Jazz singer Jackie Cain remembers the first time she met up with pianist and singer Roy Kral back in 1947 as a 16-year-old just out of high school in Chicago. "He had a girlfriend and I got a job singing in this little jazz quartet he was with. I came in as 'the girl singer,' very young and naive. He probably recognized that immediately." The dapper Kral laughs quietly as the scene comes back to life for him.
"I had a crush on him for a long time," Cain continues. "On New Year's Eve, we were playing in this club and I was waiting for midnight to come so I could kiss him -- that was my big chance to grab this guy. So at midnight I turned around and gave him a big, wet kiss . . . and that was the beginning." (Kral closes his eyes and feels the kiss again.)
"Pretty soon he started driving me home ["Ah, yes!"] and one thing let to another and that was it." They were married a year later and over the next 32 years, Jackie Cain and Roy Kral have carved out a unique niche in the jazz vocal field. Their flawless, intricate vocal stylings are drawn mostly from the neglected area of American popular music exemplified by Alec Wilder, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Rodgers and Hart and the Gershwins. "Those songs never sound bad," Kral says emphatically.
There have been lots of stops and starts in 32 years, but, says the softspoken pianist, "1980 was one of our best years. And this year we're going to some places we've never been before -- New Orleans, Johannesburg, Japan." Washington has been a frequent stop since they were both "kids" working at the predominantly black Howard Theater in the late '40s with a poll-winning small band under the leadership of Charlie Ventura. Cain and Kral, who look 15 years younger than their respective ages of 53 and 59, are appearing at Charlie's Georgetown through Sunday.
Jackie and Roy, as they came to be known professionally, struck out on their own in 1949, but the fluctuating acceptance of both jazz and popular song, as well as breaks for parenting, have interrupted their career for long stretches. For five years they worked Nevada's "gambling circuit, but nobody knew you were alive except the musicians. It did make us stop and realize that we are still entertainers, even though we try to put the music first."
In the mid-'60s, fed up with the club scene, they started writing and performing commercials; their first was a bossa nova-ish spot for Halo Shampoo done in less than two hours. "All of a sudden, money was just flowing in," says an incredulous Cain. "We'd get checks while we were on the road and we thought it was ridiculous after making so little money for real hard work for so long. We started having $100 luncheons with our kids, ballet, theater. Sometimes we'd had money and no time, sometimes we had a lot of time and no money. This time we had both.
Spots for Cheerios, Borden's Instant Coffee, Plymouth and Frito's ("Muncha buncha Fritos," Kral mimics. "All those commercials resolve!") kept them in the green for a while but "we got bored, missed performing. We were losing our credibility as jazz artists. We had to get back to work."
They were shattered in 1973, when their elder daughter died in an accident in New Jersey. "We were wiped out. We couldn't listen to music or perform. I hated everything," says Kral. When they did resume work six months later, their singing unveiled a new depth of feeling. "Everything had a new meaning to it," Cain admits. "All the lyrics meant something else."
Although they've recorded almost two dozen albums, most of their work is out of print, which suits the collectors who have priced their albums in the stratosphere. They've resumed recording (their newest for the Concord label, "East of Suez," was released this week) and can laugh at passed "opportunities" like the disco album or the collection of songs from "The Wiz." "It seemed like such a stupid idea for us to do a black show. How could we do it justice? And if we were going to do it 'white,' why do it?"
"Besides, there was only one good song," Roy points out. "And that one we weren't crazy about," Jackie interjects. Working out of Montclair, N.J., they're on the road more than half the year performing in clubs or concerts. There are the occasional hardships, such as "getting used to a piano and going to the next club where it's tuned just a little bit higher. When you go to sing with it, your voice hits the notch instead of the note."
But mostly, there's the pleasure. After three decades, "the enthusiasm comes because we sincerely enjoy what we do," Kral insists. "This is our craft. When conditions are right, there's nothing to it. It's so natural, it's like breathing."
Adds Cain, "We're not only enjoying it; we're getting paid for it, too."