Memory Motel: Jazz's Unlikeliest Hero
Joe Mooney killed them softly.
"Jazz accordionist" may not sound like much more of a resume-builder than, say, "New Orleans ski pro" or "ballet bouncer," but a blind squeezebox-pumper from Paterson, NJ by the name of Joe Mooney spent most of the mid-20th century proving that when you've got swing in your soul, it can come out no matter what axe you're wielding. The sightless, swinging singer/accordionist had the cool vocal delivery of Mose Allison and trio-era Nat "King" Cole, and a nimble way with the accordion that was not a million miles from Fats Waller's organ work. When he put them both together, he became one of the most singular stylists of pre-bop jazz (even though his career extended into the ‘60s). But whether because of his "uncool" instrument of choice (in later years, he would swap his accordion for an organ), his low-key, unassuming vibe, or simply the whims of the world, Mooney never earned much of a place in the history books.
While most of the world knows The Sunshine Boys as the battling ex-vaudevillians in the 1975 Neil Simon film of the same name, portrayed by Walter Matthau and George Burns, the original Sunshine Boys were a duo that started out in the late ‘20s, comprising Joe Mooney and his brother Dan. Together the two Mooneys would harmonize on pre-swing jazz tunes full of cheek, like "It's Unanimous Now" and "It Seems to be Spring," with a young Joe displaying his chops on piano. The pair's complete 1929-'31 recordings are documented on a single, essential CD, and the roster of accompanists speaks to the reputation Mooney already enjoyed among the cognoscenti -- Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Joe Venuti, and Eddie Lang are among the players heard behind the two brothers.
After the Sunshine Boys called it quits in 1936, Mooney found a niche as an arranger, working for an equally lofty list of names including Paul Whiteman and Les Brown, launching himself into the swing era in no uncertain terms. By the time Mooney finally started recording as the leader of his own quartet in the mid ‘40s, he had developed the laconic-but-lustrous style that would become his trademark. Imagine Jackie Paris standing behind the bass player and smoking a joint while crooning, but still retaining an ineradicable sense of swing, and you'll have an idea of the Joe Mooney vocal sound. When you hear Mooney, you're hearing a man who knows exactly what he wants to do and how he wants to do it but is in no particular hurry. Not that he's some sort of moribund moaner - his phrasing darts and jumps in just the right spots, he simply sounds like he's operating entirely on his own timetable and isn't overly concerned about impressing anybody.
Mooney logged only a meager handful of (uniformly excellent) recording dates between the mid ‘40s and mid ‘60s, backed by heavy hitters like Milt Hinton and Osie Johnson and working sporadically at best under his own name, but he was far from idle the rest of the time. In the ‘50s, Mooney sang with progressive-jazz big band The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, played organ with jazz guitar giant Bucky Pizzarelli, and worked with cool-jazz guitar man Johnny Smith, among others. Throughout his career, Mooney -- like the aforementioned Jackie Paris -- was lauded by critics and fellow musicians but couldn't quite turn the corner to find commercial success. By the time he died in 1975, he had been living in Florida for years, where he continued quietly plying his trade, world renown be damned. As he once sang on his On The Rocks album in the tune "A Man With One Million Dollars," "They all get cars they all get yachts, most of them get ulcers/When stocks go down all over town they all get Bromo Seltzers/Despite their gold, when they get old they go like Tom and Jerry/And who wants to be the richest guy in some cemetery?"
With thanks to Richard Mortifoglio
|Joe Mooney - "Have You Met Miss Jones?"|
|Joe Mooney w/The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra - "Nina Never Knew"|
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