OCTOBER 16, 1999 – Singer ELLA MAE MORSE (b. September 12, 1924 in Mansfield, Texas) died of respiratory problems in Bullhead City, Arizona, at age 75. She had six children from two marriages, as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and an estranged sister named Flo Handy, who was also a singer.Best known for her 1940s hits like “Shoo-Shoo Baby” and “Blacksmith Blues,” Morse was 9 years old and living in Paris, Texas, she went to the grocery store with her mother and heard someone playing guitar out back. She’d grown up with music.
Her father hailed originally from Coventry, England, and was a talented drummer in a dance band, while her mother, a native Texan, played piano in the same band, but this music was different. “Uncle Joe,” the blues guitarist she met that day, encouraged her natural talent for blues, as did her mother. Her father had left when she was younger. Soon, she was singing on Paris’ radio station, and in 1936, she and her mother moved to Dallas, where she got another regular radio slot after winning a talent contest.Morse was hired by Jimmy Dorsey when she was 14 years old after Dorsey’s band came to Dallas for a stay at the Adolphus Hotel and she called for an audition.
Believing that Morse was indeed 19, as she and her mother claimed, Dorsey hired her, later received a letter from the school board declaring that he was responsible for The Morse’s care, and he fired her. In 1942, at the age of 17, she joined Freddie Slack’s band, with whom in the same year she recorded “Cow Cow Boogie,” the first gold single for Capitol Records. “Mr. Five by Five” was also recorded by Morse with Slack, and they had a hit recording with the song in 1942. She also originated the wartime hit “Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet” which was later popularized by Nancy Walker in the film “Broadway Rhythm.” Not long after “Cow-Cow Boogie” came out, a Musicians Union strike shut down the recording industry. Capitol knew they’d have to settle if they were going to survive, so the label spent the next few years recording Morse singing bland material that didn’t sell.In 1943, Morse began to record solo. She reached #1 in the R&B chart with “Shoo-Shoo Baby” in December for two weeks. In the same year she performed “Cow Cow Boogie” in the film “Reveille with Beverly” and starred in Universal’s “South of Dixie” and “The Ghost Catchers” with Olsen and Johnson and “How Do You Dooo?” with radio’s Mad Russian, Bert Gordon.
She sang in a wide variety of styles, and she had hits on both the U.S. pop and rhythm and blues charts. However, she never received the popularity of a major star because her versatility prevented her from being placed into any one category of music.The song “Love Me or Leave Me” as recorded by Morse was released by Capitol Records with the flip side “Blacksmith Blues”, which became her biggest hit. In 1946, “House of Blue Lights” by Freddie Slack and Morse, (written by Slack and Don Raye) saw them perform what was one of many of Raye’s songs picked up by black R&B artists. But along came another union strike, and Morse’s five-year absence from the studio after “House of Blue Lights” was explained by her getting married and relocating to Boston, where she and her doctor husband raised their three kids. But Capitol needed her, and in 1951, she agreed to try pop takes on the currently fashionable hillbilly boogie style.
The results, including the track “Okie Boogie,” were red hot.Her biggest solo success was “Blacksmith Blues” in 1952, which sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. The same year her version of “Down the Road a Piece” appeared on Capitol with Slack again on piano accompaniment. Morse also recorded a version of “Oakie Boogie” for Capitol which reached #23 in 1952. Her version was one of the first songs arranged by Nelson Riddle. From there, Capitol decided to try her on R&B material, initially from the ’40s, and she scored with Amos Milburn’s “Greyhound” and Hadda Brooks’ “Jump Back Baby.” This worked well enough that, in 1953, Morse became one of the singers now derided by orthodox rock historians for covering black artists’ hits. One listen to the results of these sessions, though, shows that it’s not exactly like Pat Boone covering Little Richard.But times were changing; very few of these numbers charted, and by the time Morse recorded her last sessions for Capitol in 1955 and ’56, record ‘n’ roll novelties flopped, and her personal life fell apart at the same time. In 1958, she married one last time, and although Capitol let her go, she performed regularly around Southern California and toured with all-star bands from time to time.Morse ceased recording in 1957, but continued performing until the early 1990s at such clubs as Michael’s Pub in New York, Ye Little Club in Beverly Hills, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Cinegrill and the Vine St. Bar and Grill. She appeared regularly at Disneyland for several years with the Ray McKinley Orchestra, and did a successful tour of Australia shortly before her final illness.Her music career was profiled in Nick Tosches’ 1984 book “The Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘N’ Roll: The Birth of Rock in the Wild Years Before Elvis.” She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1724 Vine Street. Her entire recorded body of work was issued in a deluxe box set by Bear Family Records.As Morse’s musical style blended jazz, blues, and country, she has sometimes been called the first rock ‘n’ roll singer.
A good example is her 1942 recording of the song “Get On Board, Little Chillun”, which, with strong gospel, blues, boogie, and jive sounds as a genuine precursor to the later rockabilly/rock ‘n roll songs. Her records sold well to both Caucasian and African-American audiences. As she was not well known at the time of her first solo hits, many people assumed she was African-American because of her ‘hip’ vocal style and choice of material.