By Richie Unterberger
As the title of The Death-Defying Judy Henske indicates, the album's eclecticism is, as the singer herself acknowledges, "daring." And, dare we say, completely uncategorizable, mixing as it does covers of barrelhouse blues, R&B, traditional folk, soundtrack music, early folk-rock, and even soul. All that in only eight songs, often linked together by extended spoken comic introductions, recorded in front of a live-in-the-studio audience.
Of course, such wide-ranging repertoire was nothing new to Henske, who'd broached all of the above genres and more over the course of her prior three albums (the first two of which, Judy Henske and High Flying Bird, have also been reissued by Collectors' Choice Music). A new ingredient this time around, however, was Jack Nitzsche, credited with arranging and conducting the LP (and, oddly, on the inner label, given the "arranged and produced" credit). Henske's manager at the time, Herb Cohen, is credited as producer on the back sleeve, though in Judy's estimation the credits would more appropriately read "musical production, Jack Nitzsche; crowd production, Herb Cohen."
Nitzsche, observes Henske, "had done this work with Phil Spector where Jack said he invented the Wall of Sound. That it was his arrangements that were the Wall of Sound. And indeed, he could make these wonderful arrangements that were like a big lumbering predatory animal of some kind. It's kind of hair-raising if you get this thing happening with the orchestra, and he could do that.
"He was completely courageous, willing to try anything, and willing to try to get the money anywhere, to do whatever his idea was. And he had a real vision of what he wanted to do; he was a brilliantly intelligent, and had a completely original take on the music. The thing I'm thinking of is 'Bye Bye Blackbird.' I mean, that production must have cost about $50,000; it was just one record. He had about 500 voices on it, and then this immense orchestra. He was willing to really stick his neck out, and he really believed in what he did.
"And if you were working with him, he really believed in what you did, too. He made you feel wonderful. He was very talented, and his greatest quality was his enthusiasm. I was one of his favorite singers, and so he was going to make me -- you know, they were all going to make me a star. I'm like the Tuesday Weld of girl singers," she laughs.
Released in March 1966, the LP did not include the aforementioned "Bye Bye Blackbird," which would come out on a non-LP 45 around the same time. But it was indeed recorded with an orchestra, albeit in a live-in-a-studio situation. Henske remembers it being cut at RCA Studios in Hollywood, which would make sense since the engineer was Dave Hassinger, who also engineered sessions at RCA in the mid-1960s for acts such as the Rolling Stones and Jefferson Airplane.
The resulting album actually sounded more like a live club recording than a studio date, courtesy of an actual live audience in the studio. The stage ambience was further heightened by Henske's extended intros to several of the songs. "That was all written the night before in a state of...well, not grace," notes Henske with characteristic frankness. "This is when I was getting my M.D. degree, the only degree I ever got: Metaxa and Desbutol. Metaxa is a Greek brandy that's very sweet, kind of like cough syrup, except really, really strong. Desbutol was in the olden days, when you could get these wonderful highs -- it's before they found out that everything was dangerous, or they found out that you shouldn't have a good time. My doctor used to give me these gigantic bottles of it. I just want to get this out now, in case I run for governor."
The backup band/orchestra definitely included guitarist John Forsha (who had previously recorded with Henske on her first two albums) and well-traveled session guitarist Tommy Tedesco, both of whom are namechecked in Nitzsche's liner notes. Henske also says jazz trumpeter Jack Sheldon was part of the band, as was percussionist Julius Wechter of the Baja Marimba Band. She also thinks Earl Palmer is likely to have been the drummer, as Nitzsche used him a lot; it wouldn't have been the first time Palmer recorded with Judy, as he'd handled drums on the High Flying Bird album.
Henske's favorite songs on the album were those she selected herself, including "Betty and Dupree" ("'cause it's so out of control"), the traditional warhorse "Danny Boy," "Ace in the Hole," and "Sing a Rainbow." Indeed, she still performs all of those tunes, except for "Sing a Rainbow." That number was learned from Peggy Lee's 1955 LP Songs from Pete Kelly's Blues (also the source of "Bye Bye Blackbird"), which Judy hails as "my favorite record ever."
Of the other tracks, the Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller classic "Saved" had been a 1961 hit for LaVern Baker, and "I've Been Loving You Too Long" a 1965 hit for Otis Redding. The remaining two songs were the closest to the then-emergent folk-rock sound, with "Nobody Knows" written by Henske's friends the Dillards, who recorded it on an obscure mid-'60s Capitol single (and re-recorded it on their classic 1968 album Wheatstraw Suite). "Hey Babe" came from the pen of the young Eric Andersen (his last name misspelled as "Anderson" on the LP's songwriting credits), who first recorded it (as "Hey Babe, Have You Been Cheatin'") with an acoustic solo folk arrangement on his second album, 1966's 'Bout Changes & Things.
Henske would also
recording in the folk-rock vein with Nitzsche on the 1966 single
in the Sea," actually a cover of the Fred Neil classic "The Dolphins."
This, and a similarly impressive cover of Gerry Goffin and Carole
"Road to Nowhere" that ended up another single, were recorded after The
Death-Defying Judy Henske. The album and her three non-LP singles,
however, would be her only releases on Reprise. Next up was her and
Jerry Yester's late-'60s cult psychedelic classic Farewell Aldebaran,
but she would return to Reprise in the early 1970s as part of Rosebud,
whose self-titled album has also been reissued by Collectors' Choice
-- Richie Unterberger
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