Remembering Amanda Ambrose

BECAUSE I’D BEEN an Amanda Ambrose fan since the ’60s, during 2007 I nudged Poker Records into releasing an Ambrose album.

Label manager Dave Timperley was enthusiastic and Amanda’s daughter Stephanie welcomed the idea. The proposed release became a memorial album when Amanda died in October that year. Then problems occurred regarding the licensing of various tracks and the whole project eventually was shelved. In the interim, I had fashioned a sleevenote which was left gathering dust. It’s resurrected here as a eulogy to a singer who possessed a very individual talent.

Harry Belafonte raved about Amanda. Introducing one of her performances in 1968, he enthused: “Love is that singular magical experience whereby all becomes one. You are about to be touched by the essence of love. A funky piano that started out as classical and just got carried away. A voice that has brought people to their feet. A singer that singers love: a musician that musicians approve of. But most of all, a great soul who refuses to let people become too serious about themselves. A great lady with a rare talent and earthy humour.”

Her story began in St Louis, Missouri, 1925, where Amanda’s parents ran a cosmetology school. Nearby was an African-American theatre, where, as a child, she saw some of the world’s greatest entertainers. At an early age, St Louis-born Josephine Baker, became her inspiration and Amanda visualised herself onstage, emulating the exotic entertainer who had become the rage of Europe. She took dance and piano lessons and sang in the local church. “My parents were both musically gifted as well as deeply religious”, Amanda recalled. “My work in the church made me aware of the importance of service, of helping, of uplifting people. I observed that my singing and performing made people happier than anything else I did. That’s why I chose to do it. It earned me the right to be here.”

At 18 Ms Ambrose could be found singing jazz at clubs in the St Louis area. But it would be some considerable while before making her mark in the world of recording.

“I was raising five children and I was very concerned about drug pushers in the schools. One day while patrolling the halls, I heard a strange noise in one of the boys’ latrines. I pushed the door open and there was an 11-year-old boy writhing on the floor with a needle in his arm. He looked at me and said “Please help me” and died in my arms.”

The incident changed her life. While music would always remain important to her, she would equally become dedicated to changing the face of education and involved of the cause of social betterment.

Her first album arrived in 1959 on Stephany, an Evanston, Illinois, label. Titled Amanda Ambrose Swings At The Black Orchid, it presented an already massively accomplished jazz diva performing an array of well-known standards as ‘Honeysuckle Rose’, ‘Taking A Chance On Love’, ‘This Can’t Be Love’ and ‘A Good Man Is Hard To Find’.

Lois Weisberg, who worked for Mayor’s Special Events office in Chicago recalled meeting Amanda during the ’50s. “She was wonderful. Always a first-rate, sought-after performer with a tremendous following of people who would go anywhere to hear her.”

It was during this period, playing the Chicago club scene, that she was heard by Miriam Makeba, who became an immediate fan and conveyed her delight to Harry Belafonte, who was equally impressed and signed her to appear with him in series of coast-to-coast concerts. It was during 1963 that RCA perceiving a rising star of international stature, released Amanda Ambrose Recorded Live! an album cut at the Village Gate, in Greenwich Village, New York. The record, made with a line-up that included Sam Brown (guitar), Bill Salter (bass), Auchee Lee (percussion) and Osie Johnson (drums) was, and still remains, an experience of “I can’t quite believe it” quality.

“She just explodes! She’s hip, she’s tongue in cheek, she’s unforgettable” ran the back of album blurb. For once, it wasn’t just record company hyperbole. The smash and grab opening that was Amanda’s take on Rodgers and Hart’s ‘This Can’t Be Love’ still stuns, while those gospel swamped, tongue in cheek workouts on such Irish cornball as ‘Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral’ and ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’, plus the churchy dilly-dilly of ‘Lavender Blue’, remain collector’s items, prime example of combined humour and superb musicianship.

You want straight, from the heart, blues and balladry? Well, that’s there too, proof being offered by way of Percy Mayfield’s ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love’ and Mercer-Arlen’s ‘Come Rain Or Come Shine’, fine material delivered in supreme manner. Little wonder that the Village Gate audience was completely enraptured within moments of Amanda appearing onstage and stayed that way right to the show’s conclusion, a right-on, congregational workout on ‘This Little Light Of Mine’ that owed not a little to enthusiastic audience participation, with an out-front soprano joining in. A superb debut album, Recorded Live! numbers among the most enthralling live performances ever documented on disc.

It was Belafonte who dubbed her “the amazing Amanda Ambrose” a description that provided Amanda’s second RCA album with its title.

Another 1963 release, it featured the singer in a big-band setting, cutting back on much of the participatory humour of its predecessor and, for the most part, concentrating on exacting
the maximum amount of emotion from Broadway ballads, though the inclusion of Hoagy Carmichael’s quirky ‘Hong Kong Blues’ and the typical Ambrosian full-frontal attack on Rudolf Friml’s ‘Indian Love Call’ were included to ensure that smiling never was never out of style at Amanda’s recording dates. The arranger and bandleader for the project was the prodigiously talented Bobby Scott, perhaps best known today as the composer of ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’. A multi-instrumentalist and singer, Scott worked with bands let by Louis Prima and Gene Krupa while still a teenager and, in 1956, at the age of 19, notched a US Top 20 solo hit with ‘Chain Gang’. Further kudos came his way in 1960 after he composed ‘A Taste Of Honey’ for the play of that name by Shelagh Delaney. Just prior to the sessions with Amanda, he’d completed work on a Bobby Darin album and would in his sadly abbreviated life go on to produce records with such as Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Quincy Jones. For the Amazing Amanda Ambrose album he assembled an outstanding line-up of jazz musicians that included trumpeters Nick Travis and Joe Wilder, saxman Phil Bodner, bassist George Duvivier and drummer Osie Johnson, while consultation between Scott and Ambrose ensured that the song menu was one of intriguing quality. Bob Bollard’s liner notes commented: “The standards are as unstandard as they can get. Starting with melodies luscious enough to melt in her mouth, Amanda makes them uniquely hers: ‘More Than You Know’, ‘Just In Time’. Here is one singer, one can truthfully say, that sings them in a way they’ve never been heard before.” John Wilson, in the New York Times, agreed, commenting: “She can project a straightforward ballad with poignant power…going a little deeper emotionally than pop singers usually care to delve.”

That Amanda would include a version of Billie Holiday’s ‘God Bless The Child’ came as no surprise, while ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, like ‘CC Rider’, one of Amanda’s own arrangements, was another song close to her heart. More surprising was the inclusion of the exacting ‘Goose Never Be A Peacock’, which stemmed from Harold Arlen’s short-lived show Saratoga, while ‘While I Am Still Young’ had never before appeared on record. Reportedly its composer, Oscar Brown Jr, wrote it for his show Kicks & Co. and then saved it for Amanda to tape. ‘What Are The Parts Of A Flower?’, penned by Hy Zaret (of ‘Unchained’ fame) and Lou Singer, related to Amanda’s belief in advancing children’s education in that it was really just one of a series of songs written for a nature series explaining such subjects as ‘Why Does A Frog Become A Frog?’ and ‘How Does A Cow Make Milk?’ “There aren’t many artists or albums today which drive through blues, satire, standards, kiddies’ science song and folk,” the original liner notes concluded, “And there isn’t anybody who can sing them like Amanda – or play gospel piano on them like she does.”

Amanda stayed amazing. She was signed for specials on NBC, ABC and CBS and appeared on many major TV shows. But her RCA releases sold poorly and by 1966 she’d signed for Dunwich, releasing Amanda, an album which spawned a single ‘Why Did I Choose You?’ /’This Door Swings Both Ways’, which didn’t do much for Amanda, though a version of the B-side would provide Herman’s Hermits with a substantial US hit. Dunwich never really meant much as a record company – the Shadows Of Knight proved to be the only other act to have albums released on the label – and it graduated into being a production company, leaving Amanda without a label once more.

But, claims Stephanie Hamilton, Amanda’s daughter”: “My mother’s proudest moment was her Carnegie Hall concert in 1968. It was the culmination of her career up to that point and the beginning of a new aspect of her career because, following on from there she signed a contract with Columbia Artists Management and began to tour extensively, especially American colleges plus Europe and elsewhere. She felt then that she’d achieved something she’d worked for most of her life, she sounded the way she wanted to sound, she had the energy. The concert was so important, it was Amanda state of the art. “

Still the TV shows beckoned, array of dates and even roles in shows, enabling her demonstrate acting skills learnt at the Lee Strasberg Studio. Adds Hamilton: “She was a very good actress – she was in the film Finian’s Rainbow. She loved the stage and did a couple of things with Joe Papp including a New York Shakespeare Festival, she did Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope in Los Angeles.”

Additionally there were the social events, her continuing attempts to bring peace to communities that suffered from youth violence.. During the early ’70s, she brought together two warring gangs from South Central LA, the Bloods and the Crips. “They had to leave their weapons at the door”,

Amanda recalled: “It was boxes of stuff!”

By 1973, another album had been readied. Titled Laughing, it arrived via Bee Gee Records. But it was hardly out when Amanda found herself facing a problem that was to change her life.

“In 1974, I started to lose the top of my voice. I tried to find some concise technology that would help but all I found were bits and pieces. So I combined what I knew with Walter Schumacher’s techniques for speech therapy and L.Ron Hubbard’s communication technology and developed Voicercises, which I’ve taught all over the world. I found it not enough just to be able to perform but to help others perform.”

Though Amanda never ceased performing, more time was increasing lent to publicising her Voicercising techniques and community work, the latter including the founding of Ebony Awakening during the 1980s, an organisation dedicated towards social betterment for Afro-Americans and to “Get people to start looking at the reality of black people.”

Linked to Scientology, during 1986 Amanda was one of the luminaries who appeared on L. Ron Hubbard’s final album, a musical statement named The Road To Freedom. A stellar affair, that also featured contributions from Chick Corea, John Travolta, Nicky Hopkins and others, the record, released in five languages, went gold.

It was to be Amanda’s final fling on record. However, claims Stephanie Hamilton “She never slowed down. Never”

She and Hamilton lived together in Clearwater, Florida, where they’d see theatre, listen to music and continue their work on behalf of Ebony Awakening.

But life had taken its toll. Suffering from colon cancer, Amanda Ambrose died on October 26, 2007, at the age of 82. She had dearly wanted to see her 18-year-old grandson’s rock band perform live and the night before she died, the band dropped by to perform an acoustic set.

“She died the way she lived, with grace and dignity,” reported her daughter. Equally, her life ended the way it began – steeped in music.

© Fred Dellar, 23 March 2009

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