but she also applied emotional restraint in her life and was essentially a contented wife and mother – hardly ideal material for a warts and all biography. Yet this alternative lifestyle, seemingly so beyond the capabilities of most beautiful women, particularly those in Tinseltown, is surely worthy of deeper investigation.