THE FABULOUS MISS ANN-MEOW
RCA Victor's Kitten With A Whip
A Stuff 'n' Laura Production
by Donny Jacobs and Laura Pinto
by Donny Jacobs and Laura Pinto
There are certain entertainers who epitomize an era. One such entertainer is Ann-Margret! The image of her gyrating figure, dressed in a turtleneck sweater and black body stocking, with her flaming mane lashing the air brings memories of the 1960s surging back. Her look was borrowed from 1940s sex goddess Rita Hayworth, her singing voice suggested more than a shade of Paul Anka, and her stage persona was probably inspired by Sammy Davis, Jr, the hippest of 1950s hipsters. However, the way she attacked a dance rhythm was all '60s, and all her own! Of all the starlets in Hollywood back then, this ravishing redhead had the twistin'est torso, the bouncin'est breasts, and the wigglin'est Watusi around. She was the personification of the mad, mod "go-go" girl and Sweden's most exciting export . . . a buxom ball of fire.
Born in 1941 in Stockholm, Ann-Margret spent her early years in a rustic Swedish hamlet known as Valsjobyn. When she was five, she and her mother Anna sailed for New York City. Once ashore, they were reunited with her father, Gustav Olsson. After working for five years to save enough money, he was ready to make a home for his family in the United States. Eventually, they settled in Wilmette, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Daddy's little girl was unable to speak English at first, but that situation changed quickly; only a year after her arrival in America, she was winning spelling bees at school.
Even so, Anna Olsson sensed that her daughter was painfully shy. To prevent her withdrawing into a shell, Mrs. Olsson enrolled the child in dance classes. Ann-Margret's quiet reserve vanished the minute she stepped in front of an audience. She excelled at dancing, and as she grew into her teens, aptitudes for singing and acting also emerged. A different side of her personality was released on stage; both a tigress and a pussycat seemed to share living space inside her body!
As that body grew more lithesome and curvaceous, Miss Ann-MEOW learned how to use it to the best advantage. Her sex kitten persona first manifested itself in 1959. With her ripe bosom heaving provocatively, and her creamy thighs peeking out from under a chartreuse sarong, she started a "Heat Wave" at a high school talent show by making her "seat wave!" Her raw sexuality outraged some parents, but most audiences loved it when Ann-Margret played the "bad girl." A few years later, so would movie directors; they'd delight in casting her as oversexed nightclub singers, saucy saloon girls, adulterous wives and the like. After high school, A-M joined a jazz combo, The Suttletones, and performed at various venues in Las Vegas and southern California. However, it was her appearance in George Burns' Christmas stage show of 1960 that paved the way for both a recording contract and a movie deal.
Ann-Margret's bold and booty-licious style of dancing led to her being dubbed "the female Elvis." Indeed, her Swedish snake hips could match Presley's pelvis move-for-move! It was almost inevitable that she and Elvis appear onscreen together(in 1964's Viva Las Vegas), and perhaps, too, that they cut discs for the same record company. In January of 1961, the RCA Victor label tapped A-M to succeed their resident sex kitten chanteuse, Eartha Kitt. Her succession of producers (including Elvis' A & R men Steve Sholes and Chet Atkins) never quite decided what to do with her. Her RCA catalog ricochets between jazzy nightclub fare, Blues ballads, Country popcorn balls, Rock candy nuggets and full-throttle production numbers from her movie musicals.
The Scandinavian Siren's similarities to Elvis didn't include comparable success on vinyl, but increased collector interest over time has swelled the value of her early sides into the hundreds of dollars. Not unlike the oh-so-feline Miss Kitt, Ann-Margret doesn't exactly sing. She purrs, or snarls, with the barest hint of a continental accent. She's often called "the Kitten with a Whip," a reference to one of her '60s starring vehicles. It turns out that her "whip" is a wicked cat-o'nine-tails that consists of treble clefs, notes and bars . . . and when she cracks it, honey, those black dots go flyin' every which way!
RCA's Sunset Boulevard Studios in Hollywood were the venue for most of Ann-Margret's recordings. Her initial session on 9 February 1961 was conducted by HB Barnum who, along with R & B star Johnny Otis, penned her first single. A lesser artist surely couldn't have made the yearning lyrics of "Lost Love" sound so sincere; this sultry Rock ballad showcased the Scandinavian Siren's interpretive skills to perfection. It missed the charts, though, despite being coupled with a frenetic, Ray Charles-type arrangement of "I Ain't Got Nobody." On February 27, Miss Ann-MEOW returned to the mike for the first of three consecutive studio dates with arranger Marty Paich. These sessions gave birth to the singer's début album, And Here She Is, a subdued effort in which her sexy voice rarely rises above a purr. Still, when she begs "Baby, Won't You Please Come Home?" you wonder why the jerk ever went away . . . and when the Vixen from Valsjobyn implores "Teach Me Tonight," it's a bet that volunteers will line up left and right!
The Swedish sex bomb spent April thru November of 1961 cutting her second album, On The Way Up! Most of these dates took place at RCA's Nashville studios. Chet Atkins was at the production helm and, alternating with The Anita Kerr Singers, the legendary Jordanaires were on hand to provide terrific background vocals. Countrified covers of Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel," Peggy Lee's "Fever," and Don Gibson's "Oh! Lonesome Me" strike an energetic contrast with the songs from her first album. Otis Blackwell's "Slowly," an ode to sexual foreplay, is a highlight; Ann-Margret pan-fries this R-rated midnight snack over a low flame.
The Bodacious Brunette (she wasn't yet a redhead) applies soulful Patsy Cline stylings to "Could It Be?" and a vocal version of Floyd Cramer's instrumental hit "Last Date." Then she cracks her whip on "What Do You Want From Me?" Her aggressive reading gives this routine if-you-don't-love-me-let-me-go lament a swift kick in the overalls. A-M snarls and spits her way thru "I Just Don't Understand," a tough-talkin' ballad punctuated by Charlie McCoy's wailin' Blues harp riffs; it became her highest-charting Pop item. Her only other chart singles also sprang from these sessions: "It Do Me So Good," a gospelly number from bluesman Willie Dixon that the sensuous Swede damn near has an orgasm singing; and "What Am I Supposed To Do?," a torch song in the mold of Elvis's "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" that finds the Wilmette Minx at her most kittenish.
Work on Ann-Margret's third RCA album began in April of 1962; titled The Vivacious One, it definitely lives up to its name! Here are the uptempo performances Rock'n'Roll lovers had been waiting to hear, and the Swede doesn't disappoint: she attacks each song like a predator pouncing on prey. The LP's most memorable cut is undoubtedly "Thirteen Men," a swingin' meditation on sex after The Bomb; the Vixen from Valsjobyn sizzles as she sings about a bevy of post-annihilation suitors who compete for a chance with "the only gal in town." Doubles entendres aplenty, combined with A-M's growling vocals, made this song (a version of which appears on the flipside of Bill Haley and The Comets' original "Rock Around The Clock" single) a cult classic from the git-go. Our sex kitten summons "Jim Dandy" with a come-hither stance that might've made LaVern Baker blush, and she invests "Make Love To Me" with so much naked lust, don't be surprised if you break out in a sweat near the climax (the climax of the song, understand?)!!!
On the jazzy, sensuous "Señor Blues," Miss Ann-MEOW and arranger Bob Florence create a sleazy South-of-the-Border nightclub atmosphere that's so convincing, you can almost taste the tequila and lime. Mam'selle Olsson serves up a sparkling vin rosé called "C'Est Si Bon," a tune associated with her predecessor, Eartha Kitt; the Swede's version is lively, lusty and Latin-flavored. A fun-loving kitten comes out to play when A-M is given Jimmy Durante's zany signature tune "Inka Dinka Doo" for a toy; feeding off the silliness of her background singers, she can barely stifle a spontaneous giggle near the song's finale . . . but playtime's over when the Scandinavian Siren starts popping her fingers, tossing her tresses and swiveling her snake hips. Once she declares "There'll Be Some Changes Made," baby, it's all over! With its abundance of style, sass and sex appeal, The Vivacious One is arguably the only RCA Victor LP that captures the essence of Ann-Margret.
By now, the Vixen from Valsjobyn had begun singing on movie soundtracks. Her first film was Pocketful of Miracles. She sang "The Riddle Song" in this Bette Davis vehicle, and played Davis' winsome brunette daughter. The Swede's second film appearance was the 1962 remake of Rogers and Hammerstein's State Fair, in a role that permanently transformed her image. Director José Ferrer made her over as a redhead, which she remains to this day; the fiery color seemed to mirror the fire in her soul.
The flames burn high in a sizzling production number called "Isn't It Kinda Fun?" A-M morphs from a gingham-clad farm girl into a wild nymphet wearing a barely-there black miniskirt and stiletto heels! Changing vocally as well as visually, she slides into her trademark cat-in-heat growwwwll for the rest of the song. Ann-Margret's first starring vehicle, Bye Bye Birdie, showcased her vocal mettle like never before. The film's most famous scene is the opener, where she wails the title tune while rushing towards the camera. Reprised in the closing segment, her perfomance of "Birdie" runs the gamut from adoration to sobbing desperation to mocking ridicule(how's that for range?)! The Wilmette Minx celebrates femininity on "How Lovely To Be A Woman" and displays virginal naïveté on "One Boy," a tender duet with Bobby Rydell. Strawberry-blonde hair whipping savagely around her head, the Minx comes totally alive during an off-the-hook ensemble performance of "A Lot Of Livin' To Do."
Viva Las Vegas boasts four fabulous Ann-Margret performances: A catty A-M and a cocksure Elvis do amorous battle singing "The Lady Loves Me" . . . the Kitten wins the fight by pushing the King into a swimming pool! She switches from sassy to sensual for their duet on "You're The Boss," a randy Leiber-Stoller offering (cut from the film, but later restored) that oooooozes libido. Miss Ann-MEOW sharpens her claws on "My Rival" and, flaunting her charms in a slinky leotard, expresses her "Appreciation."
In 1965, her Sexyness took a sophisticated turn in The Pleasure Seekers, a remake of Three Coins In The Fountain set in Spain. The theme song, purred by A-M in a nightclub scene, is a showstopper from the pens of Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen. The Ravishing Redhead alternately caresses and whips the tune as she slithers across the stage in a curve-hugging flamenco dress. ¡Olé! Between films, Ann-Margret found time to guest-star on the primetime TV cartoon series "The Flintstones," portraying a singer named (what else?) Ann-Margrock! Her character coos a gentle lullaby, "The Littlest Lamb," to baby Pebbles in an early scene, and later twists and snarls to a rocker called "I Ain't Gonna Be Your Fool No More."
Back on the big screen, the Scandinavian Siren portrayed an American fashion buyer in the City of Lights for Made In Paris. Inexplicably, Trini López bags the groovy Burt Bacharach theme song, while A-M has to settle for "Paris Lullaby," a snippet of a duet with Louis Jourdan. In 1966, she played her sexiest role yet: The Swinger! When not doffing her clothes at the slightest provocation, the Swingin' Swede manages to deliver three tunes: The sock-it-to-me theme song (performed, naturally, on a swing), the provocative bedroom production number "I Wanna Be Loved," and "That Old Black Magic," sung while she strips down to a scandalously skimpy bikini.
Right after the release of Pocketful Of Miracles, Ann-Margret was invited to appear live at the 1962 Academy Awards and sing the theme from another movie. Several months after that steamy performance of "Bachelor In Paradise," RCA Victor decided to make the Oscar-nominated song the title track and centerpiece of her next album. Bachelor's Paradise was meant to fully exploit A-M's sex kitten persona, and do for her musically what And God Created Woman did for Brigitte Bardot cinematically. Unfortunately, producer Steve Sholes and arranger Hank Levine took a wrong turn at the Garden of Eden and never found their way back! None of the tracks do justice to the Swingin' Swede's spunk and soul; with the possible exception of "Romance In The Dark," the songs suffer from sleep-inducing arrangements that never perk up. This album is a tragic waste of talent.
Vinyl was never wasted on Ann-Margret, though it must have seemed that way to RCA executives when her hits dried up so quickly. Still, new singles under her name didn't stop appearing until 1966. Some of these releases (like the pseudo-James Bond theme "Mister Kiss Kiss Bang Bang") were obvious non-starters, but several others had considerable chart potential. Don Robertson's Country standard "I Don't Hurt Anymore," usually played in ballad tempo, turns into a honkin' R & B blaster under Robertson's own baton; seizing the song in her teeth, Miss Ann-MEOW gleefully shakes the stuffin's out of it! "Let's Stop Kiddin' Each Other" sounds like an outtake from the "Hee Haw" television show, but it's a great novelty record; Connie Francis scored hits with similar material. "Man's Favorite Sport" is mmm-marvelous cocktail lounge music, an overlooked gem arranged by a young, unknown David Gates. Presented with leering Johnny Mercer lyrics and a with-it bossa nova beat courtesy of Henry Mancini, Ann-Margret sings as if she were sipping martinis while sprawled naked on a tiger skin rug. Ooh-la-la!
Independent producer Lou Adler made a 1964 studio date with the Swingin' Swede and came up with a bitchy folk/rock rant called "Someday Soon." Written by folksinger and guitarist PF Sloan, it features him abusing his fuzztone knob and soprano Loulie Jean Norman screaming like a banshee in the background! None of which intimidates the Swedish sex kitten, who's at her snarling best on this sullen number. Her Watusi-friendly redux of "You Came A Long Way From Saint-Louis" is another killer. Sadly, all of the aforementioned performances were hidden away on B-sides; radio programmers paid no attention.
In December of 1962, Steve Sholes brought two of RCA's most talented artists together for a little fun and lots of good music. Ace trumpeter Al Hirt, instrumental recording star and Las Vegas lounge staple, joined forces with the Ravishing Redhead, supported by Marty Paich and a roomful of top Jazz players. The resulting LP, Beauty and The Beard (released in 1964) is a joy from start to finish. The Kitten with a Whip and The Bourbon Street Behemoth share affectionate, unscripted banter during every song; you come away feeling as though you've been eavesdropping on something private and special. There's plenty of mutual admiration on display, and not just when the duo romps through a witty version of "Mutual Admiration Society."
There's no shortage of doubles entendres, either: The suggestive wordplay of "Personality;" the up-the-canal shenanigans of "Row, Row, Row;" not to mention the anti-abstinence undertones of "Baby, It's Cold Outside." The duo's at its naughtiest collaborating on Sy Oliver's "T'Ain't What You Do!" In his hippest N'awlins drawl, the big guy advises: T'Ain't whatcha do, it's the place whatcha do it . . . but cool it in case the fuzz is around. Obviously, M'sieur Hirt liked to blow more than just his horn during those hot nights on the bayou! After this Dynamic Duo lazily dip their toes into Ann-Margret's signature tune, "Bill Bailey," he unexpectedly takes the plunge, she follows, and next thing you know, BAM! It's a championship race . . . they cleave the song neatly in half and make a big splash in the process. What else would you expect when Fat Albert tipped the scales at 300 pounds?
The Scandinavian Siren's pet name for Hirt ("Big Daddy") reminds you that this album could easily have been titled Beauty and The Beef! What's really beautiful, though, is the chemistry between the two. She's hot, he's cool. She belts, he blows! She coaxes, and he sings, for the very first time. This act would've made for a kick-ass attraction in the Vegas showrooms; it certainly attracted record buyers! Beauty and The Beard became one of the most popular LPs in Al Hirt's catalogue, going on to be reissued several times. It was Ann-Margret's only charting album.
A-M's finest RCA Victor recording may be her 1963 cover of "The Best Is Yet To Come." Her treatment of this Cy Coleman song is as brazen as its lyrics; flirting shamelessly with a prospective lover, she does everything but fling her panties at him! Promising an erotic encounter like no other, The Wilmette Minx scoffs: You think you've flown before? Honey, you ain't left the ground! Actually, neither had she.
Forty years ago, the Vixen from Valsjobyn was just beginning her climb up the ladder of success. Her unique combination of American drive and European sexuality powered her rise to the top. On the way up, Miss Ann-MEOW collected numerous Golden Globe awards, Emmy and Grammy nominations, a fistful of top-rated TV specials, a host of sold-out Las Vegas engagements, her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and Oscar nominations for her work in the films Carnal Knowledge(1971) and Tommy(1975). In 1979, producer Paul Sabu took Ann-Margret into Hollywood's Britannia Studios and resuscitated her dormant recording career. She re-emerged as a Rock/Disco diva, adding her own club hits "Love Rush," "Midnight Message" and "Everybody Needs Somebody" to her sizzling stage repertoire.
Today, the sensuous sex kitten of the '60s has matured into a lovely and regal 21st century lioness. The Ravishing Redhead may be past retirement age, but she's as voluptuous as ever and still bursting with talent. She can still send those notes a-flyin' when she cracks her musical whip, too! Never underestimate a Swede who swings . . . it may still be true that the best of Ann-Margret is yet to come.