Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


MORSE, Ella Mae

(b 12 September 1924, Mansfield TX; d 16 October 1999, Bullhead City AZ) Singer, jazz oriented; technically one of the best of her era: she could swing anything, but fell into a crevasse between pure jazz and pop pap. She was too good for the radio in the trough of the early '50s; even so she had more than a dozen hits 1942-53, several in the top ten. She sang with Jimmy Dorsey '39, then with Freddie Slack, and 'Cow-Cow Boogie' with Slack helped establish the new Capitol label.

'Cow-Cow Boogie' was a song about a hip cowboy, written by Don Raye, Gene DePaul and Benny Carter, under contract to Universal Studios at the time, for the Abbott & Costello movie Ride 'Em Cowboy (1941), but apparently dropped from the picture. (It was also used in a Walter Lanz 'Swing Symphony' cartoon in 1943, where it was sung by King Jackson; but contrary to legend, it had nothing to do with pianist Charles 'Cow Cow' Davenport.) Meanwhile, pianist Slack had been famous for a string of boogie-woogie hits with Will Bradley's band, and remembered Morse from the short period both had been with Jimmy Dorsey; he found her singing in a club in San Diego and hired her to sing with his own new band. So a song with 'boogie' in the title was a good bet for Slack and Morse had just the right down-home style.

At the MacGregor studio in May 1942, the rehearsal run-through of 'Cow-Cow Boogie' was recorded, and Morse was ready for a proper take when label boss Johnny Mercer hollered, 'That's a wrap!' Morse burst into tears and pleaded with Mercer, 'But I can do better!' Mercer said 'No you can't,' and offered her a personal contract with Capitol. Mercer's judgement was usually good when it came to musical matters. The record was the second number on the label, released in July, and reached the Billboard top ten in August.

Morse was forever after associated with Slack. 'I was only with Freddie for four months,' Morse said in an interview with Stephen Frattalone in 1987. But she continued to record with Slack ('House Of Blue Lights' '46 went top ten) as well as making her own solo hits. 'Shoo Shoo Baby'/'No Love, No Nothin' ' saw both sides in the top five '43. She also appeared in films Reveille With Beverly, South Of Dixie and The Ghost catchers '43-5. She retired for a few years, then came back with a no. 3 hit on 'The Blacksmith Blues', then top 25 'Oakie Boogie', both '52, both directed by Nelson Riddle; '40 Cups Of Coffee' '53 with 'Dave Cavanaugh's Music' also did well. Capitol producer Cavanaugh did well by her (the album Barrelhouse, Boogie And The Blues included all Cavanaugh material) but in general the later Capitol sessions were stiff: she needed a black rhythm section or vocal group behind her, while the production was lily-white and sounded it, though 'I'm Gone' '56 was written by Quincy Jones and King Pleasure, based on a saxophone solo. Morse Code was a set with Billy May; a five-CD set Complete Capitol Recordings on Bear Family includes it all.