New Look at the Old Days

Interview: Mary Vonnie

Mary Vonnie

July 18, 2011
by Marc Myers

Back in May, I posted about a 15-minute documentary made by filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker in 1964 called Audition at RCA. It features producer George Avakian accompanying Dave Lambert and his new group of vocalese singers while they auditioned new material for RCA that Lambert had written and hoped to record. For whatever reason, RCA suits passed. Then they wiped the tapes, meaning all that remains exists on Pennebaker’s film. Sadly, Lambert would be killed on a Connecticut highway two years later in 1966.

Here’s the film, from beginning to closing credits:

Dave Lambert

The singers were Dave Lambert, Sarah Boatner, David Lucas, and Leslie Dorsey. But the vocalist the camera seemed to have the biggest crush on was Mary Vonnie, a sultry, hep singer with the high parts. Intrigued, I started to do a little research and found someone who looked like Mary but with a different last name. So I sent an email and crossed my fingers.
Like all good JazzWax stories, this one ends with Mary responding. Here’s Mary’s email from last week:

“Back in 1964, I had just graduated from high school in New York when a friend who knew Dave told me he was looking for singers to start a vocalese quintet. My friend recommended me because he had heard me fooling around singing Annie Ross’ solos in school. I was very familiar with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. I said I’d love to do it, so my friend arranged a meeting. I auditioned at Dave’s apartment, where I was hired and met the other singers.

“Dave didn’t say much while we rehearsed. He taught us to sing like an instrument. I was a trumpet. He was a sax. He taught us syncopation and how to sing just before or just after the beat.

“We did some gigs in and out of town to get started. Some of them were at clubs in upstate New York, near Niagara Falls. I remember we went out in a boat to see the falls.

“Then came the audition at RCA. As we all drove over that day, Dave was cheerful as usual and not noticeably anxious. We recorded four songs—Blow the Man Down, Leaving Me, Think of Me and Comfy Cozy. All were written by Dave.

“Standing around the mike, each of us sang our parts and kept it tight with the other singers. It’s kind of an inside-outside focus of attention. Very intent on precision but at the same time blending with the others while riding the music.

“I don’t know what happened with the audition and why it didn’t work out. Dave never explained. I guess I assumed we’d just do another one, but we never did. I do know that the group didn’t have any official breakup. I think we were on hold for a while, but it doesn’t seem as long as two years. I’m sure Dave would have followed up with other record companies if he could, but he might have been sick or out of commission at some point. I know he really wanted to do an album featuring his own compositions.

“In the years that followed, I was in a theatre company in Los Angeles called ‘The Colony,’ which appeared at the Studio Theatre Playhouse. Then I was in a completely different field, working with people to enhance their lives. Today, when I listen to music, I like the Klazz Brothers, and I love Latin and salsa, which I learned to dance to at the Palladium in New York.

“Dave was such a pleasure to work with, always funny and laid back and amazingly gifted. He was an inspiration to all of us, not only for his outstanding musicianship but the way he was able to make magic happen while teaching us all his songs. It seemed like the sound he wanted was effortlessly transmitted directly from his head into our voices. To this day I remember the songs and I sing them or parts of them from time to time.

“The last time I saw Audition at RCA was at a memorial for Dave in 1966 at the Village Gate. I will never forget the great time we had together.”

Posted by Marc Myers

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