It is not uncommon for instrumentalists to weather a multi-decade career sounding fairly similar to the young musicians they started out as but it is a rare event when a vocalist pulls off the same age-defying trick. Jazz singer Ernie Andrews is one of those exceptions. The secret to the 86-year-old's golden pipes may lie in the fact that by the age of 17 he already sounded like a man of a thousand seductions. This Friday he'll receive LACMA's LA Jazz Treasure award, a fitting recognition for a man who has spent much of his career here and is still an undiscovered jewel to many listeners around the world.
Andrews was born in Philadelphia on Christmas Day in 1927 and spent some time in Louisiana before arriving in Los Angeles with his mother in 1945. He attended Jefferson High School alongside some of the city's brightest young jazz stars -- Sonny Criss, Chico Hamilton, Dexter Gordon, Eric Dolphy -- but got his real education on nearby Central Avenue, the hotbed of Los Angeles's jazz scene for the first half of the 20th century.
"I was always big for my age," says Andrews with a chuckle over the phone. "I'd go in these after hours places and see all these wonderful people that were performing. We'd see Art Tatum. He'd be at a place called the Double V. He'd sit there and play all night long."
Between classes and impersonating adults, Andrews took a job at the Lincoln Theater on Central Avenue at 23rd street which was then known as the "Apollo of the West." The nearly 2,000 seat theater was built in 1926 and hosted jazz luminaries like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Chick Webb before converting to a church in the early 1960s. "I was head usher over there and they'd have amateur night on Wednesdays. I would get on the amateur show. I was very successful on those shows 'cause I would perform in uniform."
Andrews quickly developed his rich baritone with an eye for the ladies. (This past summer at the Central Avenue Jazz Festival he declared himself a better lover than Tom Cruise and Sylvester Stallone mid-song. There was far more applause than eye-rolling.) At the age of 17, he had a local hit with "Soothe Me." He debuted "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" not long after. It wasn't a hit for Andrews but Ray Charles did pretty well with it.
In his late 20s, Andrews set out to see what his options were outside of Los Angeles. His New York City debut was an intimidating double bill with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in 1954. Fortunately, he already knew Parker from his days in Los Angeles. "Charlie Parker used to come to my house," recalls Andrews. "He would come over with Miles Davis."
Andrews also shared some fun times with an unrelated Davis in Las Vegas. From 1959 to 1969, Andrews worked with the Harry James band, much of that time at places like the Flamingo and the Frontier. "We'd hang out with Nat 'King' Cole and Sammy Davis, Jr. Sammy had new movies flown in everyday and parties at his place after the gig around 4am. Everybody would get off we'd end up at the Sands. Most of the acts would come up and just watch movies, settle down and have a bite to eat with Sammy." Those were the golden days for Andrews. He had regular work and was close to his family in Los Angeles.
The 1970s and 1980s brought sporadic work. Los Angeles's once frequent jazz opportunities were waning and Andrews wasn't a kid anymore but he wasn't old enough to work the legend circuit. "We had too much of everything and not enough of nothing," says Andrews of the scene. "Having a spot and having a place here in the business is so important."
Things have brightened since the late 1980s with regular bookings popping up around town whether its large jazz festivals or small club dates. "This is hard work," Andrews says in response to his upcoming award. "We've been doing this work all our lives. Sometimes it's very hard to know what is going on with this business and then all of a sudden you get these praises. It's good for the heart, good for the soul."
And if there is one thing Andrews has, it is plenty of soul.