Ernie Andrews, a jazz and blues singer who began performing in the ’40s and continued entertaining until well into the 21st century, died at the age of 94 on Monday (Feb. 21), his family tells Billboard. After suffering a broken hip from a fall, he was taken to a hospital in Conroe, Texas, where he passed away late Monday evening.
Born on Christmas Day in 1927 in Philadelphia, Andrews began singing in the Baptist church and continued to do so when his family moved to Los Angeles in his teenage years. After winning an amateur show in L.A., he caught the attention of songwriter Joe Greene, who brought him into the studio to record his first hit record, “Soothe Me,” in 1945 at the age of 17. One of the best-selling records of the year according to contemporary issues of Billboard, it would go on to sell 300,000 copies.
His velvety, deep voice eventually caught the attention of the Harry James Orchestra, which he performed with for several years. “Harry stood behind me during racism,” Andrews told the Los Angeles Times in 2014. “A lot of hotels would want to put me in a different hotel, and he wouldn’t allow that.”
Capable of conjuring the grit of the blues, the swing attitude of the big band era and the ache of ’60s soul, Andrews performed with everyone from saxophonist Cannonball Adderley to Wrecking Crew drummer Frank Capp to jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell over the course of his lengthy career, which saw him tour everywhere from Australia to Europe to South America.
“He could sing the blues, jazz, ballads, rhythm and blues. Probably the most versatile singer I’ve ever worked with, and the people loved him,” says friend and collaborator Burrell, who began working with Andrews in the ’70s (including on the Ellington Is Forever album) and kept in touch with him until his passing. “He had amazing range, very expressive. He let it come out. His voice was a great instrument.”
While hits and commercial success waned as the years went on, he enjoyed a resurgence in the ’80s and ’90s. Lois Shelton’s 1986 documentary Ernie Andrews: Blues for Central Avenue helped re-introduce him to audiences and shed some light on the stops and starts of his career; according to a 1987 review of the film in The New York Times, “Like many other singers [of his era, Andrews] had also signed a recording contract he came to regret. As he talks about his reversals, and as he sings the blues in recent performances, the pain in his eyes is unmistakable. But his voice still trumpets his vitality.”
“He didn’t get enough credit, as far as I was concerned and other musicians were concerned,” says Burrell. “The thing that saved him was that the people loved him — they loved the way he sang and his humor, the way he’d talk on stage. The critics never gave him the credit he deserved.”
His wife of 52 years, Dolores, died in 1997. Andrews is survived by four children, 12 grandchildren, 22 great grandchildren and seven great-great grandchildren.