A Joyful Sunny Crownover Jazzes It Up With Duke

By Bill Copeland
November 2008

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An attractive singer with a fetching voice, Sunny Crownover recently jumped on an opportunity to work with a New England blues scene legend while challenging herself to tackle songs originally recorded by vintage jazz vocalists from the early 20th century.

Called Sunny and her Joy Boys, this project began in earnest in May when Crownover met Duke Robillard at an annual blues concert held under the auspices of the Harvard Extension School where Crownoverís former band, 2120 South Michigan Avenue was performing.

Robillard is part of her new band, as well as the producer.

“This project is his brainchild,” Crownover said. “It was a project he had been wanting to do for the last 35 years or so.”

“At the end of each semester, where (2120 bandleader) Charlie Sawyer teaches the history of blues in America course at the Harvard extension school, the last class is always a concert,” she said. “For the last several years 2120 has opened that show and featured larger name guests. For example, last year was J. Geils and Monster Mike Welch and the show was a tribute to B.B. King. That was also a DVD. The Harvard At Home Production Company filmed and produced a DVD of that concert. So this year Charlie Sawyer invited Duke. We were fortunate enough that he was able to be there, and Duke had seen the DVD (of the previous yearís concert). Charlie had sent that to him to entice him to come do the show.”

So thatís where Crownover met Robillard - without any apparent fanfare.

“A very casual comment I made sort of at the end of evening to say, ĎGee, ya know, if ever need any female blues or female vocals for a project or studio work, just let me know sometime.í I never thought it would result in anything,” she said. “But he said, ĎDrop me an e-mail.í So, I did. I sent him an e-mail saying it was great to meet, and I enjoyed the show and I hope youíll keep me in mind.í And wham! He proposed this project right away. And I jumped at the chance. As soon as he described for me what he had in mind and the type of music, it immediately resonated with me and I just said ĎSure!í”

Since Robillard had been waiting for years to do the project, he moved forward like a turbo jet that caught Crownover in its suction.

“I was a little bit surprised at how quickly he wanted to move forward with it,” she said. “Itís been quite the whirlwind since meeting him in May, to deciding to do the project, to learning 30 or 40 songs, and we just finished recording the CD, and weíre signed to Stony Plain Records. Weíre hoping it will be released sometime in February,” Crownover said.

Sunny and her Joy Boys recorded vintage songs made famous by the female jazz and blues singers from the 1920s and 1930s, on through the 1940s.

“The ones who set up the ground work for all of the greats to follow: Ivie Anderson, Helen Humes, very early Ella Fitzgerald. Most of the songs are ones that were originally recorded with big bands such as Duke Ellington. These vocalists were the featured vocalists for these orchestras. The tunes that Duke has chosen have been favorites of his for years. Many of them are little known or were largely ignored by the public at the time. I just think theyíre wonderful,” she said.

Big bands are not the thing today, since clubs are smaller and now have smaller budgets.

“We are not doing them in a big band style. Weíve decided to take these songs and reinterpret them using a five piece all acoustic ensemble,” she said.

A project of this sort makes one wonder if it will fly with club owners who need to bring in patrons who like hard charging music they can dance to.

“I think this type of music suits itself to a lot of different types of venues, theaters, jazz clubs, even some of the blues venues,” Crownover said. “These arenít strictly ballads or only suited to people who like jazz. I think it appeals to a broad audience. So far, the feedback weíre getting is that it would have a very wide appeal. I think there are a lot of places that Dukeís band performs that might be interested in this type of music. I can also see it being, because itís acoustic, appealing to people who like acoustic music in general.”

“I think this would be something that people would be there intending to listen to,” she said.

The project that grew in Robillardís mind over the years took form when he heard Crownover perform the Etta James tune “At Last.”

“Thatís what started the gears turning in his head before he ever met me. He thought I might be the right kind of vocalist for the songs he had in mind for this project,” she said.

This Robillard project does not exactly require Crownover to emulate the revered female singers from the past.

“Itís more of a tribute. Weíre really just paying homage. It isnít that weíre trying to copy or have me try to sound like them. On the contrary, he felt that my natural style is somewhat restrained and melodic in comparison to many other contemporary vocalists of today who are over the top and really in your face. Even when Iím singing blues, even when Iím belting out songs, I think that my vocal style, because of the way I was raised and the music I grew up listening to, I tend to have a more a natural approach, and I stick to the melody more than trying to do the kind of vocalization where you kind of run all up and down the charts with a particular syllable of a word like Beyonce or Mariah Carey,” Crownover said.

The Joy Boys MySpace page uses the words “Tin Pan Alley” to help describe the sound this unit is going for.

“I think the way that it fits in is that some of these songs came about in the time of the Great Depression. There was a style of music associated with Tin Pan Alley. It has to do with a combination of a Ragtime and a jazzy swing. Thereís an upbeat and humorous playful approach to the style. A lot of the optimism that comes through in those songs reflect a time when people needed a reason to smile. Iím sort of a naturally optimistic person, so that appeals to me,” she said.

So naturally, Crownover feels these songs could go over well now that the United States is heading toward an economic downturn.

“I think itís amazing timing. I donít believe in just accidents. I think things work out for a reason. I do think people are going to be open to hearing this optimistic, upbeat message at a time when thereís a lot to be concerned and worried about. I think it will be a welcome little oasis in peopleís otherwise chaotic existences,” she said.

The Joy Boys also include Billy Novick on clarinet and alto saxophone, Jesse Williams on stand up bass, and Paul Kolesnikow on second guitar. They play only acoustic instruments, without a drummer.

“Billy Novick is one of the Joy Boys,” Crownover said. “He plays clarinet and alto sax. Initially, Duke thought he would play electric guitar and have Paul Kolesnikow on acoustic jazz rhythm guitar.”

But it became an all-acoustic project when they were futzing around in Dukeís studio where he keeps his many prized guitars.

“We have two acoustic guitars,” Crownover said. “We have a clarinet and a saxophone, and a standup bass. There are no drums. The only drums - Duke actually plays the congas on this one song - Billie Holidayís ĎYouíre My Thrill.í”

For the time being, Sunny and her Joy Boys will record covers. Yet, the singer said it is possible that she and Robillard and others involved with the project could end up writing new material in the style of these vintage jazz standards.

“The label had reserved the right to produce the next two CDs if we decide to do more,” she said. “Iím not sure if we would choose to write some songs for that or continue to present some of the lesser known songs that were originally done back in that time. Itís up in the air right now. But we already have twice as many songs that weíve rehearsed and chosen than we were able to put on this CD. We literally worked up somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 or more songs, and I think only 13 or 14 of those are going to make it onto this first CD. We really have enough material for another CD right now.”

The mention of new material from her and Robillard indicates they work together a lot.

“With Duke, the type of collaboration is so natural and comfortable that he and I have talked about - whether itís for the Joy Boys project or for some other type of project - that Duke and I might decide to embark on writing something. He and I have both written before, and I think collaborating together would be a lot of fun,” Crownover said.

The Canada-based Stony Plain label was fairly quick to take Robillard up on this project. The label has reason to trust his instincts.

“That is the label Duke has been recording for a number of years now,” Crownover said. “He simply ran this idea up the flagpole with them. He played them a clip from our first rehearsal. They loved it. They went crazy and said ĎAbsolutely, letís do it.í”

Robillard has 20 albums under his own name, and he has played countless sessions with other artists. His 40 years of experience made this project take off in a hurry.

“It lends an unbelievable level of expertise and instinct to knowing exactly whatís best, which songs are the best ones, which people would be the right people, and his ear is unbelievable. In the studio with him, when you sit and listen to him go through play backs of different versions, the nuances heís able to pick up and pick out of two versions of the same song are really just incredible to me. I think I have a decent ear, but Dukeís got an amazing ear and heís a visionary. He can see a project before itís done. He can see what it should be. He knows what he wants. He knows whatís good and whatís not good. I think that only comes when youíve had as much experience as Duke has,” Crownover said.

Crownover began her career in Texas at age 14. Yet, despite her years in the business, sheís never done anything similar to this.

“This particular type of vintage jazz has not been something Iíve ever attempted,” she said. “I grew up listening to various types of this kind of music. It resonates with me at that level. In Texas, I grew up doing more acoustic blues, some jazz, but more contemporary material instead of vintage material.”

“The acoustic duos and bands I first began performing with at the age of 14 were doing everything from contemporary blues to reaching back to Jimmy Reed. I would sing harmony on most of them and sing lead on some. We did contemporary things, John Prine, folk, and blues,” she said.

At 14, Crownover was already prepared because she did her first show in second grade during a classroom “Show and Tell.” Her brother was a self-taught guitar player. She fell in love with guitar through listening to him when she was around age nine. Eventually, her father bought Crownover an acoustic guitar.

“Iím just a mediocre guitarist,” she acknowledged. “I soon found when I moved to the Dallas area and to Austin that I was surrounded by such incredible guitar players that I decided to concentrate on singing.”

Crownover said the bandís name, Sunny and her Joy Boys, was based on a Helen Humes catch phrase. Humes always referred to her backup musicians as her Joy Boys, including the Roomful Of Blues guys she performed with during her brief break from retirement in the Robillard era Roomful of Blues in the 1970s.

On the Sunny and her Joy Boys MySpace page, Robillard wrote that there is a dichotomy between Crownoverís determined and driven personality and her tasteful restraint as a vocalist.

“I donít know that I see a contradiction as much as I think that itís not as common,” Crownover said. “You often find with people that are very determined and driven that their style tends to be very aggressive and over the top. I think that I am extremely driven and competitive. Iíve always been highly motivated, and Iíve got a lot of energy. Yet, my style tends to be more laid back, more relaxed. I like a more natural approach. I think you have to be yourself.”

Crownover is not currently performing with 2120 because she has been busy performing with Robillardís blues band as well as working on this Robillard vintage jazz project. When asked about her future with 2120, Crownover said she is not closing any doors, but she also gave a heartfelt thanks to 2120 and their fans for making future endeavors like this possible.

For now, Crownover is focused on her work with Robillard.

“When an opportunity comes along to do a project that is so rare, like this is, you simply have to do it, and that means you have to choose your priorities. So right now this is my priority,” she said.


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