Lincoln’s latest commercial, for its new Aviator hybrid electric car: is a pretty typical holiday spot: snow (in this case, manufactured for a family living among palm trees), joyous consumers and a jazzy tune playing over it all. But the ad is also shedding light on the forgotten vocalist who sings the ring-a-ding standard, “It’s a Most Unusual Day.”
Beverly Kenney was a rising jazz vocalist with a sophisticated style when she suddenly and tragically vanished from the scene — committing suicide with pills and booze in her Greenwich Village flat in 1960, at the age of 28.
Virtually unknown and long forgotten, she’s now making a big comeback from the
grave six decades later, with the largest audience she’s ever had. The national TV spot was the most-viewed automotive commercial of the week after it debuted in November, drawing big audience impressions from “Today,” “Good Morning America,” “Fox & Friends” and more, and has become one of the season’s most popular spots according to a ranking compiled by iSpot.tv.
The tune is from the singer’s 1957 album “Beverly Kenney Sings for Playboys.” But the coolness and joy of her vocalizing — prompting a spike on Google Trends for both Kenney’s name and the song title — offers no clue to Kenney’s decline. Her life ended alone in a drab one-room apartment in the Village, surrounded with empty bottles of the sleeping pill Seconol and alcohol.
“It’s tragic, heartbreaking, and I’m just obsessed with her,” musician and producer Tony Guerrero, 55, told The Post. “I was driving around town one day and her voice came on the radio and I was immediately captivated. The first time that I heard Beverly sing I could have guessed that her story was tragic.”
Born in 1932 during the Great Depression, Kenney was one of several daughters from a working-class Harrison, NJ, family. Her first singing job was for Western Union, making “Happy Birthday” telephone calls.
She was reportedly discovered by the Dorsey Brothers and released her first solo album in 1956 at age 24, with Downbeat magazine declaring: “It looks as if finally, a new voice of unmistakable jazz quality has appeared to take its place beside those of Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald … “
Soon, Kenney had a promising career as a cabaret singer, with shows at such iconic
Manhattan jazz venues as the Village Vanguard and Birdland, as well as clubs in Miami.
She went on to cut six albums, toured with the Tommy Dorsey band and played major gigs with such top jazz musicians as Miles Davis, Tito Puente and Art Blakey. She performed her “I Hate Rock and Roll” on the “Steve Allen Show” and cajoled Hugh Hefner into singing “Makin’ Whoopee” with her on the series “Playboy After Dark.”
As the late torch singer Julie London once noted, “I dig [Kenney] because, well, she
phrases like mad … Matter of fact, she sings like a musician.”
But, suddenly and mysteriously, Kenney vanished from the scene, likely dealing with, according to observers, mental illness that seemingly went untreated. By the time of her suicide on April 13, 1960 — her third attempt to take her own life — she had stopped singing altogether and was doing office work and living in a drab room at the University Residence Hotel, a woman’s club, at 45 East 11th St.
The night before she killed herself, a Sunday, she had had dinner with her father. The next day, all day, her radio blared from her room nonstop, upsetting other residents who eventually telephoned the police. Breaking down the door, they found Kenney on her bed, wearing a pink nightgown. She had left no note.
Questioned by the police, her father stated, “Everything seemed fine.”
Her closest friend until Beverly’s death was the model and budding actress Millie Perkins, from Fair Lawn, NJ, who went on to play Anne Frank in the 1959 film “The Diary of Anne Frank.” In a telephone interview Perkins gave to Guerrero in 2020, the now-83-year-old reminisced about Kenney, who she first met in the Village in the beatnik fifties.
At the time Perkins was dating the literary critic and New York Times writer Anatole Broyard, and Kenney was seeing Broyard’s friend, the nonfiction writer and poet Milton Klonsky.
“Anatole didn’t approve of my relationship with Beverly because he thought she was kind of decadent, which she wasn’t, not with me anyway,” Perkins recalled. “I was much more innocent than Beverly. Beverly was my girlfriend and a lot of people thought we were gay. I tended towards creative, smart people and Beverly was one.”
But Perkins also came to the conclusion that Kenney had emotional problems and
was a depressive.
“Beverly was in pain all the time,” Perkins once wrote to a friend. “Everyday life was difficult for her.”
It was a few months after Perkins went to Hollywood to audition for the Anne Frank
role that Kenney killed herself. Perkins says that the singer’s devastated sister, discussing the suicide, claimed, “Beverly was hurt because I went to California, which was nonsense.”
Guerrero believes that one of the reasons the life and death of Beverley Kenney is still
so “mysterious” is because “the family hasn’t offered a lot of information about her … They had letters from her and Beverly’s father, and he burned them.”
In her last days Kenney had written a slew of letters to the family, the contents of which remain a mystery.
“And there was no suicide note,” Guerrero added. “There was a lot of speculation that her suicide was related to her sadness over a previous lover, but I don’t believe that’s true. She had a much closer relationship with somebody after that and he was part of taking care of her in those last months.”
Guerrero, a jazz trumpeter and songwriter, is now considering arranging a Beverly
Kenney tribute concert on the West Coast, with the proceeds going to mental health organizations, and a documentary about her life. Universal Music, which holds the license to Kenney’s music, is reportedly considering re-releasing her songs in 2023.
“There’s something about an artist like Beverly that just reaches and grabs you in a way that you can’t understand,” he said. “Beverly falls into that Billie Holiday, Chet
Baker world for me. They just kind of grab you on an emotional level and it has little to
do with the power of their voice or their technique. I think a lot of people who have
heard her in that commercial are having the same experience.”
Jerry Oppenheimer is a bestselling biographer and a regular Post contributor.