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Rock n Roll Suicide: Beverly Kenney (1932-1960)

May 4, 2011

Beverly Kenney was repulsed by rock n roll. In fact, by 1958 the jazz singer despised the new music craze so much that she wrote the protest anthem “I Hate Rock n Roll.” By all accounts Beverly Kenney was an up-and-coming bird on the scene. She was discovered by the Dorsey Brothers and released her first solo album in 1956 at age 24. Downbeat magazine’s Barry Ulanov noted: “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 … Beverly is beginning to arrive and she is displaying the kind of ability and potential that should enable her to stay a long time.”

On May 18, 1958 she performed on The Steve Allen Show and sang “I Hate Rock n Roll,” seemingly oblivious to what a rebellious, rock n roll move her denunciation of the changing paradigm truly was. As she decried rebels without a cause, she merely proved that she was one herself. “What is the answer to a teenage prayer?” she sang,  “Frankly speaking, I don’t care. I don’t care  I don’t care …”

On April 13, 1960 – less than two years later after she declared war – rock n roll won the battle when Beverly Kenney overdosed on alcohol and Seconal. She was dead at 28 and is largely forgotten in the United States, while remaining a cult figure in Japan. Being prone to the use of broad cultural stereotypes, I initially assumed her prominence in Japan is due to their longstanding reverential stance towards the glory of suicide – that she is exalted for choosing to die rather than be bloodied by the incoming tide of rock n roll. But journalist Bill Reed, who has written more extensively about Kenney than anyone (check out some of his work here), notes that her death in Japan, when mentioned at all, is generally misappropriated as resulting from a hotel fire.

The Many Looks of Beverly Kenney

After reading a 1992 article on Kenney in GQ magazine, Reed took it upon himself to investigate the circumstances around Beverly’s death. Most everyone who knew her – and none seemed to know her well – said she was distant (albeit kind) and melancholy. Many were not surprised that she had taken her own life. The one exception was Millie Perkins, a young model, who was probably Beverly’s best friend. She indeed was shocked. In 1959, when tapped to star as Anne Frank in the George Stevens  film version of her diary, Millie left New York for California and she never saw Beverly again.

Unknown to Millie, Beverly had tried to kill herself  before. (Reed suspects she was bi-polar). While attending a play with her boyfriend, she insisted they leave halfway through the performance and then, when back at her apartment, she downed a bottle of Seconal. She survived the night, but the demons remained. She would admit herself to Bellevue six months later. Whatever treatment she got there was to no avail, she would “successfully” end her life soon thereafter.

Bill Reed was quoted in The Bluegrass Special on Beverly’s television appearance with Steve Allen. Since there is no available video, he will have to stand as our witness: ““[Allen] asks her, ‘Do you really hate rock and roll that much?’ And she kind of took the Fifth. She said, ‘No, no, no, not really.’ But in point of fact I think she probably was being sincere. She was probably the pluperfect example of the very first major singer who came along just five seconds too late. I write a lot about what I call the tsunami of rock and roll that just came and blew everything away … it really drove everything out … So when Beverly died, she was totally broke.”

In 1960, rock n roll was on the rise and at 28 this young star on the jazz scene felt like she was washed up. Her voice is easy and free, her phrasing – by all accounts – impeccable. She simply wasn’t made for her time. The world was revolting and she couldn’t stand to watch the spectacle.

Nonetheless, whether she liked it or not, she was a rocker, which is fitting because (as a reflection of her alleged bi-polarity) Beverly Kenney was a mass of contradictions. She was brooding, introspective and sad, but she willingly bared it all for Playboy magazine (although the session went poorly and the negatives were destroyed). She apparently feared change, yet her appearance differs dramatically from photo to photo. And, finally, in response to the insurgent new music sweeping the land, she committed the ultimate act of rebellion and took her own life.

She said she hated rock, but perhaps she protested too much, for of course, those things that we hate are so often the things that remind us the most about ourselves.

Beverly Kenney – I Hate Rock n Roll Mp3

“Give Me the Simple Life”  from her 1956 LP Come Swing With Me:

Beverly Kenney – Give Me the Simple Life MP3

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One Comment leave one →
  1. pete baldwin permalink
    May 4, 2011 2:43 pm

    awesome write-up – i had never heard of beverly. that is a great “rock” tune, too!

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