ELLA MAE MORSE
Born 12 September 1924, Mansfield, Texas
Ella Mae Morse is widely recognized as one of the finest singers to emerge from the 1940s. She was a very gifted stylist and rhythm singer who phrased like no other white chanteuse from her era. But she never received the popularity of a major star, mainly because her versatility prevented her from being placed into any one category of music. She could handle any genre, be it ballads, swing, jazz, blues, R&B or country.
Ella Mae was born in Mansfield, not far from Dallas, but her family moved to Paris, Texas, in the early 1930s. Her father hailed originally from Coventry, England, and was a talented drummer in a dance band, while her mother, a native Texan, played piano in the same band. But the most important figure in her musical education was an Afro-American blues guitarist she called Uncle Joe, who worked at a grocery store in Paris. In 1939 she sang briefly with Jimmy Dorsey's orchestra, until Dorsey got a letter from the local school board that he was responsible for the care and protection of a 14-year old. Ella and her mother had told Dorsey that she was nineteen, a deception helped by her precocious physical development and mature voice. She was promptly dismissed, but the two months with Dorsey had provided her with the necessary experience of performing with a professional band. After some night club work she was invited by former Jimmy Dorsey pianist Freddie Slack to join his band as female lead vocalist. Prior to forming his own band in early 1942, Slack had been successful in Will Bradley's orchestra as the pianist on the boogie woogie hits "Beat Me Daddy Eight To the Bar" and "Down the Road Apiece".
Slack was the first artist to be signed by Capitol Records, a Hollywood company that started operations in April 1942. The Freddie Slack orchestra recorded three tunes on May 21, 1942. One of them was sung by Ella Mae (still only 17 years old), "Cow Cow Boogie", and this was selected as the A-side of Capitol's second single release, issued on July 1 (Capitol 102). It peaked at # 9 on the pop charts (also # 6 on the R&B charts) and became Capitol's first million seller. The song was done in one take. Thinking that it was just a run through, Ella was ready for a "real" take, when producer Johnny Mercer hollered "That's a wrap!" Ella burst into tears and wailed "But I can do it better!" Mercer replied, "No, you can't." She would perform "Cow Cow Boogie" in the movie "Reveille With Beverly" in 1943 (followed by three other small film roles). Her second session, on July 20, 1942 (with T-Bone Walker on guitar), yielded the hit "Mr. Five By Five" (# 10 pop, # 1 R&B). Many Afro-American listeners thought that Ella Mae Morse was black!
Several hits followed in 1943-45 (including another R&B # 1, "Shoo Shoo Baby", 1943), but she parted company with Slack in 1943, after which Ella recorded as a solo artist with several different orchestras. Morse was reunited with Freddie Slack in February 1946, when she cut "The House Of Blue Lights". Slack had brought along his old songwriting buddy Don Raye, who joined Ella Mae on a spoken intro that was straight out of Cab Calloway's Hipster's Dictionary. The song reached # 8 on the pop charts and is included as the fourth entry in the book "What Was the First Rock 'n' Roll Record?" by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes. "House of Blue Lights" has become something of a rock n roll classic, with later versions by Chuck Miller, Merrill Moore, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Freddy Cannon and a few others. The follow-up by Slack and Morse, "Pig Foot Pete", was in the same proto- rock and roll style, but failed to chart.
At the end of 1947 Ella Mae decided to slow down in order to spend more time tending to her children (she would become the proud mother of six). She did not record for four years, but went back into the studio in November 1951, with a new musical director, Nelson Riddle, who arranged and conducted her second million seller, "The Blacksmith Blues" (# 3 pop, 1952). Next came the country-flavoured "Oakie Boogie" (her last hit, # 23 pop) and a fine duet single with Tennessee Ernie Ford, but covers of Amos Milburn's "Greyhound" and Danny Overbea's "40 Cups of Coffee" were more indicative of the direction in which Ella was increasingly turning. She'd always loved R&B music, and under the guidance of producer / bandleader Dave Cavanaugh she was allowed to give the penchant full reign. Together they produced a stunningly good album entitled "Barrelhouse, Boogie and the Blues" (1954), with Morse's cover versions of R&B classics like "Have Mercy Baby","Rock Me All Night Long", "Money Honey" and three Ruth Brown numbers. With these recordings, Ella played a considerable role in introducing a white American teenage audience to black music.
In June 1957 Ella Mae recorded her last sides for Capitol, retiring from the studios while still in her early thirties. Although continuing occasional night club work, she did not record again. She died of respiratory failure in Bullhead City, Arizona, in 1999, aged 75.
More info :
Discography (1950s only) : http://www.45cat.com/artist/ella-mae-morse
Acknowledgements : Joseph F. Laredo, Dave Penny, Nick Tosches (chapter on Ella in "Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll", 1984, revised edition 1991).
Dik, December 2014
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