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Toni Harper: All ABout Toni

The history of popular music embraces many talented individuals who never really got the recognition they deserved. Peter Wagenaar writes this valentine to one of his favorite 'lost' singers, Toni Harper.

Toni Harper

When rock and roll began to change the face of popular music in the 1950s, only the strongest survived. The likes of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Tony Bennett were sufficiently well-established names to weather the turbulent 1960s and 70s, although Very Young Tonithey sometimes had to record material that was unworthy of them or uncongenial to their talents. Less fortunate was the upcoming generation of jazz and popular singers who suddenly found that the rules of the game had changed forever and with astonishing suddenness. As a result, many talented individuals in the late 1950s and early 1960s, often with a handful of recordings to their credit, found themselves out in the cold. Although rock's hold on the charts would prove to be a permanent thing, jazz and quality popular music have made a comeback of sorts in more recent times, opening the door to another generation of singers, like Diana Krall and Jane Monheit, as well as allowing the likes of Shirley Horn to embark in middle age on newly resurgent careers that are well deserved.

LP: ToniBut I still mourn the many 'lost' singers, who through no fault of their own, were sidelined by a sea change no-one could have foreseen, and whose recorded legacy is slim. Toni Harper, along with Lurlean Hunter, is right at the top of my list. A child star, who had a hit record and a Carnegie Hall appearance under her belt by the age of 12, she grew up with remarkable grace; her discography as an adult may be small, but it's choice - three albums plus a guest appearance on a Verve "various artists" disc. There's a satisfying symmetry about those three albums. Her eponymous Verve debut found her in a small group setting (featuring Oscar Petersen, no less) singing standards that were practically de rigueur for anyone recording at the time, among them You Don't Know What Love Is, Bewitched and Love for Sale. In complete contrast, Lady Lonely features a program of all-new songs, chosen from the output of a university song-writing class. Her final album Night Mood, which is Harper's own personal favorite, synthesizes the first two albums by offering a program that includes both well-known standards and previously unrecorded songs.

LP: Lonley LadyToni Harper is everything a singer should be. She has a beautiful voice - occasionally reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald's, but 'darker' in tone - and she uses it brilliantly. She sings with a jazz sensibility, but doesn't render tunes unrecognizable and always pays close attention to the lyrics and their meaning. Hers is a sound that is timeless, and on Lady Lonely she is complemented beautifully by Marty Paich's arrangements, with their rich strings. For me, one of the measures of a great singer is whether they can transcend their material. And while many of the songs by the novice songwriters on this album are remarkably good (In the Dark of the Night and Nobody Home But the Blues are particular stand-outs), there are also a couple which perhaps did not really merit the luxurious treatment they receive here. It's a tribute to both Paich and Harper that they manage with no noticeable effort to transcend the material's limitations, making the songs sound as good as they do.

Night MoodNight Mood's overall feel is similar to that of Lady Lonely. (On these two albums, Harper's voice, complemented by the large orchestra, sounds fuller than it does on the Verve album where it has an airy, lighter quality in keeping with the more spare accompaniment.) She turns in especially fine renditions of such standards as Round Midnight and My Ship, and her swinging Saturday Night is the Loneliest Night of the Week is my favorite recording ever of this oft-performed number. The original songs blend in well with the overall feel of the album. In fact, when one takes into account Lady Lonely, the four songs on Night Mood and the fact that her three numbers on the Verve multi-artist collection, Here Comes the Girls, were all originals never recorded before, Harper must hold some kind of record for introducing so many new songs in the context of such a brief career.

Toni Harper retired from singing in the mid-1960s. If you visit her website , you'll find that she has developed many other interests and that her music is now only a small part of a full and happy life. But this fan will always be sorry that there isn't more of it. Fortunately, all three albums are now available on CD, two from Japan and one from Spain. If you're someone who appreciates good singing, you owe it to yourself to listen to Toni Harper.


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