With a brief recording career that yielded only a handful of albums, Ann Richards is shrouded in mystery. Her brilliant performances on select songs make her untimely death even more tragic.
Ann Richards’ jazz standard
Ann Richards became famous for jazz when pop and rock and roll were poised to take over in terms of popularity. The strength and dynamics she employed set a trend for pop and jazz singers in the decades since the 1950s.
Richards has the kind of voice that can compete fully with a big band sound. Her vocal dynamics can take Richards’ vocals from one register to another without being pitchy or breathy. Even when she simmers down to a flirtatious whisper, Richards sounds in control of her natural instrument. Sixty years later, these qualities burst forth and command that audiences pay attention.
“Don’t Be That Way” by Ann Richards
The soundscape of this song evokes the big dance scene in the movie version of “West Side Story.” Horns predominate–they swing and punctuate every note. Swagger exudes from each note. The song begins slow and deliberate, giving saxophones and Richards opportunity to build to a crashing climax. Here, the “West Side Story” sound is most present. “Don’t Be That Way” is urban, clever and sultry. Richards sings as if she has a great deal to say, and even words that can be mouthfuls when sung, like “violence,” are given clear and stylized treatment. The best way I can describe what Richards does is to call it “biting her syllables.”
When Richards wants to elongate a sound, she doesn’t just apply more air and push through. She completes a syllable and sings it again. This technique has been mimicked many times, but often other singers produce a muddled sound that detracts from the overall song.
Made during an era when partner dancing was the norm, it allows for chaste swaying to yield to grand swinging and solid footwork. It is too bad that it comes at what some have called the end of the Big Band Era.
Ann Richards’ influence
In my opinion, the following era’s early 1960s girl groups are the most obvious bearers of Richards’ influence. The vocal stylings with big voices that can sing through clattering drums and guitars, the stage presence that included gesturing and dancing, and an overall freedom of expression for female pop performers, can at least in part, be attributed to Richards.
Female jazz singers today also imitate Richards’ style. Some of the standards she made popular, such as “Bewitched” and “An Occasional Man,” are covered by contemporary singers. Singers must first become familiar with Richards’ style in order to attempt some of the best in her catalog.
Ann Richards’ brief life and untimely death
I cannot help but think of Richards as the Sylvia Plath of jazz. The two women’s relative youth at the time of their deaths, their posthumous acclaim, and their tumultuous marriages to men in their professional disciplines, make the resemblance clear for me. According to widely available sources, Richards committed suicide in 1982 at age 46.
Richards’ death is not only tragic for the manner in which she died, but for the contrast between her performance persona and what must have been her reality. Still, Richards is a bright spot in the realm of jazz and a trendsetter among 20th century female singers.