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Singer Beverly Kenney remains one of jazz's great tragedies — an exquisitely nuanced stylist whose sophisticated phrasing perfectly complemented the cool jazz sensibilities of the late '50s, she committed suicide at the peak of her career and awaits rediscovery by the vast majority of the listening public.
Born in Harrison, NJ, on January 29, 1932, Kenney began her career singing birthday greetings via telephone for Western Union. Ultimately she relocated to New York City, and in 1954 cut her first demo session with pianist Tony Tamburello (finally issued in 2006 under the title Snuggled on Your Shoulder). By year's end Kenney relocated to Miami, soon securing an agent and appearing at the Black Magic Room. There she was discovered by the Dorsey Brothers, spending several months on tour with their orchestra before creative differences prompted her exit. From there Kenney returned to New York, working clubs in the company of George Shearing, Don Elliott, and Kai Winding in addition to briefly touring the Midwest with the Larry Sonn Band before signing to the Roost label, which in early 1956 issued her debut LP, Beverly Kenny Sings for Johnny Smith. Come Swing with Me, a pairing with arranger Ralph Burns, followed later that same year, and in the spring of 1957 she teamed with Jimmy Jones & the Basie-Ites for her final effort for the label.
Kenney resurfaced on Decca in 1958 with Sings for Playboys — her masterpiece, Born to Be Blue, soon followed, and a year later she issued her swan song, Like Yesterday. Critics and fellow artists were virtually unanimous in their praise of Kenney's artistry, but the emergence of rock & roll virtually guaranteed she would remain anonymous to the public at large. Tellingly, during a May 18, 1958, appearance on NBC's The Steve Allen Show, she performed an original composition titled "I Hate Rock and Roll." Friends and colleagues generally cite Kenney as a melancholy, distant figure in the final months of her life, but her suicide at age 28 on April 13, 1960, still raises myriad questions: by most accounts, she spent her last hours writing each of her parents long, heartbreaking letters at the desk in her Greenwich Village flat before consuming a lethal overdose of alcohol and Seconal, but her motivations are unknown. A 1992 GQ magazine profile by Jonathan Schwartz suggests Kenney was despondent over the dissolution of her romance with Beat Generation guru Milton Klonsky, but a subsequent investigation by fan and journalist Bill Reed casts serious doubt on this theory. While a virtual footnote in her native U.S., Kenney boasts an ever-growing cult following in Japan, where all six of her LPs have remained in print.