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MORSE, ELLA MAE

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MORSE, ELLA MAE (1924–1999). Ella Mae Morse, blues singer, was born in Mansfield, Texas, on September 12, 1924. She climbed to stardom at the age of seventeen with her 1942 hit single, "Cow Cow Boogie." She was the daughter of a husband-and-wife jazz combo. Her father, George Morse, was a British sailor turned Texan who played the drums; her mother, Ann, played the piano. They encouraged Ella Mae's musical development, and as a girl she sang with them in local performances.

Ella's parents split up, however, and she and her mother moved to Paris, Texas. There she met an elderly black guitarist who taught her how to sing the blues. Despite segregation, Ella and "Uncle Joe" would often sit at a local corner store and sing old blues classics for hours until her mother called her home. Mother and daughter moved to Dallas when Ella was twelve. Her mother, who recognized her vocal talent, allowed her to audition for Jimmy Dorsey's jazz and blues outfit a few months before her fourteenth birthday. Dorsey hired her as a regular singer. The Dorsey band played regularly at the New Yorker Hotel and also appeared in live radio broadcasts. Apparently she was fired within a short time, either because she was underage or because she lacked performing experience, but in either case, her short stint with Dorsey gave Ella her first taste of commercial success.

When she and her mother moved to San Diego, Ella hooked up with another former Dorsey band member, Freddie Slack. With Slack she signed her first record deal with Capitol and released "Cow Cow Boogie." She soon followed this hit with others, such as "Mr. Five by Five," "House of Blue Lights," and "Milkman Keep Those Bottles Quiet." She supplemented her singing by a career in the movies during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Her films included Reveille with Beverly (1943), Ghost Catchers (1944), and Swing High, Swing Sweet (1946). About 1946 Morse married Marvin L. Gerber, a United States Navy doctor. This was her second marriage. Stationed on the East Coast at Bethesda, Maryland, the couple had two daughters and one adopted son, but the marriage did not last, and Morse went back West.

After a brief dry spell in her career, she had a comeback in 1952 with "Blacksmith Blues." In 1956 she appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show with a youthful Elvis Presley, who told her that he had learned to sing by listening to her records. The following year, she made her final recording.

Through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, she performed occasionally, including some stints at Disneyland in Anaheim with the Ray McKinley Orchestra. In her life she married three times and had six children. Her third husband was Jack Bradford, a carpenter; they were married for some forty years. Ella Mae Morse died in Bullhead City, Arizona, on October 16, 1999. Although her career was brief, her influence touched many rhythm-and-blues singers. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Sammy Davis, Jr., once said to her, "Ella, baby, I thought you was one of us." Ella responded, "I am."

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Austin American-Statesman, March 7, 1996. Leonard G. Feather, The Encyclopedia of Jazz, New Edition (New York: Bonanza Books, 1960). Independent (London), October 20, 1999. Colin Larkin, ed., Encyclopedia of Popular Music (London: MUZE UK, 1998). Ed Ward, “Ella Mae Morse: The Voice of Capitol’s First Hits,” NPR (http://www.npr.org/2011/02/21/132051999/ella-may-morse-the-voice-of-capitol-s-first-hits), accessed November 3, 2011.

Bradley Shreve

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Bradley Shreve, "MORSE, ELLA MAE," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fmobx), accessed September 16, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on October 2, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.