“What Becomes a Legend Most?”

When I was a child, Blackglama® Mink used to run ads on TV and in all the fashion magazines featuring movie stars, models, and famous men and women from all walks of life all bedecked in luxurious mink coats, paired with the simple caption: “What Becomes a Legend Most? … Blackglama® Mink.” The ads were direct and photographed in black and white. Whatever you may think about wearing fur, the campaign was brilliant. 

Last night, as I was watching the documentary film
‘Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris

these ads from my youth randomly popped into my head. I could see Jackie Paris wrapped in a Blackglama® Mink coat with that famous caption above his head—but, of course, that ad never happened.

The film made me think on many levels. I couldn’t help but think how operatic Jackie Paris’ story was; Jackie Paris: The Opera was the second thing that popped into my head. Of course, it would have to be a jazz opera. But the broken family with a history of drug addiction, the wives and womanizing, the refusal to cooperate with the mob, performing with the greatest jazz legends … and, of course, the last hook: wife no. 1 running off with the child he denied fathering (but had.) What a story. That’s the stuff of opera.

So, why did Jackie Paris fall into obscurity while so many other singers of the era sauntered about in Blackglama® Mink ads? (Peggy Lee and Lena Horne did, and while there were very few men who made it, Ray Charles did). The film posits several plausible theories, including his arrogance, temper, timing … and even the fact that he wouldn’t cooperate with the mob. I now have a few theories of my own.

Being a “musician’s musician” or a “singer’s singer” isn’t always the kiss of death, but it can push you to the background–just look at the career of Marni Nixon, the singing voice of so many great movie musicals, like My Fair Lady. The truth is that Paris’ singing had a certain level of sophistication and polish, which sometimes took his performances out of the realm of merely popular, and some of material he recorded didn’t scream “HIT.” Jackie Paris straddled the worlds of serious black jazz artists (with whom he performed and hung out) and the more “Hollywood” performers like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee (who got him an audition at Capital Records), and, of course Nat King Cole. But he was never able to translate that sophistication into the movie stardom those artists achieved. Paris was in an odd position: how do you bridge the gap between Charles Mingus and Charlie Parker and Frank Sinatra or Peggy Lee? At that point in history, it probably wasn’t possible to do it successfully. And I’m not convinced after seeing the film that he exactly knew what he wanted either, which may explain why his career faltered by the mid-1970s.  

In a way, this extraordinary artist suffered a similar fate to many composers, who–though beloved by their colleagues–didn’t become legends until after their deaths. Of course, the problem for a singer is, unless there are a lot of recordings and film footage left behind, it can be pretty hard to become a legend posthumously. 

Now I can’t really talk about jazz music, as it is not my area of expertise. But I do know great singers. Jackie Paris hung with the best, sang with the best, and was able to “inhabit a song,” as I’ve come to refer to it. (When you hear it, you just know it.) And even in his seventies, when he made a comeback just before his death, he sang the song Tis Autumn like he was at the beginning of a promising career, rather than doomed to posthumous recognition. A man with a tremendous ego, he must have loved having a film made about him. And, in the end, who knows? He still may achieve the “legend” status that so eluded him during his life.