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Spotlight: Gordon Jenkins, native of Webster Groves, is unsung giant of modern song

May 13,2017 20:13

The bittersweet tune by Frank Sinatra became an American standard after it was released in 1966, when it became a No. 1 hit and earned Sinatra a Grammy Award. And for that, we can thank Gordon Jenkins. A Webster Groves kid, Jenkins dropped out of ...

No matter what genre you prefer, few music lovers are unaware of the song “It Was a Very Good Year.”
The bittersweet tune by Frank Sinatra became an American standard after it was released in 1966, when it became a No. 1 hit and earned Sinatra a Grammy Award.
And for that, we can thank Gordon Jenkins.
A Webster Groves kid, Jenkins dropped out of high school at 17, left town two years later and eventually became a major player in the West Coast music industry — composing and arranging works for not only Sinatra, but also other modern-music giants like Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.
“My dad was quiet, not boastful at all. But he was extremely confident and just knew he wanted to go to the big city and make it,” said his son, Bruce Jenkins.
Make it he did, Bruce Jenkins said, noting that his father also won a Grammy for orchestrating “It Was a Very Good Year.”
The song was about six years old when Sinatra and Jenkins recorded it. But it had been written as an up-tempo swing song until his father slowed it down and turned it into a classic ballad, Bruce Jenkins said.
Bruce Jenkins, a longtime sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote a biography of his father in 2005: “Goodbye: In Search of Gordon Jenkins.” (Gordon Jenkins died in 1984 from Lou Gehrig’s disease.)
The New York Daily News review on the book’s release in 2005 said, “It’s about a son’s relentless and tireless effort to find out who his famous father really was.”
The “relentless and tireless effort” was something that Jenkins, always the journalist, said he knew he was obliged to provide.
“I spent 17 years researching the book; I wanted it to be thorough,” Bruce Jenkins said.
By thorough, he means interviewing a New York music critic who loathed the lush, string-driven arrangements Gordon Jenkins pioneered.
And he means talking with his father’s first wife, the mother of his oldest three children, who “never got over it, remained very bitter years later about the break-up.”
“I didn’t want to write some schmaltzy piece,” Bruce Jenkins said.
The story begins May 12, 1910, when Gordon Jenkins was born to parents who lived on a house on Plant Avenue. Gordon Jenkins’ father was a “straight-laced guy” and played the organ at church, Bruce Jenkins said.
Gordon Jenkins, however, chose the piano as his instrument and jazz as his genre. “He was 17, 18, and had his own combo that played clubs in St. Louis,” Bruce Jenkins said.
When he turned 19, the ambitious jazzman headed off to New York and spent most of the 1930s playing at various cabarets.
In the late 1930s, he decided better money was waiting in the movie industry, so he headed for Hollywood and scored movie soundtracks and wrote songs. One of his tunes, “Homesick, That’s All,” mentions the annual Webster-Kirkwood “Turkey Day” football game.

“He ended up moving up to Malibu in 1945, which was north of L.A. and pretty rural. But then in the ’50s, people started moving there,” Bruce Jenkins said.
That’s how the Jenkins family ended up being neighbors with the likes of Ronald Reagan, Jack Lemmon, director Billy Wilder and fellow ex-St. Louisan Vincent Price.
“But my dad was not a ‘Hollywood’ guy really. He was turned off by all the posers,” Bruce Jenkins said.
During the 1950s, Jenkins moved into musical arrangements for singers, which is how he developed a close working relationship with Sinatra. They made eight albums together between 1957 and 1981, including two that are considered classics: “September of My Years” in 1965 and “Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back” in 1973.
“When Gordon Jenkins walked into a recording session, everything stopped. I never saw it with anybody else. He was the best-equipped musician, orchestrator and conductor that I ever worked with,” Sinatra said in his 1990 interview with Bruce Jenkins, one of the last Sinatra did before he died in 1998.
“I’d been trying for several years to get an interview with him and I’d gotten as far as reaching (Sinatra’s personal assistant) Dorothy. If you were going to talk to Frank, you were going to talk to Dorothy first,” Bruce Jenkins said.
Finally, after about four years, Bruce Jenkins said Dorothy called him one morning to see is he could meet with Sinatra — that afternoon.
“Of course, I said ‘yes.’ I would’ve said that wherever in the world I was,” Bruce Jenkins said.
Once escorted into the foyer of Sinatra’s Beverly Hills home, Jenkins was met by a coterie of older, tough-looking men in sharp suits.
“And I’m thinking, who are these guys? And are they even going to let me see Sinatra?” he said.
After a solid wait, Sinatra finally appeared and hollered out for Jenkins to follow him into a study. “And it’s like he waved his hand or snapped his fingers or something, but all these guys just vanished.”
And for the next few hours, Bruce Jenkins interviewed Sinatra about Gordon Jenkins and swapped stories.
“We had a cocktail or two,” Bruce Jenkins said. “I had screwdrivers, which is what Father drank.”
“Frank had bourbon.”

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