Ella Mae Morse

Photo of Ella Mae Morse

Best known for the hit song Cow Cow Boogie,” Ella Mae Morse got her big break in December 1938 with Jimmy Dorseys or­ches­tra. Two sto­ries ex­ist about her short stay with Dorsey. One is that she called for an au­di­tion when the band was booked at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas. Needing a fe­male singer, Dorsey lis­tened, liked her and hired her. She claimed to be 19 but was re­ally 13, and when Dorsey later re­ceived a no­tice from the school board in­form­ing him that he was re­spon­si­ble for her, he fired her.

The sec­ond story, re­lated by for­mer band­mem­bers, tells that Dorsey dis­cov­ered a 15-year-old Ella Mae at a Houston jam ses­sion. Having bor­rowed car­fare to get to the event, she walked out with a Dorsey con­tract. She was in­ex­pe­ri­enced, how­ever, and undis­ci­plined, caus­ing Dorsey to fire her af­ter only a month.

The real story of Morse’s short stay in Dorsey’s band, as re­lated in trade mag­a­zines of the time, lies some­where in-be­tween. Ella Mae, a com­plete un­known even in Dallas, joined Jimmy’s band at the Adolphus Hotel, win­ning the po­si­tion over two other bet­ter-known vo­cal­ists. She then trav­eled to New York with the band. 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 band by mid-Feb­ru­ary 1939, re­placed by Helen O’Connell, who joined on February 20.

As to Morse’s age when she joined Dorsey, the birth year of 1924 given in most bi­ogra­phies is ques­tion­able. Morse mar­ried pi­anist Dick Showalter in 1939. That would have made her only 14- or 15-years-old at the time. In a November 1943 is­sue, Down Beat mag­a­zine gave her age as 20, which would have made her birth year 1923. That still would have been too young for her to have mar­ried in 1939. In 1951, Morse gave her age as 27, which co­in­cides with the 1924 birth date. It was­n’t un­usual for celebri­ties in that era to be­come younger as they grew older, and it’s prob­a­ble Morse did just that. She was at­tempt­ing a come­back at the time and likely did­n’t want to ap­pear old, mak­ing it a point in in­ter­views to em­pha­sis her youth.” At the youngest, she was 17 at the time she sang with Dorsey, which would give her a birth year of 1921.

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 she 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, they set­tled with the AFM and recorded new ma­te­r­ial with Morse. Showalter, who some­times went by the last name Watlers, 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.” She 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.

Hitting the come­back trail in late 1951, Morse sang at the Oasis in Hollywood dur­ing 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.

Music

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  • Cow Cow Boogie
    Freddie Slack (Ella Mae Morse), Capitol (1942)
  • Mister Five by Five
    Freddie Slack (Ella Mae Morse), Capitol (1942)
  • Rip Van Winkle
    Ella Mae Morse, Capitol (1945)

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Films

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  • Screenshot
    "Cow Cow Boogie"
    Freddie Slack (Ella Mae Morse)
    from the film Reveille With Beverly, Columbia (1943)

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Sources

  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. “Ella Mae Morse Doing A Single.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1946: 18.
  16. “Music%mdash;As Written.” Billboard 25 Oct. 1947: 33.
  17. “Ella Mae Gets Suit, But Not On Account.” Down Beat 14 Jul. 1948: 7.
  18. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 28 Jul. 1948: 5.
  19. “Swingin' the Golden Gate.” Down Beat 17 Nov. 1948: 6.
  20. “Swingin' the Golden Gate.” Down Beat 3 Jun. 1949: 13.
  21. “Oasis Stars Name Plunge.” Billboard 22 Sep. 1951: 51.
  22. “Capitol Signs Ella Mae Morse.” Billboard 3 Nov. 1951: 18.
  23. “Ella Mae Morse Great In First Comeback Date.” Down Beat 11 Jan. 1952: 2.
  24. Morse, Ella Mae. “Terrible Thing Is Happening to Singer!” Down Beat 19 Nov. 1952: 2.
  25. Feather, Leonard. “A Morse Code Of Musical Ethics.” Down Beat 3 Dec. 1952: 12.
  26. “Chords and Discords.” Down Beat 28 Jan. 1953: 8.
  27. Advertisement. Billboard 23 Jun. 1956: 43.
  28. “Reviews of New Pop Records.” Billboard 9 Feb. 1957: 49.
  29. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 17 Oct. 1957: 8.
  30. “Reviews and Ratings of New Pop Records.” Billboard 18 Nov. 1957: 32.
  31. Suber, Charles. “The First Chorus.” Down Beat 14 Apr. 1960: 5.