Piano-vocal duos were popular in local markets in the late 1950s. The club trend began with the success of singer Jackie Cain and pianist-singer Roy Krall in the late 1940s. Jackie and Roy, as they were known by the early 1950s, mixed jazz vocalese, playful banter and hip harmony, not to mention great songs. A chunk of their book was written by Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf (Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, Ballad of the Sad Young Men, Night People and others), with Roy doing the clever arrangements.
Other well-known pairings of a male and female singers on songs that were conversational in tone were King Pleasure and Blossom Dearie on Moody’s Mood for Love (1952), King Pleasure and Betty Carter on Red Top (1952), Matt Dennis and Virginia Maxey on We Belong Together (1954), Julie London and Bobby Troup at clubs in 1956 among others.
Add to the list Dick and Kiz Harp, a married couple in the late 1950s and 1960 who ran a Dallas club called the 90th Floor. Despite its lofty name, the club was in a former warehouse. The name came from a Cole Porter song (Down in the Depths of the 90th Floor), which they sang routinely for audiences. Their magic rested on Dick’s tasteful, syncopated piano accompaniment and Kiz’s fizzy treatment of standards and original material. They hoped to gain national recognition by emulating Jackie and Roy’s ease, grace and musicianship. Touring musicians and singers such as Marlene Dietrich and Tony Bennett were supportive fans and had spread the word. [Photo above of Dick and Kiz Harp with Buzzy Mills on trumpet and Kiz playing brushes]
Dick and Kiz came close in 1960 before tragedy struck. With an album out and talk of a tour, Kiz died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 29 in December 1960. The news shocked celebrities as well as locals, including Bruce Collier, who had been recording them live and fully expected them to catch on. After Kiz passed away, their club went under and Bruce’s 90th Floor Records was shuttered. At 23, he had been drafted.
Dick powered on alone. He performed locally as a club singer and pianist and recorded just once more, in 1978, on an album called The 90th Floor Remembered, backed by Allan Rogers (b) and Banks Dimon (d).
Based on the 1958-59 material released by Bruce, Dick and Kiz Harp were playful and hip, but they needed a bit of work. They were engaging and skilled, but they seemed more rooted in cabaret than jazz. In short, they lacked Jackie and Roy’s jazz cunning and sexiness. Their material was almost there but not quite the big time. All of that said, we’re darn lucky Bruce recorded and released two albums of their performances. Without his devotion, we’d have no record of their performances and chemistry just as they were poised for a shot.
JazzWax tracks: The two albums released by Bruce on 90th Floor records are At the 90th Floor (1958-59) and Again ! At the 90th Floor (1958-59), with the latter being the better effort. You’ll find both albums here.
JazzWax clips: Here’s a medieval medley of George Terry’s impossibly hip Dearest, Darest I and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s Thou Swell…
And here’s Kiz Harp singing Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, accompanied by her husband Dick…