Ernie Andrews was not a household name although during his six decade career, he was a versatile jazz singer, known as a balladeer uniquely weaving the blues while belting out crisp baritone octaves that impressed audiences around the world. Andrews died on February 21, at Conroe Regional Medical Center, outside of Houston, Texas. He was 94.
His daughter, Stephanie Williams, said the cause was complications of a blood clot that formed after he broke his hip in a fall.
Over the years his voice developed a deeper pitch which made his delivery more emotionally defined. He left his signature on every tune he sang. “I like to sing songs that I have experienced and folks can relate to,” he told this writer during an interview in 2007. He came along when male jazz vocalists ruled and the competition was really rough; his peers included Johnny Hartman, Billy Eckstine, and Joe Williams.
Andrews gained attention at age 17 when songwriter Joe Greene took him into the studio to record “Soothe Me,” which became his first hit record in 1945. One of the best-selling records of the year according to contemporary issues of Billboard, it would go on to sell 300,000 copies.
His freefall versatility is apparent on the now rare classic album “Live Session!” that he recorded with Cannonball Adderley, produced by Adderley and David Axelrod for Capitol Records. The long-standing quintet featured cornetist Nat Adderley, pianist Joe Zawinul, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes. The group was in such a groove, one would think Andrews was a regular member. But Andrews was at home in any type of configuration. He was in his own right a legendary performer.
Lois Shelton’s 1986 documentary ”Ernie Andrews: Blues for Central Avenue,” helped re-introduce him to audiences and shed some light on his career; according to a 1987 review of the film in The New York Times. “Like many other singers [of his era, Andrews] had also signed a recording contract he came to regret. As he talks about his reversals, and as he sings the blues in recent performances, the pain in his eyes is unmistakable. But his voice still trumpets his vitality.”
Some of his best work came in his later years: “Girl Talk” (2001), “What About Me” (2005), and a collaboration with fellow veteran saxophonist Houston Person on the 2003 album “Jump for Joy,” all on HalfNote Records. He recorded over 36 albums with 19 as a leader.
During a rare appearance in New York City (2007) at Dizzy’s, he was introduced to a younger generation of fans and aspiring musicians as he performed the “Music of Duke Ellington” with the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra. Demonstrated by the audience’s standing ovations, he was more than accepted. His bluesy ballads “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” “Make Me a Present of You,” and “Soothe Me” are classics in the jazz songbook.
During the same period Andrews became a popular headliner at the Cape May Jazz Festival in Cape May, New Jersey. He garnered a host of new fans—both adults and young students—who were being introduced to his captivating storytelling for the first time. The smooth dresser, who often wore a cap to match his suit, understood musicianship and showmanship; he had jokes, smooth lines for the ladies and his personal stories that reached everyone.
Ernest Mitchell Andrews Jr. was born in Philadelphia on Christmas Day in 1927, to Ernest Andrews and Lillian Mitchell. “All my people were gospel singers,” he told Marian McPartland on the “Piano Jazz” radio show in 1998. “My father was a wonderful singer. My mother was a wonderful singer. My grandmother was a wonderful singer in church.”
At 13, Andrews moved to Jeanerette, Louisiana, to live with his maternal grandmother’s family. The band teacher at his school turned out to be the New Orleans renown trumpeter Bunk Johnson. Under his leadership, Andrews became a drummer in the school band.
When Andrews arrived in Los Angeles with his family in 1945, he was already aware of the art of live performance. “We’d go to stage shows and there I saw all the greats: Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmie Lunceford, Earl Hines,” Andrews told The Times in 1994. “I saw so many shows that I knew I wanted to be a part of all that, but didn’t know how to do it.”
He continued his music education at Jefferson High School after settling in South Los Angeles. Andrews’ classmates included Dexter Gordon, Eric Dolphy and Sonny Criss. At night, he and his friends would hit Central Avenue (street of happenings) and swing to jump-blues and bop at spots such as Downbeat and the Gayety Jungle Room. The Lincoln Theater on Central Avenue rendered more encouragement where he worked as an usher and found fans and developed his vocal skills during talent show performances which he won.
After winning a talent contest, the singer released his first solo record—a 10-inch single—on a small Los Angeles label called G&G in 1945. Its A-side song “Wrap It Up, Put It Away (Till Daddy Comes Home from the Army)” and B-side, “Soothe Me.”
In 1958 his honey baritone vocals caught the ear of the Harry James Orchestra where he remained as their singer for a period of years. “Harry stood behind me during racism,” Andrews told the Los Angeles Times in 2014. “A lot of hotels would want to put me in a different hotel, and he wouldn’t allow that.”
Jan Perry, a former L.A. City council member, said Andrews was an important figure in the annual Central Avenue Jazz Festival. The festival “enabled us to be able to celebrate not only the history of the community in Central Avenue,” she said, “but an indigenous form of American music. And Ernie was a huge part of that. So he won’t be forgotten.”
Although he never became the household name that should have been his reward, he never stopped loving his fans, enjoying meeting new people or telling some of his hellified stories.
Dolores Andrews predeceased him in 1997, after 52 years of marriage. Four of their five children survive him: in addition to Stephanie Williams, they are Dueal Ernie Andrews, Mark Anthony Andrews, and Daryl Mitchell Andrews.
(Another son, Dana Dee John, died in 2013.) Andrews is also survived by 12 grandchildren, 22 great grandchildren and seven great-great grandchildren.