Ella Mae Morse
Swingin' at the House of Blue Lights
by Don Charles Hampton
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!
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.