image: ella mea morse publicity photo © discogs https://www.discogs.com/artist/299955-Ella-Mae-Morse
~Every week from the vaults… a vinyl rarity which crackles, grinds, moves, grooves, hurts, or just awfully tickles…
Smasher of the week; #9
Since her childhood the white Ella Mae Morse (September 12, 1924 – October 16, 1999) knows just about one things for sure: she wants to become a singer. As a kid she often sings together with Uncle Joe, a local black blues singer, in the streets of segregated Paris, Texas. She has musical parents who play in a jazz trio in their spare time and are abhorred by the rampant racism. When she turns 9 years old her parents divorce: a devastated Ella finds solace in her music. At the age of 13 she convinces her mom to allow her to join a local audition with Tommy Dorsey, the famous big-band leader. Dorsey is very impressed by the singing of Ella, who looks older than she in reality is. After the audition he let her immediately fly over to New York to tour with his band. When she completely messes up a radio show and admits that she is only 13 years old, Dorsey right away cancels the contract and puts her back on a plane home.
The desolated Ella Mae returns to her mother and younger sister, Flo, in Texas. Her mom is making long days in a textile factory to get some bread on the table. Perhaps that is why mother Morse agrees that at the age of 14 (!!) her daughter marries a 21-year-old Texan, Dave Showalter, who is under the assumption that Ella is of age (i.e. >16). Ella’s singing career seems to be nipped in the bud until Freddy Slack, the former pianist of Dorsey’s band, asks her to perform with his new orchestra in 1942. In May 1942, the newly established Capitol Records offers Slack a contract for a recording session in Hollywood. It culminates in Capitol’s first million-seller: “cow-cow boogie”, our smasher of this week, sung by Ella Mae Morse.
Cow cow boogie has originally been written for the movie “Ride ’em Cowboy”, sung by African-American actress Dorothy Dandridge. Slack and Morse are the first to record it on an album and give the song more swagger. Even the black population appreciates Ella’s version: many believe she is a black singer! In short, a cross-over artist, but from white to black! Her timing and swing are great. She continues to score many hits for Capitol in the ’40s. One of her more remarkable songs is “The House of Blue lights”, written by Don Raye and Freddie Slack. It contains hip street language and has the legendary spoken intro: “What’s that, homey? If you think I’m goin ‘on a dime, your clock is tickin’ on the wrong time”. Ella considers it the biggest compliment to be labeled a black singer. House of Blue lights will be covered by many black artists, the best known one of the pioniers in rock & roll: Chuck Berry. By the way, it is also Ella who persuades Capitol to take on Nat King Cole, an advice that will bring Capitol a fortune. Nat becomes an African-American superstar and cross-over artist with a huge white fan base.
Morse has difficulty combining her private life with her singing career. Divorced from the Texan Showalter who has come to know her true age, she remarries in 1946 with a naval doctor and relocates to Boston to raise three children, one of whom is a son from her first marriage. In the late 1940s, big bands are making way for small R&B groups, with up-tempo beats, howling saxes and funny lyrics. Capitol keeps banging on her door to let her jump on the R&B bandwagon. She finally agrees, although her husband is strongly opposed to a restart of her singing career. Morse perseveres and releases songs that do also delight a young kid called Elvis Presley. Many of those songs have originally been released by black artists, but Ella knows how to give them her own twist each and every time. She manages to also make a white audience interested in black music. In later music historiography, Morse is sometimes portrayed as a cheap impersonator of black music, but nothing could be further from the truth. The white country singer Cliffie Stone tells her “you are a country singer”, the black saxophone player and composer Benny Carter tells her “You are a jazz singer” and the famous guitarist T-Bone Walker gives her the biggest compliment: “you are a rock & roll, blues and black singer, that’s what you are”
Ella Mae Morse is it all: a white R&B pioneer, who can sing Jazz, Country and R&B effortlessly. It’s hard to classify her, she does not get the honor and recognition that she deserves. The collapse of her 2nd marriage also marks the end of her recording career. The R&R is constantly in need of new stars, hits and hypes, it makes her tired and fed up. The personal life of Ella Mae has plenty ups and downs: the relationship with her children is not always great and the bond with her sister Flo Handy, who has her own singing aspirations, gets broken. She marries a third time in 1958 and settles in San Diego. Ella has had enough of the music industry, but not of music. She continues to perform in a local jazz group until 1978 and sometimes as a guest vocalist to a famous big band passing by. She has another 3 children. Ella Mae Morse dies in 1999 at the age of 75 after a brief illness.
Ps: as far as I know there is no biography about Ella Mae Morse. A chapter is devoted to her in Nick Tosches “Unsung Heroes Of Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Birth Of Rock In The Wild Years Before Elvis” Da Capo Press, 1999
http://www.rockabilly.nl/ A great website about R&B