Ella Mae Morse

Photo of Ella Mae Morse
  • Birth Name

    Ella Mae Morse
  • Born

    September 12, 1923
    Mansfield, Texas
  • Died

    October 16, 1999 (age 76)
    Bullhead City, Arizona
  • Orchestras

    Jimmy Dorsey
    Freddie Slack

Singer Ella Mae Morse shot to stardom in 1942 with the hit song “Cow Cow Boogie.” Unfortunately, like many vocalists who experienced sudden fame based on a novelty song, Morse was unable to surpass or equal her early success. She became deeply associated with and unable to break out of boogie woogie music, which had faded as a popular style by mid-decade, and she retired from show business in 1947. She managed a mildly successful comeback during the early 1950s, but changing musical tastes once again pushed her to retire, permanently, in 1957.

A native Texan, Morse was born in the Dallas-Fort Worth area but spent part of her early years in Houston, where she lived in 1930. By 1935, her family had moved back to north Texas. A complete unknown even in Dallas, Morse got her big break as a singer in December 1938 when she auditioned for Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra at that city’s Adolphus Hotel, winning the position over two other better-known vocalists. Though actually 15 years old, Morse claimed to be 19 and left with the band as it made its way to New York. Being inexperienced and undisciplined, she didn’t last long. Singer Bob Eberly recalls that on one radio program she forgot the lyrics to a song and began to ad lib and on another song she used an alternate set of risqué lyrics that was banned by the network. She was out of the orchestra by mid-February 1939, replaced by Helen O’Connell.[1] Later that year, only 15 or 16 years of age but still claiming to be four years older, she married pianist Dick Showalter.[2] The couple settled on the West Coast, living in San Diego in 1940.

Cow Cow Boogie Fame

Morse vanished from the press after her short stay with Dorsey, resurfacing in 1942 when former Dorsey pianist Freddie Slack hired her to sing with his new orchestra. It was with Slack that Morse had her biggest hit, “Cow Cow Boogie,” which became the fledgling Capitol Records’ first gold single. The record was such a big hit and Morse such a sensation that she quickly eclipsed the band in popularity. Slack’s name was rarely mentioned without Morse being in the same sentence. Part of the reason for the song’s popularity relied on it being released at the beginning of the American Federation of Musician’s recording ban, which began in August of the year. No other label could follow-up with their own version of the tune, leaving Capitol to reap the bonanza when the public went crazy for it. The success of the song helped turn Capitol into a major recording label.

Morse recorded several other numbers with Slack before the ban, most notably “Mister Five by Five.” She remained with the orchestra until February 1943, when she left due to pregnancy. She gave birth to her first child, named after his father, on April 23. When she returned to activity again in June 1943, it was as a solo artist, signing with Johnny Mercer’s summer radio program as featured vocalist. Capitol, of which Mercer was one of the founders, promoted Morse by releasing the backlog of material recorded with Slack before the ban began. Later that year, Capitol settled with the AFM, and Morse began to record new material. Showalter, who sometimes went by the last name Walters, conducted the orchestra for her early solo sessions. Morse began her first tour as a single that October.

Morse continued to record through the mid-1940s and appeared in several films, but though her records sold well she never found a large following. She became forever identified with the song that made her famous, often being billed as the “Cow Cow Boogie Girl.” Slack had a similar problem, and it seemed inevitable that they would reunite. In early 1946, they recorded together again and toured later that year. Morse filed for divorce against Showalter in July 1944. It became final in April of the following year, and in early 1947 she married Marvin Gerber, a Navy commander in the medical corps. She subsequently retired from singing, giving birth to a daughter that October.

Morse was back in the news in mid-1948 when Saks of Beverly Hills sued her for $900 on a charge account and $1,200 on a $7,000 mink coat she returned after having worn for several months. In July 1948, she moved to Guam with her husband when the Navy stationed him there. She was back in the states by November, doing deejay guest spots on KVSM in San Mateo, California. In mid-1949 she began her own program as a deejay on San Francisco radio station KGO. She had her third child, Anne, in mid-1951.

1950s and Beyond

Hitting the comeback trail in late 1951, Morse sang at the Oasis in Hollywood that September, and in October she signed with Capitol again. She opened at Vancouver’s Castle Club in December and became a staple on the club circuit for the next several years. Her recordings sold relatively well, though she had no hits.

In November 1952, Morse set off a storm of controversy when she wrote an article for Down Beat criticizing the current trend in jazz vocals. “A terrible thing is happening to singers. Everybody is shouting!” she began. She specifically criticized Johnnie Ray and Fran Warren, writing that Warren was “screaming.” She also called out Peggy Lee’s vocals on her recent hit song “Lover.” Noted jazz journalist Leonard Feather ran with the opportunity and gave Morse one of his “blindfold” tests of ten different records, focusing on jazz vocals. He called it the “Morse Code of Musical Ethics.” Morse gave varying opinions. Some she liked, some she didn’t. Feather slyly slipped in a Fran Warren song, on which Morse let loose with criticism. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” she said. “Is there anything lower than zero?” Angry letters poured into Down Beat defending Warren and calling Morse “disrespectful” and “rude,” and saying that she “doesn’t know what the word singing means.”

Morse made her last recordings for Capitol in 1957. In October, she signed with Verve, who announced plans to make a blues album, teaming her with Woody Herman on duets, but it never came to be. Morse retired from singing soon after the announcement. She came out of retirement briefly in 1960 to appear with Slack, singing “Cow Cow Boogie,” on the Ford Star Time TV program, Swingin’ Singin’ Years.

Ella Mae Morse passed away from respiratory failure in 1999.


  1. Two apocryphal stories exist about Morse’s stay with Dorsey, one claiming that she was only 13 years old at the time and that Dorsey fired her when he received a notice from the school board informing him that he was responsible for her. As to Morse’s age when she joined Dorsey, the birth year of 1924 given in most biographies is wrong. The Texas Birth Index lists Morse’s birth year as 1923, and the 1930 census, taken in April of that year, lists her age as six, which corroborates her birth record. She would have been 15 at the time she joined Dorsey. In a November 1943 issue, Down Beat magazine gave her age as 20, which again would have made her birth year 1923. ↩︎

  2. On the 1940 census, Morse’s age is falsely given as 20 years old. ↩︎


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. “Dorseys Meet On Same Stand; New Canary for Jimmy.” Down Beat Feb. 1939: 15.
  3. “Dorsey Chirper.” Down Beat Mar. 1939: 2.
  4. “Modern Distribs Capitol Records.” Billboard 4 Jul. 1942: 86.
  5. “'Cow Cow' a Hit but Just One Disk for Sale.” Billboard 22 Aug. 1942: 25.
  6. “Bookers Sizzle as Orks Switch.” Billboard 19 Dec. 1942: 21.
  7. “Ella Mae Morse Awaiting Stork.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1943: 7.
  8. “Ella Mae Morse Has Husky Son.” Down Beat 15 May 1944: 1.
  9. “Ella Mae Morse on Mercer Show.” Billboard 5 Jun. 1943: 7.
  10. “Cow-Cow Boogie Girl Knocks Herself Out in Wax Session.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1943: 2.
  11. “Ella Mae Morse Tours Theaters.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1943: 12.
  12. “Ella Mae Morse Seeks Divorce.” Down Beat 15 Aug. 1944: 1.
  13. “Here's News Capsule Of Music World For 1944.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1945: 3.
  14. “Lost Harmony.” Down Beat 15 May 1945: 10.
  15. “Freddie Slack, Ella Morse Capitol Team.” Down Beat 25 Feb. 1946: 2.
  16. “Ella Mae Morse Doing A Single.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1946: 18.
  17. “Music As Written.” Billboard 5 Oct. 1946: 18.
  18. “Music As Written.” Billboard 25 Oct. 1947: 33.
  19. “Ella Mae Gets Suit, But Not On Account.” Down Beat 14 Jul. 1948: 7.
  20. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 28 Jul. 1948: 5.
  21. “Swingin' the Golden Gate.” Down Beat 17 Nov. 1948: 6.
  22. “Swingin' the Golden Gate.” Down Beat 3 Jun. 1949: 13.
  23. “Oasis Stars Name Plunge.” Billboard 22 Sep. 1951: 51.
  24. “Capitol Signs Ella Mae Morse.” Billboard 3 Nov. 1951: 18.
  25. “Ella Mae Morse Great In First Comeback Date.” Down Beat 11 Jan. 1952: 2.
  26. Morse, Ella Mae. “Terrible Thing Is Happening to Singer!” Down Beat 19 Nov. 1952: 2.
  27. Feather, Leonard. “A Morse Code Of Musical Ethics.” Down Beat 3 Dec. 1952: 12.
  28. “Chords and Discords.” Down Beat 28 Jan. 1953: 8.
  29. Advertisement. Billboard 23 Jun. 1956: 43.
  30. “Reviews of New Pop Records.” Billboard 9 Feb. 1957: 49.
  31. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 17 Oct. 1957: 8.
  32. “Reviews and Ratings of New Pop Records.” Billboard 18 Nov. 1957: 32.
  33. Suber, Charles. “The First Chorus.” Down Beat 14 Apr. 1960: 5.
  34. “Texas Birth Index, 1903-1997,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:V636-5MP : 5 December 2014), Ella Mae Morse, 12 Sep 1923; from “Texas Birth Index, 1903-1997,” database and images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : 2005); citing Texas Department of State Health Services.
  35. “United States Census, 1930,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:H14Y-LZM : Sun Mar 10 15:23:48 UTC 2024), Entry for George E Morse and Anna B Morse, 1930.
  36. “United States Census, 1940,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:K9H8-RRY : Fri Mar 08 16:57:14 UTC 2024), Entry for Richard Showalter and Ella Mae Showalter, 1940.
  37. “Arizona, Payson, Obituaries, 1948-2008,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q2W7-ZV7X : 26 October 2019), Ms Ella Mae Morse, 1999.