Gordon Jenkins was born in Webster Groves, Missouri. He began 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, which 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 the 1940s, he was music director for the radio version of the program Mayor of the Town, and his orchestra provided the music for Ransom Sherman's program on CBS.
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), Billie Holiday ("Crazy He Calls Me", "You're My Thrill", "Please Tell Me Now", "Somebody's on My Mind", 1949, and conducted and produced her last Decca session with "God Bless the Child", "This Is Heaven to Me", 1950), 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. Manhattan Tower was also a Patti Page LP album, issued by Mercury Records as catalog number MG-20226 in 1956. It is her version of Gordon Jenkins' popular 1948/1956 Manhattan Tower suite and the album charted at #18 on the Billboard charts. The album was reissued, combined with the 1956 Patti Page album You Go to My Head, in compact disc format, by Sepia Records on September 4, 2007. Jenkins also made a rare excursion into film work in 1952 when he scored the action film Bwana Devil, the first 3-D movie shot in color.
His "Seven Dreams" released in 1953 included "Crescent City Blues" which was the source for Johnny Cash's immensely popular recording, "Folsom Prison Blues". 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.) His final long-form work was The Future, which made up the entire third disk of Frank Sinatra's 1980 Grammy-nominated Trilogy album. Although the piece was savaged by critics, Sinatra reportedly loved the semi-biographical work and felt that Jenkins was treated unfairly by the media.
Jenkins 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 Lead Belly'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 Smoky" (1951), and "Wimoweh" (1952).
After a brief stint with RCA's "X" records, 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 (1960), which includes several tracks with a pronounced
beat that might almost be described as rock. He also produced a diverse set of charts for his critically acclaimed 1960 album Gordon Jenkins Presents Marshal Royal, a jazz-pop crossover project with Count Basie's alto saxophonist which included both strings and a swinging rhythm section.
However, as rock and roll gained ascendancy in the 1960s, Jenkins' lush string arrangements fell out of favor and he worked only sporadically. However, 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), September of My Years (1965), for which Jenkins won a Grammy, Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back (1973), and She Shot Me Down (1981). The latter is regarded by many "Sinatraphiles" as the singer's last great work. Jenkins also worked with Harry Nilsson, arranging and conducting A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (1973), an album of jazz 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 several well-known songs, including "P.S. I Love You", "Goodbye" (Benny Goodman's sign-off tune), "Blue Prelude" (with Joe Bishop), "This Is All I Ask", and "When a Woman Loves a Man". Jenkins also composed the "Future" suite for Sinatra's 1980 concept album Trilogy: Past Present Future, and scored the music for the 1980 film The First Deadly Sin, which starred Sinatra in his last major film role.
Jenkins married high school sweetheart Nancy Harkey in 1931 and had three children: Gordon Jr., Susan, and Page. In 1946, he divorced Harkey and married Beverly Mahr, one of the singers in his band. They had a son, Bruce.
Toward the end of his life, he was in a near-fatal automobile accident, which left him severely debilitated. Nonetheless, he rallied himself for work, conducting a full orchestra for a recording session in spite of his pain.
Jenkins died of Lou Gehrig's disease in Malibu, California at age 73.
In November 2005, Gordon's son Bruce (a sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle) published a biography of his father titled Goodbye: In Search of Gordon Jenkins. Other living relatives include sons Page and Gordon Jr., daughter Susan, nieces Phoebe Barnum and Leslie Mason, and grandson "Pogi" Tony.
In 1966, Jenkins received a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) for Frank Sinatra's rendition of the song "It Was a Very Good Year."1957 Love Is the Thing
1958 The Very Thought of You
1960 Every Time I Feel the Spirit
1963 Where Did Everyone Go?
1957 A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra
1957 Where Are You?
1959 No One Cares
1962 All Alone
1965 September of My Years
1973 Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back
1980 "Future" suite – Trilogy: Past Present Future
1981 She Shot Me Down
1951 Hoagy Carmichael – My Resistance Is Low
1951 The Andrews Sisters – The Windmill Song
1955 Ella Fitzgerald – Miss Ella Fitzgerald & Mr Gordon Jenkins Invite You to Listen and Relax
1957 Judy Garland – Alone
1958 Danny Kaye "Mommy, Gimme A Drinka Water" (Capitol Records)
1959 Judy Garland – The Letter
1965 Jimmy Durante – Jimmy Durante's Way of Life...
1973 Harry Nilsson – A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night