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Ernie Andrews, suave and soulful jazz singer, dies at 94

Ernie Andrews

Ernie Andrews, whose suave, booming baritone was an irrepressible fixture in postwar jazz and rhythm and blues — and a prized feature of his adopted hometown of Los Angeles, during and well past the heyday of Central Avenue — died on Monday at Conroe Regional Medical Center, outside of Houston, Texas. He was 94.

His daughter, Stephanie Williams, said the cause was complications of a blood clot that formed after he broke his hip in a fall.

Throughout a career that began in his teens — yielding his first hit record, “Soothe Me,” in 1945 — Andrews was the epitome of unflappable poise and roguish charm. His keen instinct for blues inflection made him an ideal messenger for songs of yearning and heartache, or soothing and flirtation. Not for nothing did guitarist and NEA Jazz Master Kenny Burrell, one of his longest and closest friends in the business, call Andrews “one of the most versatile singers that I ever heard,” speaking with the Los Angeles Times.

The full measure of that flexibility and charisma is evident on Live Session! — a classic album that Andrews made with Cannonball Adderley, produced by Adderley and David Axelrod for Capitol Records. With Nat Adderley on cornet, Joe Zawinul on piano, Sam Jones on bass and Louis Hayes on drums, it’s a snapshot of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet in fighting trim, and Andrews sounds almost as if he were a regular working member of the group. Here he is convincingly belting an anthem of self-confidence.

I'm A Born World Shaker

Ernest Mitchell Andrews was born in Philadelphia on Christmas Day in 1927, to Ernest Andrews and Lillian Mitchell. “All my people were gospel singers,” he told Marian McPartland on Piano Jazz in 1998. “My father was a wonderful singer. My mother was a wonderful singer. My grandmother was a wonderful singer, in church.”

At 13, Andrews moved south to Jeanerette, Louisiana, to live with his maternal grandmother’s family. There he fell into some extraordinary good fortune: the band teacher at his school happened to be Bunk Johnson, a storied New Orleans trumpeter. Under his baton, Andrews became a drummer in the school band.

Another, more permanent move happened in 1945, when he moved with his family to Los Angeles. He had always been singing, but this was where Andrews began to see himself as a singer — during his time at Jefferson High School, where his classmates included Dexter Gordon, Eric Dolphy, Chico Hamilton and Sonny Criss. Further encouragement came at the Lincoln Theater on Central Avenue, where he worked as an usher and often turned heads in a talent contest.

At one of those contests, he was approached by a songwriter named Joe Greene, who had written catchy hits like “Across the Alley from the Alamo.” Greene was responsible for Andrews’ first recording session, which had “Soothe Me” as the B-side to a novelty song called “Wrap It Up, Put It Away (Till Daddy Comes Home From the Army).” After “Soothe Me” sold more than 300,000 copies, Andrews found himself in high demand.

Ernie Andrews

But, for whatever reason, not quite the level of popular success that many felt he deserved. Instead of becoming a household name, he found traction as a connoisseur’s choice, working with a brilliant array of jazz musicians. In 1958 he joined the Harry James Orchestra as a band singer, a position he held for more than a decade. It offered high visibility and steady employment, the latter of which appealed to Andrews, especially as a family man.

Dolores Andrews predeceased him in 1997, after 52 years of marriage. Four of their five children survive him: in addition to Stephanie Williams, they are Dueal Ernie Andrews, Mark Anthony Andrews, and Daryl Mitchell Andrews. (Another son, Dana Dee John, died in 2013.) Andrews is also survived by 12 grandchildren, 22 great grandchildren and seven great-great grandchildren.

The jazz scene in Los Angeles slowed down considerably in the late 1960s and through the ‘70s, and the same was true of Andrews’ career. But he kept working, cultivating relationships with bands like the Frank Capp-Nat Pierce Orchestra and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. In the mid-‘80s he was the subject of an hourlong Lois Shelton documentary, Ernie Andrews: Blues for Central Avenue, which aired on television and screened in some theaters.

“Mr. Andrews, and others who were there, reminisce about big bands, after-hours clubs, gambling, bathtub gin and the segregation that was a fact of life,” observed Jon Pareles in his review for The New York Times. “There’s plenty of nostalgia, but there’s also the kind of gritty detail that’s left out of too many jazz memoirs.”

As he settled into life as a jazz elder, Andrews never flagged in his onstage enthusiasm, or lost his ability to locate the emotional center of a song. Some of his best work came in collaboration with fellow veterans like saxophonist Houston Person, as on the 2003 album Jump For Joy; on a song like “If You Never Fall In Love with Me,” there’s a world-weariness that Andrews carries lightly, like a pitcher who has lost some speed on his fastball but none of his accuracy or instinct.

“I’m not the guy I was before,” he sings in the second verse. But part of the charm in Andrews’ enduring career is that he never stopped being the guy he’d always been.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.