Singer Ella Mae Morse shot to stardom in 1942 with the hit song “Cow Cow Boogie.” Unfortunately, like a lot of vocalists who experienced sudden fame based a novelty song, Morse was unable to surpass or even 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.
Morse got her big break in December 1938 with Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra. Two stories exist about her short stay with the elder 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.
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 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.
1950s and Beyond
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.