Nebraska jazz singer Jeri Southern's star was bright in 1950s

2010-07-31T23:45:00Z 2010-08-02T09:27:08Z Nebraska jazz singer Jeri Southern's star was bright in 1950sBy CARSON VAUGHAN / For the Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

Legendary jazz promoter Dick LaPalm, 82, answers every question with an anecdote. A memory. Scenes that frequently involve himself, a stiff drink and a nightclub in Chicago, New York or L.A. Names like Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee drop casually from his end of the line, without layman's reverence, sometimes preceded by "my acquaintance" or "my friend." He's savvy, almost debonair.

For nearly half an hour he's revisited memories of close friend and client Jeri Southern, a Nebraska-born jazz singer whom he discovered at a Chicago nightclub in the early '50s.

Only once, during the last question, does he falter.

What was it like to attend Jeri's funeral?

A deep sigh. A gap in the interview.

"One of the saddest days of my life," he says soberly, pausing again. "More people should have known about her. She should have stayed, remained in show business and gotten the recognition she deserved."

It's evident that LaPalm, a former Chess Records exec, always equated Jeri Southern to the best of her peers, to Ella Fitzgerald, to Sarah Vaughan and Rosemary Clooney. So now, more than 50 years past Southern's prime, it's difficult to watch the others become household names while Southern's career remains mysterious at best, even to her fellow Nebraskans.

"There was no question whatsoever that she would have been an enormous star."

Sinatra tells Jeri she is ‘the best'

New York City, mid-1950s. Frank Sinatra lounges in a dressing room above the Paramount Theatre. He's talking with Manny Sachs, a close friend, and donning a white terrycloth robe. Just down the hall, Dick LaPalm and Jeri Southern are finishing drinks with singer June Hutton, the other name on the marquee. When LaPalm and Southern stand to say goodbye, Hutton stops them.

"June just freaked out and said, ‘No! You can't leave yet. If Frank knows that you were here and didn't meet you, he'd really be upset,'" LaPalm says. "I thought she was kidding, and so did Jeri."

But she isn't. Hutton walks to Sinatra's dressing room, knocks and enters. She has exciting news for The Voice: Jeri Southern's here, just down the hall, and she's getting ready to leave.

"I've never seen anyone leap up so fast," LaPalm says. "He leaped up and came running out and grabbed Jeri. He hugged her so hard I think he was actually hurting her."

Sinatra tells her she is "just the best, the very best," LaPalm remembers.

"And then he looked at her and said, ‘And no one should record "Dancing On The Ceiling" after what you've done with it.'"

From German pig farmers

Sinatra's favorite singer descended from German pig farmers. Jeri Southern's grandfather, Julius Hering, immigrated to America in 1879 and built a flour mill near present-day Royal, Neb. Southern - Genevieve Hering - was born 47 years later, Aug. 5, 1926, just in time to witness her father lose his mill to the Wall Street Crash of '29. When she was 3, her father moved the family into town, where he operated the Royal Farmers Union elevator until retirement, never forgiving himself for losing the mill.

A product of the Depression and the youngest of six children, there was nothing Hollywood about Jeri Southern.

"I don't think she had an article of clothing that was new until she moved away to Chicago," says Kathryn King, Southern's daughter and only child. "She got the hand-me-downs of the hand-me-downs."

Southern passed the time in Royal playing piano, always under the youthful assumption that if her family was German, she must descend from Bavarian princes.

"This fantasy was dashed on the rocks of reality one day when an old cache of letters from the Old Country was discovered in an attic, one of which read, ‘Please send money. The pig is sick,'" wrote King in an e-mail. "So our beginnings were humble, that's for sure."

Despite her family's hardships, Southern's parents sent their youngest daughter to high school at Notre Dame Academy in Omaha, where she took voice lessons in addition to her regular classes.

"She told me she had auditioned to enter Juilliard as a classical vocalist, but then she walked into a club in Omaha, must have been 17 or 18, and heard somebody play jazz," King says. "She said it changed her life."

After graduating from Notre Dame, Southern moved to Chicago, where she started playing in nightclubs and soon picked up a gig as intermission performer at the Hi-Note Lounge. Enter Dick LaPalm, at this point on the road with Peggy Lee, who stopped in Chicago to hear Anita O'Day sing at the Hi-Note.

"It's intermission ... and this lady comes out and she sits at the piano and starts to play and suddenly she starts to sing," LaPalm says. "Peggy was talking to me and she stops. Jeri was playing a song called ‘You're The Cause of It All.' I'll never forget it. Peggy turned to me and said, ‘Who is that? My God, she's marvelous.'"

One month later, LaPalm was visiting Lee in Los Angeles.

"‘Dick,' Lee said, ‘whatever you do, I would find that girl we heard at the Hi-Note and try to help her. She's absolutely incredible.'"

Thus began Southern's career. In 1951, she signed with Decca Records. By the mid-'50s she was sharing bills with the likes of Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie, Billy Eckstine and Doris Day. In 1955 her recording of "An Occasional Man" made the Billboard pop chart, and in '57 she had a Top 30 hit with "Fire Down Below." She appeared in several movies and ultimately moved to Capitol Records, where she released her final album in 1961.

"Ella, Sarah, Carmen McRae, Nat Cole, Sinatra, Miles Davis, Mel Torme," LaPalm says. "You name the great artists, they adored her."

Walking away from it all

"The day she decided to stop performing was one of the greatest days in both our lives," King wrote in an e-mail. "An enormous relief for both of us."

Despite her critical acclaim - Nat Cole said she was one of the great pianists, and one of few who could accompany themselves as well as he was able to, LaPalm recalls - Southern hated performing. She was exceedingly shy, and according to King she suffered from "a paralyzing case of performance anxiety. Just contemplating performing made her enormously anxious and depressed."

"For years she battled her fears, however, because people loved her singing, and I think she felt a responsibility to use the musical gift she'd been given," King wrote. "But eventually the weight of anxiety about it was just too great."

By 1962, at the early age of 36, Southern retired from her public career.

"Once she allowed herself to quit, it truly liberated her," King wrote. "At a certain point you have to ask yourself, ‘How long am I going to put myself through this?'"

She began teaching in Hollywood, composing music and playing piano. She wrote a book for singers about accompanying themselves at the piano and raised Kathryn, now a record producer and publicist in Pebble Beach, Calif., to love music as much as she did.

"She absolutely influenced me. When it was time for me to go to college, there was no question I was going to major in music," King says. "I didn't even consider anything else."

Southern died unexpectedly on Aug. 4, 1991, the day before her 65th birthday. Although the immediate cause of death was a heart attack, Southern was also diabetic and had been diagnosed with double pneumonia.

"There's no question that, had she been able to conquer her performance anxiety and enjoy her own career, she would have had a considerably greater impact on her own time and on future generations," King wrote. "But I can tell you that today serious singers of any age love my mother's singing and still speak of her in glowing terms."

Home in Royal

Today, Jeri Southern's home in Royal still stands, just off U.S. 20, waiting for a new foundation. The home's owners, the Jensens, say it's on the way. It's not much to look at, but one day they hope to restore it, add a basement and make it the home of the Jeri Southern Home and Museum Society, which they began in 1999. Justin Jensen, 45, once ran the now-defunct jerisouthern.com, which offered memberships to the society for a small fee. The society had 156 members worldwide, he says.

"It just throws me that somebody can start in a little town like Royal and then touch all points of this world," says Jensen, who was raised and currently lives and works in Royal.

But those who knew her best say she never fully left Nebraska.

"There was a no-nonsense, unadorned quality to how she related to people," King says. "She was no diva. She had an ego like every performing artist, but to the day she died she was in many ways the same person I remember sitting around the kitchen table at my grandparents' house in Royal, everybody smoking and drinking beers and just talking after supper every night. That's a quality she really kept her whole life."

Reach Carson Vaughan at features@journalstar.com.

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