16 May 2007

Ella Mae Morse (Part One)

Ella Mae Morse 4
Jump Back, Honey!
Ella Mae Morse
Swingin' at the House of Blue Lights
by Donny Jacobs
Four of America's greatest female vocalists were born with variations of the name Eleanor. The late Ella Fitzgerald is deservedly called the 20th century's First Lady Of Song; she cut definitive versions of many great Pop standards. The late Billie Holiday, nicknamed Lady Day, was born Eleanor Gough; her unique phrasing revolutionized Jazz singing, and has remained influential right up to the present time. In the 1960s, Eleanor Louise "Ellie" Greenwich was the voice that defined Girl Group Rock 'n' Roll; her songbird harmonies graced dozens of hit records. Then there was Ella Mae Morse, a dance music diva of the 1940s and early '50s. Relatively few people remember her today. Once you've heard one of her vintage performances on wax, though, it's impossible to forget her.

Without a doubt, she was the most dynamic girl singer of the Big Band Era, bar none. Vocally and stylisically, she was a near doppelganger of her mentor, songwriter Johnny Mercer; yet at the same time, she was totally original. The first White female solo act to cross over from Pop to R & B, Ella Mae was a harbinger of American music's future. She effortlessly blended Jazz, Blues, Country and Pop sensibilities every time she stepped up to a microphone. She may well have been the first Soul singer, preceding that musical genre in the marketplace by nearly 20 years.

She was born on September 12, 1924 in Mansfield, Texas. Her mother Ann was a native Texan, and her father George was a British immigrant. Both were musicians; Annie played piano, while George was an itinerant drummer. As a child, Ella Mae tagged along while her parents toured the southwest in dance orchestras; from the sidelines, she soaked in the sounds of Dixieland Jazz, Country/Western music and Pop. Touring came to an abrupt end when George and Annie divorced. However, in Paris, Texas, where she and her mother settled, Ella Mae met an African-American musician who would change her life; decades later, she'd fondly remember him as "Uncle Joe." On a trip to her neighborhood grocery store, she heard Joe singing and strumming his guitar out on the stoop. Spontaneously, she began singing along with him.

Their curbside duets went on for months, much to the amazement of passersby; in segregated, Depression-era Texas, it wasn't commonplace to see a Black man keeping company with a White child. Fortunately, Annie Morse had a progressive attitude about race mixing; with her blessing, Joe took her little girl under his wing and taught her how to sing the Blues. It was a genre of music she proved to have a natural affinity for. By the time Ella Mae reached her teens, the music bug had bitten her hard. When she and her mother moved to Dallas in 1936, she started auditioning for bandleaders and radio station music directors all over the city. Her "Black" delivery of Pop and Country material upset many a conservative sensibility. It was the late 1930s, and America's racial divisions were so rigid, they even extended to song styles. "Black music" was supposed to remain separate from "White music". Two decades later, a Metronome article would recall the kinds of incidents that typically transpired at La Morse's early auditions:

Ella Mae had a really tough time getting started. The radio stations would have none of her! One executive was especially vehement. He almost booted her out bodily and told her not to return until she had learned to sing "like a lady". Ella Mae, who took nothing from anybody in those days, told him what he could do with himself and his station, and with a "you'll be begging me to come back! Just wait and see!", stalked out of the building.

Undaunted, the fiery redhead kept auditioning. "It never occurred to me that I wasn't good," she'd later say. "My parents said, 'You're wonderful!' and I believed them!" Eventually, she landed a weekly fifteen minute singing spot on Dallas radio station WRR. Even so, she made it a point to audition for every touring band that came through town. Benny Goodman and Harry James turned her down, but late in 1938, the ambitious girl bagged a featured singer's job with Jimmy Dorsey's touring orchestra. Ella Mae thought she'd finally bought her ticket to the big time, but her initial taste of the limelight didn't last long. Within weeks, Dorsey discovered that she'd lied about her age (she was only fourteen) and fired her. She left the band in New York City, and was determined to stay on the East Coast; every time she heard about an opening for a singer, she went after it. A little thing like age wasn't about to derail her dreams of stardom! While she did impress several Big Apple bandleaders with her authentic Blues chops, among them Glenn Miller, none would hire her. Broke and dejected, she ended up taking a train back home.

Radio exposure notwithstanding, Annie Morse understood that opportunities for her daughter were limited in Dallas. She relocated the family to southern California, and within a very short time, the enterprising Miss Morse was entertaining patrons every night at San Diego's Ratliff Ballroom. Buddy Lovell, leader of the Ratliff's house band, took her on as his female vocalist. Her mother couldn't find a good job on the West Coast, though, and soon decided to return to Texas. Just fifteen years old, Ella Mae was obliged to go back with her, but she was desperate not to leave California. She eloped with Lovell's pianist Dick Showalter, which enabled her to stay behind and continue pursuing her career. The marriage would only last a few years, but it served its main purpose.

By early 1942, Lady Mae was appearing with a Jazz combo at a local nightclub called Eddie's. One night, she looked out into the crowd and spotted an old friend: Freddie Slack, the pianist from Jimmy Dorsey's band. He told her he'd quit Dorsey and was looking to start his own band. When he got it together, he promised, he'd come back and hire her as his girl singer. Slack was true to his word. She joined his outfit shortly after he'd landed a record deal with a brand new West Coast label. On May 21, 1942, Ella Mae Morse and the Freddie Slack Orchestra filed into Hollywood's McGregor Studios. Little did they know they were about to wax Capitol Records' first smash hit single!

Songwriter Johnny Mercer, co-founder of Capitol and the label's first head of A & R, produced the historic session. He immediately established a chemistry with Ella Mae; like her, he loved the Blues, and he shared her ability to sing in the earthy, syncopated style of Black Jazz vocalists. In the coming months, Mercer would serve as her unofficial vocal coach, but at this first meeting, he learned just how close her singing style was to his own. The song on the music stand was "Cow Cow Boogie," a novelty number taken from a Walter Lantz cartoon. Written by Jazz arranger Benny Carter with professional tunesmiths Gene DePaul and Don Raye, it was a tribute to Herb Jeffries, the Black cowboy star who'd recently starred in a series of low budget westerns. The lyrics praised a Swing half-breed (Jeffries was the product of an interracial marriage) who sauntereed across the plains singing a most peculiar cowboy song.

The number was tailormade for a Texas Blues singer like Ella Mae who also knew her way around a Country tune; she expertly merged the two song styles while Freddie Slack backed her up with a lazy Swing tempo. "It was a walk in the park, because I had been doing it a couple of months with the band," she'd later tell biographer Kevin Coffey. "Johnny Mercer (said) 'okay, let's run it through once,' and that's what we thought we were doing. And when we got through with it, he said, 'Wrap it up! That's it, that's a take!' And I burst into tears!" She begged for another take; she knew she could deliver a much better performance. However, to Mercer's ears, her spontaneous mix of Country and Blues phrasing struck a perfect balance that couldn't possibly be bettered. He couldn't get "Cow Cow Boogie" pressed up for 78 RPM release fast enough, and in retrospect, it's easy to understand why. The record was pure dynamite. It exploded right out of the box, zoomed up to #9 on the national hit parade, and established Capitol Records as a hot new contender on the wartime music scene.

Two months later, Ella Mae and Freddie returned to MacGregor Studios with two more Gene DePaul/Don Raye novelties: "Get On Board, Little Chillun," an infectious Pop treatment of the old Negro spiritual, and a fabulous Big Band dance number called "Mister Five By Five." Both became major best-sellers. The latter platter featured a cool cameo vocal from Mercer, and one of the jivin'est readings Lady Mae would ever put on wax; it sounded like it might've been cut live during a nightclub set in Harlem. A quintessential Swing record, "Mister Five By Five" blanketed Pop radio in the Fall of '42 and wasted no time muscling its way into Billboard's Top Ten listings.

Yet Ella Mae's recording career very nearly derailed at this time; the American Federation of Musicians instituted a nationwide recording ban right after her "Get On Board" session. A whole year passed before Capitol could legally bring Freddie Slack's orchestra back into the studio again. During this time, Johnny Mercer used Lady Mae as featured vocalist on his NBC radio show "Mercer's Music Shop", and she and Slack embarked on a series of personal appearance tours. She also appeared in the film musicals Reveille With Beverly, The Sky's The Limit and Stage Door Canteen. Keeping such a high profile paid off. The public's response to Ella Mae was so overwhelmingly positive, she decided to quit the Slack organization and go out on her own. When she finally returned to the studio in October of 1943, it was as a solo performer. Capitol Records co-owner Glen Wallichs took over as her producer, and bandleader Dave Matthews (to be sure, a different Dave from the Rock bandleader we know today) provided musical backing. Happily for all concerned, the hits kept coming.

That session, and one held eight days later, produced a clutch of solidly commercial sides; four of them would number among La Morse's most popular releases. The first to reach the public was Phil Moore's sexy GI sendoff, "Shoo-Shoo, Baby." The Andrews Sisters' version on Decca Records outsold Ella Mae's single, but Maxene, Patty and Laverne couldn't even get within shouting distance of her impeccable Blues phrasing and glacier-melting sensuality. This record convinced everybody who hadn't seen her publicity photos that Ella Mae Morse was a Black singer. "Shoo-Shoo, Baby" flew to the top of the "Race Music" charts, and the massive acceptance it found with Black audiences got her booked onto the "Jubilee" show, an Armed Forces Radio broadcast aimed at African-American servicemen. With considerable pride, Lady Mae would later talk about how she and Johnny Mercer "got plaques from a Negro college. They voted us the Black male and female singer of the year . . . I thought, 'isn't that terrific? And I haven't got the heart to let them know (the truth)!'"

The truth didn't hurt much, especially not after Black music legends like Louis Armstrong publicly embraced her. Mainstream Pop lovers responded with equal enthusiasm to "Shoo-Shoo, Baby", but they also flipped the record over. To their delight, they discovered a Jazzy midtempo ballad called "No Love, No Nothin'." Written for the 1943 movie musical The Gang's All Here, this Leo Robin warbler quickly become a standard; in subsequent years, it would rate cover versions by Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Petula Clark and many other artists. By January of 1944, Ella Mae's bluesy way with a lyric had won Top Ten chart placings for both sides. Capitol Records treated the public to another taste of sultry Morse balladry with "Tess's Torch Song," a great slow dance number by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. Introduced by Dinah Shore in the wartime comedy Up In Arms, it missed the Top Ten by a hair's breadth that April. Her next two singles wouldn't miss; on the contrary, they'd establish 1944 as the most successful year of her entire career. The first one, a musical snapshot of American women during a time of national crisis, was destined to go down in history.
Ella Mae Morse3
"Jump Back, Honey" continues with Part Two.

15 May 2007

Ella Mae Morse (Part Two)

Ella Mae Morse1

Jump Back, Honey!
Ella Mae Morse
Swingin' at the House of Blue Lights

by Donny Jacobs
It was the height of World War II, and defense plants were humming all over America. With most able-bodied men serving in the armed forces, women were filling the quota of workers needed to staff assembly lines for munitions manufacture. It was the first time female labor had entered the US workforce in such large numbers. Popular media gave these patriotic ladies a generic nickname: "Rosie The Riveter". Rosie was hailed as a direct descendant of the American pioneer woman, a can-do girl next door willing to pin up her hair, roll up her sleeves, and dirty her hands cranking out equipment for enlisted men. Numerous songs were penned in her honor, but the most successful was Ella Mae Morse's October 1943 recording of "Milkman! Keep Those Bottles Quiet!" It was the fourth hit penned for her by Gene DePaul and Don Raye. Lady Mae portrayed a weary defense plant doll, rattled once too often out of her much-needed sleep by the sound of milkmen making their early morning rounds. (It hasn't been done for decades, but back in the '40s, dairy manufacturers still delivered their healthful product door-to-door in chilled glass bottles). While Dave Matthews' orchestra pounded the music out eight-to-the-bar, La Morse delivered Don Raye's hep cat lyrics in perfect Swing time: Been knockin' out a fat tank all day/Workin' on a bomber, okay/Boy, you blast my wig with those clinks!/And I gotta catch my forty winks/Bail out, buddy, with that milk barrage/It's unpatriotic . . . it's sabotage!

Topping out at #7 on Billboard's Hit Parade in the summer of 1944, "Milkman's" jumping bean rhythm no doubt had feet flying to the Lindy Hop anywhere a radio or jukebox was near. Ella Mae closed out her stellar year with an irresistible Pidgin English vocal on "Patty Cake Man." A droll tongue twister of a song concerning an amorous baker and his lovemaking technique, songwriter Roy Jordan had pitched it to her in New York City while she was on tour. Two versions exist of this cute but slightly risqué number; the first one, featuring Paul Weston's orchestra, was never issued. Surprisingly, it's a better recording than the second, which featured Billy May on trumpet and Mel Tormé playing drums. Nevertheless, that's the version that became a Top Ten hit upon its release in September.

Ella Mae went back to producer Johnny Mercer for her final hits of the 1940s. Most were waxed at the famous Radio Recorders studio where Elvis Presley later cut most of his West Coast sessions. "Captain Kidd", a sassy Swing number by Roy Alfred and Marvin Fisher, kept her in a novelty bag with a character-driven lyric similar to that of "Patty Cake Man" and "Mister Five By Five." It scaled the charts just as World War II began winding down. "Buzz Me" greeted returning soldiers in January of 1946. Rumors about the purity of Lady Mae's ethnic background were rife again after she cut this torrid Blues ballad, composed and introduced by pioneering R & B bandleader Louis Jordan. The title was clever double-entendre; in civilian lingo, it meant "call me on the telephone," but it was also military slang for an airplane flyover. Buzz, me, baby, La Morse cooed, with an aggressive come-hither attitude that must've had war veterans breaking out in a cold sweat. I'm equipped for television, walkie-talkie and Morse code, too! Backed by an excitable brass section led by Billy May, "Buzz Me" became her second (and, surprisingly, last) single to take Black radio stations by storm. Aside from "Cow Cow Boogie," it's probably the record she's most remembered for.

Big Band Swing was dying out, and piano-based boogie woogie was gaining popularity when Ella Mae cut her first session of 1946. Reunited with Freddie Slack and songwriters Gene DePaul and Don Raye, the boogie mood was dominant as she lay down tracks for "House Of Blue Lights." This was arguably the "blackest" sounding record she'd ever cut. Opening with some jivey patter between Lady Mae and Mister Raye (doing his best Johnny Mercer impression), the song amounts to a rockin' little ad jingle for a juke joint. This groovy pad serves up succulent barbecued ribs with tasty keyboard licks on the side. Ah, but the redheaded girl singer's righteous vocals are even tastier.

Music historians would later cite "House Of Blue Lights" as a seminal Rock 'n' Roll recording; however, at the time of its release in the summer of '46, it was just considered a great dance record. It rated a #8 berth on the Pop music express, and subsequent boogie woogie releases like "Pigfoot Pete", "Old Shank's Mare" and the phenomenally cool "Hoodleaddle" signaled a hip new direction for Capitol's flagship female star. Unfortunately, Ella Mae was about to turn off the road and head for home; the first phase of her amazing career would soon draw to a close.

She divorced Dave Showalter in 1946 and married Marvin Gerber, a Navy doctor, the following year. By the fall of '47, the couple had a son from Ella Mae's first marriage, had recently welcomed a newborn daughter, and was thinking seriously about having another child. Since remarrying, she had moved to Boston, Massachusetts, and was commuting to Hollywood for record dates. Irritated by her frequent absences, Gerber asked her to give up singing and become a full-time wife and mother (a request that would eventually put an end to their relationship). That December, La Morse informed Johnny Mercer of her intent to retire and devote herself to raising a family. Reluctantly, he released his talented protegée from her contract.

Three years later, though, he welcomed her back to the Capitol artist roster. Adjusting to life as a postwar hausfrau had been much harder for Ella Mae than she thought it would be; she missed performing terribly. "I love people," she told Downbeat reporter Ted Hallack, explaining why she'd reactivated her career. "I'd rather do club dates than anything else." Anything else except cutting records, that is. When she turned on the radio, the emerging mix of Pop, Country, Latin and R & B sounds she heard excited her. They made her want to get back in the studio in the worst way. Haddock quoted her as saying: "I'd like to get out of the 'boogie' rut and do a variety of things." His article revealed that the pretty blonde singer (her natural red hair color went on temporary hiatus in the early '50s) would be recording under a new A & R setup. Voyle Gilmore was now her designated producer, and her initial studio dates would feature charts by up-and-coming arranger Nelson Riddle.

However, Gilmore soon faded into the background, and his place was taken first by Ken Nelson, head of Capitol's Country music division, then by Lee Gillette, Nat "King" Cole's regular producer. Under Nelson's supervision, the bodacious blonde waxed a pair of Nashville-styled novelties that brought her back to the charts in a big way. "Blacksmith Blues" and "Oakie Boogie" were updates of the Western Swing style popularized by Bob Wills and Pee Wee King in the 1930s and '40s, a danceable blend of Country and Jazz that was right up her alley. Her lively syncopated readings, delivered in her spicy Texas drawl, fit this fusion material like a glove. With its kinetic ash tray percussion and seesawing beat, "Blacksmith Blues" hammered its way past the million-seller mark; breaking for an international smash in the opening months of 1952, it became the biggest hit of Ella Mae's career. Four months later, "Oakie Boogie" confirmed that her chart comeback was no fluke. Its rowdy hoedown rhythm, featuring Speedy West's stylish steel guitar accents, injected a shot of Grand Ole Opry revelry into the ballad-heavy early '50s Pop scene. Had this style of music continued to be commercial for her, La Morse would no doubt have delved further into nouveau Western Swing. Capitol steered her in another direction, though, after a down-home duet with Tennessee Ernie Ford ("I'm Hog-Tied Over You") failed to capture the public's fancy.

Producer Dave Dexter cut two very special songs with her at a New York session held in October of 1952. Released as the A and B-side of a single, neither tune became a hit, but both are absolutely essential waxings for Ella Mae Morse fans. Presented with a boogie woogie and a Rhythm & Blues number to write charts for, arranger Joe Lipman decided to fully exploit the orchestral possibilities of both tunes. The Blues selection was "Greyhound", of which there were already versions on the market by Wynonie Harris and the Buddy Morrow orchestra featuring Frankie Lester. The boogie selection was "Jump Back, Honey", based on an old African-American children's rhyme. Lipman and Dexter made an elabororate and highly visual production of the former number; vaguely Latin-sounding, its metronomic instrumentation was so evocative of spinning wheels, revving motors, honking car horms and changing traffic lights, it was almost uncanny. Ella Mae wailed like a madwoman on the track, and upon hearing the playback, flipped for it. She immediately took to recreating the record onstage. "I did ('Greyhound') in Las Vegas, and they loved it!', she'd later recall. "They did it with (flashing) lights and stuff."

The boogie woogie side had originally been recorded by its composer, Hadda Brooks, in her typically intimate piano Jazz style. Joe Lipman brought a forty megaton Big Band to bear on the unassuming ditty, and Dave Dexter bathed his arrangement in rippling reverb. The playback probably came close to blasting everybody out of WMGM Studios by sheer force of volume; judging by the aural impact of the finished master, Dexter's recording level indicators must've been 'way up in the red zone. Ella Mae stood her ground amidst the din, though, rising to the occasion with a cocky staccato vocal that calls to mind today's Rap music cadences. The result was her hippest and most exciting platter yet. Hearing La Morse frantically yell "jump, jump, jump!" while the song coda peters out like sputtering gasoline engine is a Pop music event all by itself.

Ella Mae's final hit for Capitol came in August of 1953. "Forty Cups Of Coffee," supervised by Lee Gillette, was a cover version of singer/songwriter Danny Overbea's R & B smash from earlier in the year. It featured Big Dave Cavanaugh's orchestra holding forth with a greasy grindhouse groove. For her part, Lady Mae served up a performance that was guttural, gutsy, and marvelously decadent. It's hard to understand how a total Blues tour-de-force like this could miss the R & B charts. Not only did Black radio ignore the single, it barely cracked Top Thirty on the Pop listings. Ella Mae Morse records were getting better and better, but it seemed nobody was listening anymore.

So her hits dried up at this point, even though she was clearly at the height of her vocal skills. For artistry's sake, Capitol kept Ella Mae busy in its Melrose and Vine Street recording studios for nearly four more years. Exceptionally good sides like "T'Ain't What'cha Do" (originally waxed by that other Ella), "Coffee Date" (a Starbucks theme song just waiting to be discovered), and the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross-styled Bebop number "I'm Gone" were left to gather dust in record store bins. In early 1955, Capitol released a long-playing Ella Mae Morse album called Barrelhouse, Boogie and The Blues. It featured covers of recent R & B hits like Billy Ward and The Dominoes' "Have Mercy, Baby," Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters' "Money Honey," La Vern Baker's "How Can You Leave A Man Like This?" and Ruth Brown's "Teardrops From My Eyes." "Forty Cups Of Coffee" rounded out the set, which is highly coveted by LP collectors. These waxings, along with the aforementioned "House Of Blue Lights", have much to do with Lady Mae being regarded as a Rock 'n' Roll pioneer. Her final sessions in June of 1957 yielded her Pop-oriented Morse Code album, for which Lee Gillette allowed her to choose the repertoire and collaborate on arrangements with Billy May. The standout of the twelve standards is an extended version of Johnny Mercer's chart-topper from 1945, "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive". Ella Mae almost certainly recorded it as a farewell tribute to her mentor.

Had Lady Mae not killed the momentum of her career with premature retirement, who knows how many more hits she might've enjoyed? She'd probably be remembered today as an early female vocalist superstar, alongside her more successful contemporaries Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee and Dinah Shore. However, as she sang definitively in 1953, t'aint what'cha do/it's the way how'cha do it! The unique way Annie and George Morse's amazing daughter handled '40s and '50s Pop songs makes them sound almost as fresh today as they did back then; the arrangements and production values may have become dated and obsolete, but her performances haven't aged one bit. Currently, there are soulful White singers all over the place, jumping from Jazz to Blues to Country and back again just like Ella Mae Morse did in her heyday. As a singer, she clearly was 'way ahead of her time.

Whenever the Zoot Suit Muchachas host Swing Dance Night at the Pop Culture Cantina, Ella Mae's hits get the grooves spun out of them. All the hep cats and bobby soxers beg our deejay (that's me) to play Morse favorites like "Milkman! Keep Those Bottles Quiet", "Mister Five By Five", "Oakie Boogie" and "Captain Kidd." They scuff up my dance floor something awful in their saddle shoes and ankle-strap mules! Those Capitol classics have definitely earned Ella Mae Morse a place of honor alongside those other talented Eleanors I mentioned earlier. She was, and is, what American popular music is all about: Black, White and Latin influences all blended together into something delicious, not unlike one of my famous Cactus Daiquiris. That piquant blend, more often than not mixed by great girl singers, is what makes our vintage music product superior to that found anywhere else in the world. To be sure, excellent female vocalists have come from countries other than the United States; but once you've compared them to legendary ladies like Ella, Billie, Ellie and Ella Mae, there's only one thing you can say: Jump back, honey, jump back!
Ella In Color

The complete Capitol recordings of Ella Mae Morse 
are collected on the German box set 
Barrelhouse, Boogie and The Blues, 
available from Bear Family Records.