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 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