Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Mornin' Little Oriole

In around 1986 I recall seeing a music video on the Australian music video show ‘Sounds’ for a song called ‘Mornin’ by singer Al Jarreau. From memory I’m pretty sure Al Jarreau was touring Australia at that time and the video followed an interview he’d just done with ‘Sounds’ host Donnie Sutherland. The song ‘Mornin’ had actually been released a few years previous (1983), but had only made a minor impact on the Australian charts (#82), though it had performed considerably better in the U.K. (#28) and the U.S. (#21). All I knew was that this was a beautiful song by a guy who had an exceptional voice, and the clip brought a smile to the face every bit as much as the song itself.

The man behind the song Al Jarreau was already a veteran of the music business by the time ‘Mornin’ dawned on the charts. He’d been singing since the age of four, performing in and around his home town of Milwaukee, whilst growing up. During his college/university years (graduating with a Masters Degree in Vocational Rehabilitation), Jarreau performed with a vocal group called The Indigos on the side. A career working in rehabilitation was on the cards but increasingly Jarreau was being lured into the world of music as a fulltime professional concern. By the late 60s he was working regularly on the San Francisco jazz club circuit with jazz impresario George Duke. Soon after Jarreau had made the commitment to dedicate himself fully to his musical gift.

The next few years saw Al Jarreau hone his vocal craft working in Los Angeles and New York clubs and nightspots, and he was soon making guest appearances on national TV shows with such luminaries as Johnny Carson and David Frost. In 1975 he was signed to Warner Bros. Records and released his debut album ‘We Got By’ soon after (actually Jarreau had released an album in 1965 called ‘1965’ but it was only released on a small independent label and received limited distribution). The album was universally acclaimed by critics and fans alike, and Jarreau was the new jazz vocal sensation at the age of 35. He especially made an impact in parts of Europe, with Germany awarding him their version of the Grammy for Best New International Soloist.

Jarreau’s touring and appearances schedule was frenetic to say the least, and his efforts paid off as he quickly gained a worldwide fan base. Following on from a second studio album ‘Glow’ (1976), a live double album ‘Look To The Rainbow’ (1977) was released, with Jarreau soon after winning his first American Grammy (Best Jazz Vocal) along with a slew of other prestigious rewards. The hit jazz oriented albums continued through the late 70s but it was Jarreau’s 1981 album ‘Breakin’ Away’ that would prove the ideal vehicle for him to crossover from the jazz genre to a more mainstream R&B/pop music sound. The album yielded Jarreau’s first Billboard Hot 100 hit with ’We’re In This Love Together’ (US#15), the song also becoming his first foray into the British singles charts (UK#55). The album ’Breakin’ Away’ also broke into the U.S. pop album charts in a big way (#9) as well as being Jarreau’s first hit album in the U.K. and Australia. The album was a showcase for Jarreau’s sublime vocals and also featured the hit title track (US#43) and ‘Teach Me Tonight’ (US#70). Like jazz guitar virtuoso George Benson before him, Al Jarreau had made the leap from the jazz world into the pop mainstream, without compromising his talents as a musician.

The follow up album ‘Jarreau’ (US#13/UK#39/OZ#50) featured an even more radio friendly sound, with a potent R&B kick to it. Several more hits followed, most notably the aforementioned brilliance of ‘Mornin’, along with ‘Boogie Down’ (US#77/UK#63), and ‘Trouble In Paradise’ (US#63/UK#36). 1984’s ‘High Crime’ featured more of a dance oriented R&B edge but didn’t quite hit the mark as well as its predecessor, though it did manage to reach #12 on the U.S. R&B charts. The next year saw Jarreau provide feature vocals for the Shakatak hit ‘Day By Day’ (UK#53).

Producer extraordinaire Nile Rodgers (Chic - see earlier post) oversaw 1986’s ‘L Is For Lover’ (US#30-R&B,UK#45,OZ#65) but despite bringing a new dimension to Jarreau’s vocal dexterity, the album seemed to be largely rejected by Jarreau’s established (jazz) fan base though reaffirmed his ability to broker new ground musically. He would score his biggest mainstream pop hit with the ‘Moonlighting Theme’ which featured in the 1987 hit TV show starring Cybil Sheppard and Bruce Willis. The song reached #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 (#1 Adult Contemporary) and #8 in the U.K. (OZ#64).

Jarreau’s follow up album ‘Heart’s Horizon’ (1988) failed to capitalise on his recently ascended commercial heights, the album receiving some criticism for lacking cohesion and direction yet being nominated for a Grammy, and such was the size of Jarreau’s loyal fan base that the album still reached #10 on the R&B album chart.

The first half of the 90s saw Jarreau take his touring schedule around the world, whilst he found time to release two more albums. It seemed that the heady days of mainstream success were behind him, but Jarreau still retained a place among the elite of R&B/jazz vocalists. Stints on Broadway and collaborations with jazz, R&B and pop contemporaries continued to fuel Jarreau’s forty year love affair with music.

His latest solo album is 2008’s ‘Love Songs’, whilst he has recorded an album of material with George Benson entitled ‘Givin’ It Up’, not to mention an album of ‘Christmas’ songs planned for an October 2008 release. Add this to an almost non stop touring schedule, and it’s easy to see why Al Jarreau is regarded in such high esteem by his contemporaries and fans alike throughout the popular music world, reflected in the fact that he is the only vocalist in history to have won a Grammy Award in three separate categories; jazz, pop and R&B - not bad for someone who didn’t have their first hit album until age 35.

I’ve always thought that music should be uplifting to the soul - the following promo clip for Al Jarreau’s hit ‘Mornin’ captures the very essence of that ideal. Enjoy!

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