Annie Ross Obituary

Annie Ross, who died last week in New York, crammed several careers – and lifetimes – in to her 89 years. A restless, energetic and driven performer, she had showbusiness in her blood, and a need to entertain which lasted … Continue reading

Stars in Scotland 090Annie Ross, who died last week in New York, crammed several careers – and lifetimes – in to her 89 years. A restless, energetic and driven performer, she had showbusiness in her blood, and a need to entertain which lasted her entire life, from her childhood debut with her parents in music hall to the intimate weekly jazz concerts she gave in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Room up until recently.

Ross was accomplished in many areas: as an actress, a lyricist and, of course, as a singer. Had her career ended in the mid 1950s, she would still have earned her place as a jazz pioneer because by the age of 22, she had introduced a new style of singing: vocalese, which involved using her voice to mimic an instrument, and set lyrics to existing instrumental solos. Her big hit, Twisted, a song with music based on a tenor sax solo to which she set droll lyrics, put her – and vocalese – on the map, and ensured her place in jazz history.

Born Annabelle Short in Surrey, in 1930, Ross became part of the family act as soon as she could toddle. May and Jack Short were already an established team, billed as Short & Dalziel, which played on the music hall circuit.

At the age of four, Ross’s talent as a singer and mimic inspired her parents to take her to New York where May’s sister, Ella Logan, was already working as a singer. There, Ross – whose family hoped she would be the next Shirley Temple – won a radio talent show; the prize being a movie contract with MGM. After accompanying her to Hollywood, Ross’s mother returned to Scotland, leaving her daughter in her sister’s care.

The early movie career only comprised two films – one of the Our Gang series of shorts (in which she sang a swinging version of Loch Lomond) and the Judy Garland movie Presenting Lily Mars (1943). As she hit her teens, her relationship with her aunt – who described her as “a handful” – became acrimonious and Ross, determined to make a career in music, began to dream of escape.

Aged 14, she won a songwriting competition with Let’s Fly, which was subsequently recorded by the great American songwriter Johnny Mercer and which demonstrated her witty way with lyrics. Three years later, Ross returned to Glasgow for what proved to be an unhappy reunion with a family she no longer knew. She later admitted that she only felt any kind of love for her brothers Bertie and Jim.

After briefly treading the boards as part of The Logan Family in Scotland, Ross made her London stage debut in the musical Burlesque. Shortly afterwards, in Paris, she appeared in cabaret and began to hang out with jazz musicians. She made her first recording, Le Vent Vert there, in 1949. A relationship with the African-American bebop drummer Kenny Clarke produced a son, Kenny Clarke Jr. (He died in 2018.)

In New York in the 1950s, following the success of Twisted, which was released in 1952, Ross was a fixture on the jazz scene, performing at the legendary clubs on 52nd Street and even subbing at the famous Apollo Theatre for the great Billie Holiday, the troubled singer who went on to become a close friend.

She made notable recordings with such luminaries as Chet Baker, Zoot Sims and Gerry Mulligan but her most important recording was the1958 album Sing a Song of Basie, on which she joined fellow singers Jon Hendricks and Dave Lambert to perform a collection of Count Basie big band arrangements to which Hendricks had written words. Apart from a rhythm section (led by Nat Pierce), this landmark album featured no instruments; the three singers – collectively known as Lambert, Hendricks & Ross – recorded their voices four times each to simulate the entire Basie band. Over the next four years they recorded a total of seven albums.

Ross, meanwhile, began a double love affair – with the doomed stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce and with drugs. By the early 1960s, after an overdose, she quit New York and came to Scotland where she kicked her habit with the help of her brother, Jimmy.

For a very brief period in London in the mid-1960s, she ran a popular Covent Garden nightclub called Annie’s Room with the actor Sean Lynch, whom she had married in 1963. They divorced in 1977 by which time she had declared bankruptcy and lost her home. Lynch died soon afterwards in a car accident.

After appearing in a string of British films and TV series during her marriage, Ross returned to the States, where, in the 1980s and early 1990s, she appeared in a semi-steady stream of films, among them Superman III (1983). Her most important role, however, was in Short Cuts (1993): director Robert Altman created a character – of a jazz singer – specially for her. She spent the rest of her life in the US, and became an American citizen in 2001. In 2010, she was named a “Jazz Master” when she was honoured by the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts body.

Throughout her career, Ross made sporadic appearances on the musical theatre stage, notably the 1956 hit show Cranks (which Princess Margaret loved so much that she attended more than once), The Threepenny Opera (1972) with Vanessa Redgrave and Barbara Windsor, and The Pirates of Penzance (1982) with Tim Curry.

She starred in Dave Anderson and David MacLennan’s musical The Celtic Story (2002) during one of her many visits back to Glasgow, and took part in a concert performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in 2005.

However, it was as a daring jazz singer with a swinging, sassy style that she will be best remembered, certainly by audiences who saw her at the Glasgow Jazz Festival in 1994 and 2007, or at either of her two concerts at Oran Mor in 2012, when she returned to Glasgow for the premiere of No One But Me, a documentary about her life.

She mesmerised the audience with her still deep and powerful voice, her sense of swing and the way she turned every ballad into a gripping mini-drama, investing the lyrics with raw emotion and prompting listeners to hang on her every word.

Annie Ross, born July 25, 1930; died July 21, 2020

Frank Rizzo (1999-2020)

Former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo was sued by the Justice Department for a pattern of police brutality that shocks the conscience. Rizzo died on July 16, 1991. He was born again eight years later in the form of a 10-foot monument commissioned by Rizzo family and friends. The Frank L. Rizzo Memorial Committee … Continue reading Frank Rizzo (1999-2020)

Former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo was sued by the Justice Department for a pattern of police brutality that shocks the conscience. Rizzo died on July 16, 1991. He was born again eight years later in the form of a 10-foot monument commissioned by Rizzo family and friends.

#FrankRizzo - Still Larger Than Life - Philadelphia Inquirer - December 1998

The Frank L. Rizzo Memorial Committee decided to place the statue in front of the Municipal Services Building. They also decided it would be unveiled on New Year’s Day 1999 after the Mummers Parade, an event best known for clowns prancing around in blackface.

#FrankRizzo - NYT Blackface Clowns

Demonstrators protest ban of blackface in Mummers parade, December 19, 1963

Almost from the moment the hunk-of-junk was unveiled, African Americans and allies peacefully protested for its removal from the gateway to municipal services. Fast forward to 2017, Mayor Jim Kenney said it would be removed by May 2018. Then he said by 2021. Then Kenney said the statue would not be moved before 2022. On May 30, 2020, demonstrators tried to topple it.

#FrankRizzo on Fire

Realizing the jig is up, Kenney said the statue would be removed:

The way its engineered, it’s bolted into the stairs and under the stairs is the concourse where people get their permits and pay their taxes. We didn’t want to tear that up until we did the entire place. We’re going to move it, hopefully in about another month or so. We’re going to accelerate the removal.

The protests accelerated the removal. Rizzo was hauled away three days later. As for the concourse under the stairs, who are we to believe – Kenney or our lying eyes?

Frank Rizzo Down - Concourse - June 3, 2020

Kenney’s lie was compounded by his spokesperson Michael Dunn:

The statue is bolted into the infrastructure of the plaza, which is also the roof of the underground concourse. Removing it while ensuring the integrity of that infrastructure will be a complicated task.

It was such a complicated task the statue was removed under the cover of darkness.

#FrankRizzo - Cover of Darkness

For more on the take down of Frank Rizzo, check out my essay, “The Rizzo reign is finally over. Thank Black Philadelphia.”

In my op-ed, “3 Black Philadelphians whose statues should replace Frank Rizzo” published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, I suggested a memorial to Philly native Billie Holiday, who was harassed by then-Police Captain Rizzo, would be poetic justice. In 1939, Lady Day told the world black lives matter.

Lady (Doesn’t) Sing the Blues – Again

One of the strangest nights in the history of New York’s illustrious Carnegie Hall took place in November 1956 when Billie Holiday, the jazz singer now regarded as the greatest of them all, headlined a show entitled Lady Sings the … Continue reading

Lady Sings the Blues concert poster.pngOne of the strangest nights in the history of New York’s illustrious Carnegie Hall took place in November 1956 when Billie Holiday, the jazz singer now regarded as the greatest of them all, headlined a show entitled Lady Sings the Blues. What made it so unusual was not so much that a jazz star, and a black one at that, was going to perform at this most prestigious of venues – jazz musicians, including Holiday herself, had played on that stage before.

The difference was that this show was inspired by Holiday’s recently published, brutally frank and fairly controversial autobiography, excerpts of which would be read out during the evening – by a male journalist – in between performances by Holiday and an all-star band.

The publication of Lady Sings the Blues a few months earlier had been a big deal. To ensure maximum publicity, a new album with the same title was released simultaneously (an LP of the Carnegie Hall show would follow as well). It was made up mostly of songs associated with the singer earlier in her two-decade career plus the title track – a new song comprising a melody already written by pianist Herbie Nichols with words by Holiday. It had been the publishers, Doubleday, who insisted on the title – Holiday preferred “Bitter Crop” which comes from her powerful protest song Strange Fruit – despite her argument that she had never been a blues singer.

The book was co-written with respected journalist William Dufty, who was a close friend. Holiday needed to get the book out fast since she was in dire financial straits in the mid-1950s: she was in debt but she was unable to work in the nightclubs of New York having had her cabaret card (which permitted performers to work in licensed premises) revoked following her drugs conviction in the late 1940s.

Dufty drew on previously published interviews plus conversations between him and Holiday, and the result was a confessional style of autobiography which dealt frankly with Holiday’s drug addiction and her experiences of rape, prostitution and domestic abuse. The New York Herald Tribune said it was a “hard, bitter and unsentimental book, written with brutal honesty and having much to say not only about Billie Holiday, the person, but about what it means to be poor and black in America”.

Some jazz critics were appalled by the book, which made little reference to Holiday’s art and which – they knew – was an attempt to make some money to support her drug habit and pay off her debts, while giving the impression that she was now clean so that she could get back her cabaret card. One jazz writer who did review it positively was Down Beat’s Nat Hentoff who said that it would “help those who want to understand how her voice became what it was – the most hurt and hurting singer in jazz”.

For a long time, the received jazz wisdom was that Lady Sings the Blues was a sensationalist memoir packed with fiction. Holes were picked in it and once doubt was cast over some mistakes, the reliability of everything else was called into question. It didn’t help that there’s an inaccuracy in the very first line – one of the most shocking and attention-grabbing openers you’re likely to come across. It became a book that you would read but knew you should take with a hefty pinch of salt – and the Lady Sings the Blues movie, starring Diana Ross and not even bearing much resemblance to the book on which it purports to be based, didn’t help matters.

In recent times, the book, which sold well upon publication and has never been out of print, has been re-evaluated within the jazz world, and there’s an appreciation of the authenticity of Holiday’s voice – her streetwise language and her sassy attitude – even if her memories played tricks on her, or if she did have an agenda.

Similarly, the Lady Sings the Blues concert proved to be a big success. Reviews talked about how the audience was spellbound, and you can certainly hear from the live LP how warm the reaction was. Nat Hentoff wrote: “The audience was hers before she sang, greeting and saying goodbye with heavy applause, and at one time the musicians, too, applauded. It was a night when Billie was on top, the best jazz singer alive.”

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For the opening night of the Glasgow Jazz Festival, David McAlmont – the versatile London-based singer whose group McAlmont and Butler topped the charts with the song Yes in the mid 1990s – is staging his show “David McAlmont Presents Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall” in which he pays homage to his favourite jazz singer and that strange yet triumphant night in 1956.

Although McAlmont, who is 52, has been a fan of Holiday for most of his adult life, he didn’t get off to a great start with her. “The first time I heard her, I thought she sounded horrible – it wasn’t even one of her very last recordings. I’d seen a picture of this gorgeous woman and wanted to know what she sounded like. It wasn’t until I saw an Arena documentary, The Long Night of Lady Day, that I understood where that voice came from – and that was when I became obsessed.”

Initially, McAlmont reckons, he was put off Holiday because he didn’t understand what singing is. “You could say that my first singing teacher was Julie Andrews – there’s a purity and clarity and pitch perfect melodiousness. That was the period when a voice like Billie Holiday’s, Bob Dylan’s or Van Morrison’s just didn’t make any sense to me. I hadn’t lived. I hadn’t fallen in love or felt hurt. I was just a kid.”

While many vocalists gravitate towards late-era Holiday when the voice had deteriorated due to her lifestyle but she still managed to put a song across with terrific style and sensitivity, McAlmont has always been more drawn to her early output.

“I love the 1930s recordings,” he says. “It’s still my favourite period – she’s having fun, she’s hip, she’s updating Bessie Smith and Satchmo and having fun with the boys. My go-to album, the one I drilled a hole into, was A Fine Romance with Lester Young. I still can’t face Lady in Satin.”

As a singer himself, McAlmont was keen to pay musical tribute to his idol. “I tried to get myself on Billie Holiday bills and tribute shows – but I kept being told ‘no’ – because I’m a man. After a few years of not being allowed to take part in anybody else’s Billie Holiday events, at the Barbican, at the Chichester Jazz Festival etc, I was lucky to meet Alex Webb [pianist and musical director] and when he asked me if I’d like to do something together, I suggested doing something on Billie. And he came up with this idea.”

For his show, McAlmont uses the material from Carnegie Hall night and broadens it out, adding some extra songs – “I wasn’t going to let this opportunity go by without singing some of my favourite Billie songs that she didn’t do at Carnegie Hall!” – and highlighting different passages from the book, although he retains the shock opening.

He also includes passages that were deleted from the book for legal reasons. The actor Charles Laughton was one of Holiday’s famous friends whose lawyer had demanded that all reference to him be removed. “Well, I like those stories,” explains McAlmont, who has clearly immersed himself in Holiday research in preparation for the show.

“In my research, I consulted everything I could find. I had a bee in my bonnet about jazz being hostile to men singing Billie Holiday and also about the way that Billie is often just thought of as a tragic figure. I’ll never forget, I met this young girl years ago and when we talked about Billie Holiday, she said ‘I love the tragedy’. I’m responding to that. The show is not a wake. There are plenty of people who do that. The show is about that night in 1956 and the book.”

So how does he approach the songs in the show; most of which were so strongly associated with Holiday that her recordings are regarded as the definitive versions? Whereas many singers paying homage to a hero tend to make a point of avoiding imitation, McAlmont – whose heroine often reinvented songs on the spot as she sang – has a different take on this.

He says: “The composition exists but when Billie Holiday takes it it’s a new composition. So in this show, I adhere to the notes she chose – if I sang them my way it would be more cabaret. The integrity of the performance is in remembering how she did it. I’m celebrating her – the show is about her and my love for her, and what she achieved.

“By writing Lady Sings the Blues, she told an American story that people hadn’t heard before and because of her talent, they listened. It’s a valuable document.

“Not only that, but by staging this show at the Carnegie Hall – because she had been banned from singing in clubs – Billie Holiday elevated jazz into an art form. Jazz was brought into a major arts base. That’s another reason why I can’t stand the Billie Holiday industry which sees her only as a tragic heroine. I won’t have it!”

* David McAlmont Presents Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall is at the Drygate on Wednesday June 19. For tickets, visit www.jazzfest.co.uk

First published in The Herald on Saturday, June 15