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.

3 comments:

jerry said...

Hello, I'm crazy about Ella Mae Morse, help to reissue some LP's in France, colecting anything about her, records (one EP only missing : the Morse Code), photo, movie (16 mm, DVD ...), magazine etc.
Ihave a letter from her to me when we reissue her LP's here in France :-)
Jerry

DON CHARLES aka "STUFFED ANIMAL" said...

Then you surely own a copy of her German box set, BARRELHOUSE, BOOGIE AND THE BLUES! It's wonderful to have her complete Capitol recordings all together in one place. What a talent she was!

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