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Ella Mae Morse: An Appreciation

Posted by Aaron Munter on February 16, 2011 in Entertainment, Music |

Ella Mae MorseI was reading something this morning that referred to someone drinking dozens of cups of coffee. After getting over the vicarious shock of the caffeination, my thoughts immediately turned to Ella Mae Morse.

Morse wasn’t an early Starbucks exec. In fact, to my knowledge, she never worked in food service. She did have a hit with the tune “40 Cups of Coffee”, though, along with the “Cow Cow Boogie”, “The Blacksmith Blues,” and many others in the 1940s and 1950s.

Her 1942 performance of “Cow Cow Boogie,” in fact, was Capitol Records’ first-ever gold single. The next decade was one of stardom for Morse, peaking with “The Blacksmith Blues” in 1952, which sold over a million copies.

Ella Mae Morse’s style (Wikipedia places it into the Jump Blues genre) was hip, in the swing way (think WWII and immediately post-war), with smooth big-band backing, rhythmic interest, and catchy melodic hooks.

About fifteen years ago, a box set of all of her recordings (including some studio work tapes that were fascinating to hear) were released, and, remarkably, they largely hold up just as well today as 70 years ago. What’s most noticeable when listening to the whole canon is its versatility. Indeed, she hit the top of the charts in pop and R & B, which during the late 1940s and early 1950s, was rare. She even performed in a handful of movies during the period. But it was that versatility, I think, that prevented her from becoming the long-resonant star that her performing ability warranted.

Ella Mae’s work intersected with lots of other amazing professionals of the time, too. Her 1952 recording of “Oakie Boogie” was one of Nelson Riddle’s first arrangements ever. Being at ground zero of early Capitol records meant that she crossed paths with many amazing artists at the early stages of their career (including, among others, Sinatra).

Morse had difficult relationships personally, with two marriages, six kids, and lots of grandchildren that she long felt guilty about raising poorly. But man, the creative output she churned out in only a decade or so is amazing. It’s enough to get your toes tapping, even in the Facebook and YouTube era. In fact, some of her tunes are over at YouTube — I heartily encourage a listen.

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