By Kathleen Luppi
5:45 PM PDT, July 2, 2014
Even now, at 86 years old, Ernie Andrews remains the ebullient entertainer.
The blues singer, whose resume lists everything from joining the Harry James Orchestra to recording with Columbia Records to playing a leading part in the documentary film "Blues for Central Avenue," will bring his sound to the fifth annual Sunset Jazz at Newport Summer Series.
And having been in the business for more than 59 years, Andrews isn't shy about sharing a little detail.
"I don't know anything about this music. I don't write the music and I don't read the music," he said before laughing. "I'm just natural. This is a gift to me. I don't know an iota of music. If you play music, I sing it."
Andrews will perform July 9, the opening night of the Sunset Jazz at Newport at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel & Spa. The 11-week Wednesday night series, which runs to Sept. 17, will feature artists sponsored by KJazz 88.1 FM.
Andrews remembers recognizing his musical gift as a child. At age 9, he began attending band performances in his hometown of Philadelphia.
"I knew what I wanted to do because my mother was a great singer," he said. "My grandmother was a great singer. My father was a great singer."
After arriving in Los Angeles in 1944, Andrews got his big break within a year. He won an amateur contest at the Lincoln Theatre on Los Angeles' Central Avenue, then known as a place where jazz sizzled. Local entrepreneur Joe Greene had heard Andrews' sound.
At age 17, he had a hit record, "Soothe Me," which sold 300,000 copies. But it was after talking to actress Betty Grable, the wife of big-band leader Harry James, that Andrews gained a wider audience.
"I was in New York City doing a lot of scouting, and Mrs. James thought I should be with Harry's band," Andrews said. "I joined him in Chicago from 1959 to 1969."
Andrews fit the sound James wanted, but it wasn't an easy decade for a black performer, especially when the orchestra traveled south.
"Harry stood behind me during racism," Andrews said. "A lot of hotels would want to put me in a different hotel, and he wouldn't allow that. He'd tell them, 'Give him a corner room.' I had a wonderful time with that band. He called me 'Ern.'"
Andrews and James became great friends after the first year collaborating. "I was the best thing he needed," he said proudly.
In 1989, Andrews recorded "Live at Town Hall NYC" with Gene Harris and the Philip Morris Superband. He toured with the band for three months, covering five continents.
No matter his age, he says he'll continue sharing his voice. Andrews still plays clubs, concerts and jazz festivals throughout the world. He has only kind words for the musicians he has met on tour.
"I've respected everybody for what they were doing," Andrews said. "You have to love everyone in this business. You have to love yourself. I was around great, great, great musicians who are gone by the wayside, but I enjoyed every minute of it.
"I miss so many wonderful, wonderful, wonderful people in show business."
Andrews looks forward to Sunset Jazz at Newport, where he's played every year since 2011.
"The people can sit out and listen — it's a pleasure," he said.
Sunset Jazz at Newport founders John McClure and Joe Rothman are just as thrilled to have Andrews return and help keep the art form alive.
"Having Mr. Ernie Andrews for our grand opening evening celebrates not only his amazing and respected career but also the durability and staying power of America's original music — classic jazz," they wrote in a news release.
The jazz vocal legend is content with where he is in life.
"I'm on the other side of the mountain," he said. "I just want to be peaceful, and I love to make people happy."
If You Go
What: fifth annual Sunset Jazz at Newport Summer Series
Where: Newport Beach Marriott Hotel & Spa, 900 Newport Center Drive
When: 6 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays, July 9 through Sept. 17
Cost: $20 to $45
Information: (949) 759-5003 or sunsetjazzatnewport.com