Morse, Ella Mae (1925–1999)

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Morse, Ella Mae (1925–1999)

American pop-jazz vocalist during the big band era who was noted for her exuberant style . Born on September 12, 1925, in Mansfield, Texas; died in October 1999 of respiratory failure at the Western Arizona Regional Medical Center in Bullhead City, Arizona; daughter of George Morse (a drummer) and Ann Morse (played ragtime in her husband's dance band); quit school by age 14; married Dick Showalter (a bandleader), in 1939 (divorced 1944); married a doctor, in 1946 (divorced 1953); married Jack Bradford, in 1958; children: (early marriages) Richard, Marcia, Ann and Kenny; (third marriage) Dan and Laura.

Began singing with father's band (1934); claiming to be 19, got job with the Jimmy Dorsey Band (1939); joined band led by Freddie Slack; first recording, Cow-Cow Boogie, was a hit (1942); reunited with Slack to record House of Blue Lights (1946); recorded million-seller comeback hit The Blacksmith Blues (1952); recorded last album, The Morse Code (1959); had complete body of work released by Bear Family Records (1997).

Selected discography:

"Cow-Cow Boogie" (Capitol, 1942); "Mister Five by Five" and "House of Blue Lights" (Capitol, 1946); "Shoo, Shoo, Baby," "No Love, No Nothin'," "Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet," "The Patty-Cake Man," and "The Blacksmith Blues" (1952); album, The Morse Code (1959).


Reveille with Beverly (1943); Ghost Catchers (1944); South of Dixie (1944); How Do You Do (1945).

Known as "The Cow-Cow Boogie Girl" in her later years, Ella Mae Morse was born in Mansfield, Texas, on September 12, 1925. Her father George Morse was a drummer from England who became the leader of a small dance band in Texas, and her mother Ann Morse , a native Texan, played ragtime and Dixieland piano in her husband's band. Thus it is not too surprising to find that Ella Mae Morse also possessed musical talent. In fact, by the time she was nine years old, Morse began singing with her father's band at local gatherings, accompanied by her mother at the piano. When the family moved to Paris, Texas, she befriended an elderly black guitar player who taught her the blues, which later proved to be a major influence on her style.

By 1939, Morse had quit school and married Dick Showalter, a musician who played under the name of Dick Walters. Turned down for work by Phil Harris, Rudolf Friml and Tommy Dorsey because she was only 13, Morse finally managed to obtain work with the Jimmy Dorsey Band by saying she was 19. Her employment was short-lived, however, and was terminated when her true age was discovered. She then moved to San Diego and worked at a Los Angeles ballroom before signing on as a singer with Freddie Slack, a former pianist with Dorsey, who was then working at the Pacific Square Ballroom in San Diego. Slack's band was signed by Johnny Mercer and Glenn Wallichs as the first artist on their new record label, Capitol Records. It was not long before the band and Morse recorded "Cow-Cow Boogie" (1942), and the novelty song soon became a huge hit on the pop charts. This same song, previously recorded by Ella Fitzgerald for a film, had landed on the cutting-room floor. As a result of the record's success, Mercer later authorized that Morse be paid royalties on the recording rather than the flat $35 rate originally agreed upon, and Capitol signed Morse as a soloist. She remained with the company for the next 15 years, following up with many more hits, including "Mister Five by Five," "House of Blue Lights" (reuniting with Slack in 1946), "Shoo Shoo, Baby," "No Love, No Nothin'," and "Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet." One of the country's top vocalists during the big band era, she became known for her engaging mixture of boogie-woogie, blues, jazz, swing and country. Her recording of "House of Blue Lights" is considered an important influence on rock 'n' roll. Morse also appeared in several movies during the 1940s, including Reveille with Beverly (1942), Ghost Catchers (1944), South of Dixie (1944) and How Do You Do (1945).

Ella Mae Morse's personal life does not seem to have moved along as smoothly as her career during these years, although she did take several years off to start a family, returning briefly to the studio to record "The Blacksmith Blues" in 1952. In 1944, she divorced Showalter, and two years later married a doctor, with that union lasting until 1953. In 1958, Morse married Jack Bradford, a carpenter; the couple had two children. In 1959, she recorded her last album, The Morse Code, but she continued to appear professionally on occasion, including a tour during the 1970s and annual engagements at Disneyland with Ray McKinley's band. Capitol Records also reissued "Cow-Cow Boogie," and in 1997 a five-CD box set of her complete works was released by Bear Family Records. Morse spent her later years living in California and Arizona with her family. She died of respiratory failure in October 1999 at the Western Arizona Regional Medical Center, Bullhead City, at the age of 75.

Jo Anne Meginnes , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont