Sue Raney's first recording was a dream date. Called "When Your Lover Has Gone," it featured the singer, then 16, doing standards backed by the Nelson Riddle orchestra.
But the album, recorded in 1957, didn't exactly become a classic. Now, with a bit more experience under her belt, Raney would like to do it all again. "It's my dream to recreate it," said the singer, who appears tonight and Sunday at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. In a phone conversation from her home in Sherman Oaks, she said: "Johnny Mandel would like to do it. Pat Williams would do it. I ran into Marty Paich for the first time the other night, and he said, 'I hope I can do a string album with you sometime.' That would be the capper."
Raney doesn't throw around the names of these well-known composer-arrangers lightly. The pure-toned vocalist has worked with Williams and recorded an album of Mandel tunes ("Quietly There," recently re-released on the First Media/Discovery label). She's also toured with Michel LeGrand, a stint that included a trip to Europe as well as a performance with the Pacific Symphony at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in 1987. Among music fans, the singer is known for her impeccable taste.
"She's very careful in the choice of her material," says KLON-FM deejay Chuck Niles, who will emcee both OCC shows. "A song has to mean a lot to her for her to perform it. But the thing that impresses me most about her is her intonation. There's no sloppiness. She's right on the money every time."
What does Raney seek in the music she performs?
"I look for the story of the song first and choose what I can truly relate to," she says. "The music itself will always move me. I'll feel it. But the story has to be there; there has to be a marriage between the music and the lyric. And it has to be believable coming from me. I mean, I couldn't sing 'Love for Sale.' It's a great song, but the lyric is not something I can relate to."
That's why you'll find the singer doing tunes from Henry Mancini (on her album "Dreamsville: Sue Raney Sings the Music of Henry Mancini," also on First Media/Discovery) as well as tunes from Mandel and LeGrand on her various recordings. Her appearance at Orange Coast College--with guitarist Ron Eschete, pianist Daniel May, bassist Benjamin May and drummer Paul Kriebich--will feature the music of Mandel.
Raney began performing at a tender age. "My mom had been a singer," she says, "and was hoping one of the family would sing. She tried to get me lessons when I was 4 or 5, but they wouldn't take me because I was too young. So she took the lessons, then came home and taught me.
"Looking back at the scrapbooks my mom kept, I realize that I really worked hard, doing Lions Club luncheons, then working somewhere that night, even at the age of 7 or 8. I just always sang."
Her mother took a copy of her demo tape to singer Frankie Laine, who was so impressed he landed her a job on the Jack Carson radio show, a CBS program broadcast from Hollywood in the '50s. Raney was 14.
In the years afterward, Raney made a number of albums for Capitol, Imperial and Liberty. "Record producers of that era didn't think jazz was the thing for a young person to do. They wanted to make me a pop artist and get a hit record."
But that hit never came. Now Raney wishes she had followed her own instincts.
"It would have been nice to have a hit, but it just wasn't in the cards. The masses would have known who I was, which would have made it easier from that vantage point and gotten me the respect of people in the music world. It would have been nice to be at that next level with people like Vikki Carr and Jack Jones. Having a hit record helped them tremendously.
"But as a child, I let everyone drag me around by the nose--do this and do that. I listened to so many people; it was an overwhelming thing for a young person. Now that my career is more stable, I'm feeling like it's time" to do another orchestra album. "It's a different world out there now, with a big audience for jazz," she said. "If that weren't true, Harry Connick Jr. wouldn't be making it so big. "
Although she began her career began at such an early age, Raney doesn't feel that she was cheated of her childhood. "I had wonderful parents, wonderful brothers and sisters--they were all in my corner. We had a good family life, and I didn't miss out on anything. My parents instilled in me that singing was my work and that my life was different."
Raney gave up recording jazz in the '70s and spent a good part of that decade writing and singing jingles. In the early '80s, she gave up the jingle business to record for Discovery, earning four Grammy nominations for the five albums she did for the label. Raney also taught voice at the Grove School of Music in the Los Angeles area for eight years and continues to teach at her home.
The singer appears every other month at Le Cafe in the San Fernando Valley, and earlier this week she performed with the L.A. Voices jazz choir when it worked with Med Flory's new swing band at the Moonlight Tango Cafe, also in the Valley. In addition, she's been seen this year at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City with her old friend and collaborator LeGrand.
"I'm as busy now as I've ever been," she says. "I can feel the momentum building. And I'm real content with the artistic things I'm doing."
* Sue Raney appears tonight at 8 and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the Orange Coast College Fine Arts Recital Hall, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. $9.50 advance; $12 at the door. (714) 432-5880.