Julie London, the smoky-voiced torch singer who insisted she couldn’t sing but whose voice sent shivers down spines and whose album covers alone turned men weak in the knees and women green with envy, died Wednesday. She was 74.
London, the sultry actress who declared herself no Sarah Bernhardt but is remembered as head nurse of the 1970s television series “Emergency,” died in Encino Hospital. Meyer Sack, her longtime business manager, said she died of complications of a stroke suffered five years ago.
Her first recorded single, “Cry Me a River” in 1956, propelled her into musical history. Relatively unknown as an actress despite a spate of films in the 1940s, London also caught fire on screen the same year as alcoholic singer Carol Larson in Jose Ferrer’s “The Great Man.”
Theme magazine dubbed her its “most exciting new vocalist” for the year and Variety applauded the actress “who digs into a dramatic role and socks it across with aplomb.”
London recorded more than 30 albums—among them “Julie Is Her Name,” “Lonely Girl,” “Calendar Girl,” “About the Blues,” “Make Love to Me,” “London by Night"—with that voice connoisseurs described as smoky, husky, breathy, haunting, intimate and even “a voice for a smoke-filled room.”
Maybe they called it smoky because she smoked too much, she joked, and maybe breathy because she never learned how to breathe properly, and intimate because “I’m a girl who needs amplification.” Despite her vaunted voice and beauty, she was known for zero self-confidence and always credited her success to good material in song or script.
When she played a pseudo Marilyn Monroe in the 1963 television drama “Diamond in the Sky,” London scoffed at comparisons, insisting: “We’re opposite types. Marilyn was the sex symbol. . . . I’m strictly the housewife-mother type.”
Yet London’s mere appearance, with her statuesque figure, had such an effect on men that critics were never certain whether her albums sold so well because of her vocal prowess or her sexy photos on the cover.
“Just as long as they buy the records, I don’t care why they buy ‘em,” she happily told The Times in 1961, later joking: “We spent more time on the covers than the music.”
In the early 1960s, when cigarettes were advertised on television, London memorably crooned “The Marlboro Song” to a swain in a convertible or beach house. A hard-bitten Times business writer confessed that London was the only woman on television who could persuade him to buy anything—adding that he smoked a dozen of her touted brand while interviewing her.
When London testified before the U.S. Senate in 1967 that performers deserved copyright protection as much as writers, a nationally syndicated political writer threw objectivity to the winds and slavered: “Miss London stole the show. . . . She had come in a high dress, a blue woolly-shifty thing that touched all the bases like a grand-slam home run. Her eyelashes were three furlongs of black beachcombers and her hair was spun brass. . . .”
Entertainment writers never even pretended reserve. In the 1940s, a Times critic called the teenager “a young Bette Davis . . . provocative, decisively different.” A decade later, another described her as “a magnificently assembled blond child. . . .”
London was born to her roles as actress and singer, yet achieved each in the kind of fluke Hollywood loves to make movies about.
She was born Julie Peck in Santa Rosa, Calif., the daughter of a radio and vaudeville song-and-dance team, and made her own vocal debut on radio at age 3. She grew up in San Bernardino, where her parents sang on local radio, and in Los Angeles, where she dropped out of school at 15 to hire on as a $19-a-week department store elevator operator.
At 17, she tried singing with a band for a few months, but soon went back to the elevator. One of her passengers, talent agent Sue Carol, the wife of Alan Ladd, decided anybody that beautiful needed a screen test.
At 18, London made her official film debut opposite Buster Crabbe in the 1944 “Nabonga,” later retitled “Gorilla,” a film she preferred to forget. Most notable of her early films was the 1947 “Red House,” starring Edward G. Robinson.
As her acting career began to blossom, she met and married the obscure star of a radio drama called “Pat Novak for Hire,” Jack Webb. They married in 1947, and when his television show “Dragnet” put them in the money a few years later, she became a happy housewife until their divorce in 1953.
Bobby Troup, her second husband, proved the Svengali for London’s singing career, cajoling and encouraging her to go public after he heard her sing beside his piano at a private party. He booked her into Los Angeles’ 881 Club for three weeks. She stayed 10 and went on to become a recording and saloon singing star, appearing frequently on TV variety shows hosted by Dinah Shore, Bob Hope, Steve Allen and Perry Como.
Troup, the songwriter of such hits as “Route 66,” even got her to write a song or two, namely the title song—which she also sang—for her 1958 film about Alcoholics Anonymous, “The Voice in the Mirror.”
London married Troup on New Year’s Eve, 1959. Webb rescued them from the road and the nightclub circuit a decade or so later by hiring them both for his Mark VII Productions’ “Emergency.” London was nurse Dixie McCall to Troup’s neurosurgeon Dr. Joe Early during the series’ run from 1972 to 1977.
The actress London’s last motion picture was “The George Raft Story” in 1961, in which she portrayed Raft’s first girlfriend, Sheila Patton. The singer London’s last album was “Easy Does It” in 1969, which she considered her best.
After “Emergency” went off the air, London happily retired. But her indelibly stylistic singing still finds its way onto movie soundtracks in such films as “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” last year and “The Big Tease” earlier this year.
A widow since Troup’s death in early 1999, London is survived by four children: Lisa Webb Breen of Manhattan Beach; Kelly Troup Romick of West Los Angeles; and twin sons Reese Troup of West Los Angeles and Jody Troup of Sherman Oaks. Another daughter, Stacy Webb, died several years ago in a car accident.
Services will be private. The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the UCLA Jonsson Cancer Clinic.