The Troy Street Observer

Dec 2, 1956: Bartley, Alessi at the Jewel Room

One of my favorite “lost” Boston records is Charlene Bartley’s The Weekend of a Private Secretary, originally released in 1957 (RCA LPM-1478). It’s the story in song of a woman who weekends in Havana, finds romance (c’mon now, it’s the fifties), and returns home sadder but wiser. Bartley and the album’s guitarist, Don Alessi, were working the singers’ rooms in Boston prior to the record’s release, and an important one was the Jewel Room in the Bostonian Hotel, now part of the Berklee College of Music.

Cover of RCA LPM-1478
Oh, those ’50s RCA covers…Weekend of a Private Secretary, LPM-1478, 1957

Bartley hailed from Los Angeles, and it was bandleader Al Donahue who initially brought her back East. The Boston-born Donahue hired Bartley in California in late 1947. They recorded a few sides on the Tune-Disk label just before the second recording ban took effect, and at least one of them, “My Old Fashioned Gal,” ended up on the Boston Crystal-Tone label (Crystal-Tone 523) in 1948. Donahue was back in Boston, with Bartley singing, in 1949.

Bartley toured with Donahue in the early 1950s, but she apparently gave up the road to settle in Boston. Donahue made an  annual stop in Boston for a long residence at the Statler Hotel, and Bartley sang with him there through 1957. She also recorded a forgettable single on his Aldon Records label in 1956, but by that time she was on the staff at Boston’s WHDH-AM. There she met guitarist Don Alessi, one of the Park Squares, a vocal-and-instrumental group then providing music on both radio and television broadcasts.

The Park Squares were real pros, playing everything from The New England Farm and Food Show in the afternoon, to John McLellan’s Jazz Scene in the evening. One of the shows Alessi worked was with Charlene Bartley, One to Two, on WHDH-AM. That’s when she came to the attention of someone from A&R at RCA.

RCA brought some of its leading talent to the project, with four songs arranged by Tito Puente and performed by his orchestra, four more arranged by Hal McKusick and performed by a small group, and the final four performed by just the duo of Alessi and bassist Milt Hinton. Alessi, in fact, played on all twelve numbers. The title tune, backed by Puente’s orchestra, has a catchy rhythm to go with Johnny Mercer’s lyrics, but for the most part Bartley sings ballads, including “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance,” and “Memories of You.”

The record did not create much excitement. Wrote Billboard’s reviewer: “Charlene Bartley has a sweet, fresh vocal sound but doesn’t do much with it on this package of standards.” Her singing was warm, and free from embellishment, but that didn’t attract attention in 1957. The jazz-pop continuum was teeming with singers…Kathy Barr, Lucy Ann Polk, Helen Grayco, Audrey Morris, Jaye P. Morgan, Ann Gilbert…all worthy voices, and all with LPs out in 1957. Bartley’s record just didn’t stand out from the crowd.

Then the Bartley story took a mysterious turn—she dropped from sight after the summer of 1958. I have no idea what became of her. If anybody knows, please leave a comment.

The Weekend of a Private Secretary went out of print and did not resurface until 2007, when it was reissued on CD by BMG-Japan, released as part of a series featuring the RCA vocalists. Now that, too, is out of print.

Here is one song from the lost record, “Under a Blanket of Blue,” with Bartley accompanied by Alessi and Hinton.

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