Gordon Hill Jenkins (12 May 1910 – 1 May 1984) was an American arranger who was an influential figure in popular music in the 1940s and 1950s, renowned for his lush string arrangements. Jenkins worked with the Andrews Sisters, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, among other singers.
Jenkins was born in Webster Groves, Missouri. He started his career doing arrangements for a St Louis radio station. He was then hired by Isham Jones, the director of a dance band known for its ensemble playing, and this gave Jenkins the opportunity to develop his skills in melodic scoring. He also conducted The Show Is On on Broadway.
After the Jones band broke up in 1936, Jenkins worked as a freelance arranger and songwriter, contributing to sessions by Isham Jones, Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, Andre Kostelanetz, Lennie Hayton, and others. In 1938, Jenkins moved to Hollywood and worked for Paramount Pictures and NBC, and then became Dick Haymes’ arranger for four years. In 1944, Jenkins had a hit song with “San Fernando Valley”.
In 1945, Jenkins joined Decca Records. In 1947, he had his first million-seller with “Maybe You’ll Be There” featuring vocalist Charles LaVere and in 1949 had a huge hit with Victor Young’s film theme “My Foolish Heart”, which was also a success for Billy Eckstine. At the same time, he regularly arranged for and conducted the orchestra for various Decca artists, including Dick Haymes (“Little White Lies”, 1947), Ella Fitzgerald (“Happy Talk”, 1949, “Black Coffee”, 1949, “Baby”, 1954), Patty Andrews of the Andrews Sisters (“I Can Dream, Can’t I”, 1949) and Louis Armstrong (“Blueberry Hill”, 1949 and “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South”, 1951).
The liner notes to Verve Records’ 2001 reissue of one of Jenkins’ albums with Armstrong, Satchmo In Style, quote Decca’s onetime A & R Director, Milt Gabler, saying that Jenkins “stood up on his little podium so that all the performers could see him conduct. But before he gave a downbeat, Gordon made a speech about how much he loved Louis and how this was the greatest moment in his life. And then he cried.”
During this time, Jenkins also began recording and performing under his own name. One of his enduring works while at Decca was a pair of Broadway-style musical vignettes, “Manhattan Tower” and “California” which saw release several times (78s, 45s, and LP) in the ’40s and ’50s. The two were paired on a very early Decca LP in 1949), and Jenkins was given the Key to New York City by its mayor when Jenkins’s orchestra performed the 16-minute suite on the Ed Sullivan show in the early ’50s. In 1956, he expanded “Manhattan Tower” to almost three times its length, released it (this time on Capitol Records), and performed it on an hour-long television show. (Both versions of “Manhattan Tower” are currently available on CD.) Another of his long play album productions, “Seven Dreams” included a sequence which was the source for Johnny Cash’s immensely popular recording, “Folsom Prison Blues”.
He headlined New York’s Capitol Theater between 1949 and 1951 and the Paramount Theater in 1952. He appeared in Las Vegas in 1953 and many times thereafter. He worked for NBC as a TV producer from 1955 to 1957, and performed at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964. By 1949, Jenkins was musical director at Decca, and he signed — despite resistance from Decca’s management — the Weavers, a Greenwich Village folk ensemble that included Pete Seeger among its members. The combination of the Weavers’ folk music with Jenkins’ orchestral arrangements became immensely popular, to the surprise of everyone involved. Their most notable collaboration was a version of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” (1950) backed by Jenkins’ adaptation of the Israeli folk song, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena”. Other notable songs they recorded together are “The Roving Kind”, “On Top of Old Smokey” (1951), and “Wimoweh” (1952).
Jenkins later moved to Capitol Records where he worked with Frank Sinatra, notably on the albums Where Are You? (1957) and No One Cares (1959), and Nat King Cole, with whom he had his greatest successes; Jenkins was responsible for the lush arrangements on the 1957 album Love Is The Thing (Capitol’s first stereo release, which included “When I Fall in Love”, one of Cole’s best-known recordings), as well as the albums The Very Thought of You (1958) and Where Did Everyone Go? (1963). Jenkins also wrote the music and lyrics for Judy Garland’s 1959 album The Letter which also featured vocalist Charles LaVere, and conducted several of Garland’s London concerts in the early 1960s.
Whilst most of Jenkins’ arrangements at Capitol were in his distinctive string-laden style, he continued to demonstrate more versatility when required, particularly on albums such as A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra (1957), which opens with a swinging version of Jingle Bells, and Nat King Cole’s album of spirituals, Every Time I Feel The Spirit (1958), which includes several tracks with a pronounced beat that might almost be described as rock.
However, as rock and roll gained ascendency in the 1960s, Jenkins’ lush string arrangements fell out of favour and he worked only sporadically, though Sinatra, who had left Capitol to start his own label, Reprise Records, continued to call upon the arranger’s services at various intervals over the next two decades, on albums such as All Alone (1962), the critically-acclaimed September of My Years (1965), for which Jenkins won a Grammy, Sinatra’s 1973 comeback album, Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back and She Shot Me Down (1981) – regarded by many Sinatraphiles as the singer’s last great work. Jenkins also worked with Harry Nilsson on A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (1973), a collection of pre-rock and roll standards. The Nilsson sessions, with Jenkins conducting, were recorded on video and later broadcast as a television special by the BBC.
Although best known as an arranger, Jenkins also wrote well-known several songs including “P.S. I Love You”, “Goodbye” (Benny Goodman’s sign-off tune), “Blue Prelude”, “This Is All I Ask”, “When a Woman Loves a Man” and “Future”, composed music for Sinatra’s 1979 concept album Trilogy.
Jenkins died in Malibu, California in 1984 at age 73 of Lou Gehrig’s disease.
In November of 2005, Gordon’s son Bruce (a sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle) published a biography titled “Goodbye”. Other living relatives include nieces Phoebe Barnum and Leslie Mason.