Ella Mae Morse is probably not the Ella that comes to mind when thinking about jazz. A girl with an unremarkable upbringing from suburban Texas, Morse gave Capitol Records its first Gold Record in 1942 with the rockabilly song "Cow Cow Boogie." It was Jimmy Dorsey's piano player, Freddie Slack, who discovered her at 14 when she she lied about her age to sing for Dorsey's band. Dorsey kicked her out when he got notice from the Dallas School Board that he was employing a minor, but Slack kept her.
I found her album, The Morse Code, very much by chance in the $1 record bin at a bookstore in Downtown LA. It was the cover that struck me: that shock of red hair popping out of a cobalt turban, the sideways glance, a hand cupped next to that coral smile like she's letting her listeners in on a secret.
Morse has a voice that pops, a voice that reinterprets classics like "My Funny Valentine" and "Heart and Soul." But the song that struck me most was "You Go To My Head."
You go to my head
You linger like a haunting refrain
And I find you spinning round
In my brain
Like the bubbles in a glass of champagne
You go to my head
Maybe it's the orchestral arrangement, or the uptempo bongo, or perhaps the voice with verve singing about falling in love against her will. I can relate.
You go to my head with a smile
That makes my temperature rise
Like a summer with a thousand Julys
You intoxicate my soul with your eyes
Why do certain songs stick while others don't? When I look back at my music collection, the songs that I remember are the ones that parallel life. Even my Spotify account tells a story--months and years of unremarkable music, cruising music, downtempo tunes to get through the day, to get through emails, to make dinner, to get through traffic, something to listen to while I brush my hair--music that I have little recollection of essentially, as if I was sleepwalking through it all. And then, here and there, short bursts of Vivaldi, of Cake, of Edith Piaf, or Cat Power, of Amy Winehouse, of The Smiths? And now, Morse.
There's a pushing and a pulling in this song, a kind of tension from the always conflicting future and present selves. Who was this song for? A doomed lover, maybe.
Still I say to myself
Get ahold of yourself
Can't you see that it never can be
I've probably listened to this song about 50 times in the past three days. Part of it was so I could write this piece, the other...I'm not sure, The French writer, Francois La Rochefoucauld said, "There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had not heard there was such a thing." I tried to find Morse's cover of "You Get To My Head" to link here, but there's nothing free on the internet. The closest I could find is for purchase on Amazon for 89 cents.
A few years after this recording, Capitol let Morse go. Times were a-changing and so were the tastes of music consumers--the Korean War ended, the Nuclear Arms Race started, McCarthyism was in full swing while more and more households bought televisions to stay tuned--the future ahead looked like a question mark. Not much has been written about Morse after her days with Capitol. Of the little I found, her 1st marriage fell apart, her 2nd marriage fell apart too, her career fizzled, though she got gigs where she could as the opening act for more known bands. She had kids, they had kids. And then in 1999 in a place called Bullhead City, Arizona, she died.
Does life mimic music? Or is it the other way around? Who knows. Maybe Ella Mae Morse knows. Or maybe at one time she thought she knew. I would very much like her to lean in and let me in on this secret. What happened to you, Ella? That cobalt turban, that fiery hair. The voice in love. In that moment, in those lyrics, in spite of the doomed future, Morse created something more than just a cover song. Little else matters.
Bits & Pieces
A place for experimentation, a place for pieces unpolished and unpublished, a place to work out thoughts and ideas for larger collections. Typos aplenty. Enjoy (or not).