(Soundbite of music)
TERRY GROSS, host:
When a group of songwriters, a music store owner and a film producer got together to start Capitol Records in 1942, they were in urgent need of a hit. It came from a most unlikely place - a young woman named Ella Mae Morse - whose place in pop music history has never really been given its due.
Rock historian Ed Ward tells us her story.
(Soundbite of song, Jump Back, Honey)
Ms. ELLA MAE MORSE (Pop singer): (Singing) Jump back, jump back, honey, jump back. Jump back, honey, jump back, jump back, honey, jump back.
My baby seen me home last night. Jump back, honey, jump back. Held me long and squeezed me tight. Jump back, honey, jump back. Heard him sigh a little sigh. Seen the lovelight in her eye. And a smile that mystify, Jump back, honey, jump back.
ED WARD: When Ella Mae Morse was nine and living in Paris, Texas, she went to the grocery store with her mother and heard someone playing guitar out back. She'd grown up with music - her mother was a singer and her father, who was British, had been a dance-band drummer - but this music was different.
Uncle Joe, the blues guitarist she met that day, encouraged her natural talent for blues, as did her mother. Her father had left when she was younger. Soon, she was singing on Paris's radio station, and in 1936, she and her mother moved to Dallas, where she got another regular radio slot after winning a talent contest.
She auditioned for Jimmy Dorsey, telling him she was 19, and he hired her immediately. He fired her shortly thereafter, when the Dallas School Board told him he would be responsible for his new 14-year-old vocalist's education. But she'd already met Dorsey's pianist, Freddie Slack, and in 1942, after she and her mother had moved to San Diego, she re-met him, now fronting his own band. Soon afterwards, he was signed to Capitol, and went into the studio with his new singer. A smash was born: the "Cow-Cow Boogie."
(Soundbite of song, Cow-Cow Boogie)
Ms. MORSE: (Singing) Out on the plains down near Santa Fe, I met a cowboy riding the range one day. And as he jogged along I heard him singing a most peculiar cowboy song. It was a ditty, he learned in the city.
A comma ti yi yi, yeah. Comma ti yippity yi, ay. Get along.
WARD: Not long after "Cow-Cow Boogie" came out, a Musicians Union strike shut down the recording industry, but Capitol knew they'd have to settle if they were going to survive, and spent the next few years recording Ella Mae singing bland material that didn't sell. It was only when Slack reunited with her in 1946 that anything hit, though.
(Soundbite of song, House of Blue Lights)
Ms. MORSE: (Singing) Do-do-do-do-dodiliada lada. Do-do-do-do-dodiliadee.
Mr. DON RAYE (Vaudevillian and songwriter): (Spoken) Well, wha-ah-ahtcha say, Baby? You look ready as Mr. Freddie, this black. How 'bout you an' me going spinning at the track?
Ms. MORSE: (Spoken) What's that, Homey? If you think I'm going dancing on a dime, your clock is ticking on the wrong time.
Mr. RAYE: (Spoken) Well, what's your pleasure, Treasure? You call the plays, I'll dig the ways.
Ms. MORSE: (Spoken) Hey, Daddio, I'm not so crude as to drop my mood on a square from way back. I'm in there and have to dig life with Father. And I mean Father Slack.
Mr. RAYE: (Spoken) Well, Baby, your play gives my wig a solid flip. You snap the whip, I'll make the trip.
Ms. MORSE: (Singing) Well, lace up your boots and we'll broom on down, to a knocked-out shack on the edge of town. There's an eight-beat combo that just won't quit. Keep walking till you see a blue light lit. Fall in there and we'll see some sights, at the House of Blue Lights.
There's fryers and broilers and...
WARD: Along came another union strike, but Morse's five-year absence from the studio after "House of Blue Lights" was explained by her getting married - for the second time - and relocating to Boston, where she and her doctor husband raised their three kids. But Capitol needed her, and in 1951, she agreed to try pop takes on the currently fashionable hillbilly boogie style and the results were red hot.
(Soundbite of song, Okie Boogie)
Ms. MORSE: (Singing) Now listen here friends, I wanna tell you, 'bout a brand new dance that you got to learn to do; it's called the Okie Boogie, you do it Okie style. That mean old Okie Boogie is bound to drive you wild.
Well it's got to be fast, you can't go too slow. If you hear that rhythm you got to dosey-doe. When you do the Okie Boogie, and do it Okie style, that mean old Okie Boogie is bound to drive you wild.
Old Man Mose, on a cane and a...
WARD: From there, Capitol decided to try her on R&B material, initially from the '40s, and she scored with Amos Milburn's "Greyhound" and Hadda Brooks's "Jump Back Baby."
This worked well enough that, in 1953, Ella Mae became one of the singers now derided by orthodox rock historians for covering black artists' hits. One listen to the results of these sessions, though, shows that it's not exactly like Pat Boone covering Little Richard.
(Soundbite of song, Daddy, Daddy)
Ms. MORSE: (Singing) Daddy, Daddy, Daddy love me strong. I don't mind it if it's all night, Daddy.
Daddy, Daddy, Daddy right or wrong, I'm gonna need you for a long time, Daddy. Got to love me, Daddy, from now on. That's what you got to do.
When you thrill me like you thrill me with a touch that always fills me with a love so fine. Hoo. In the morning...
WARD: But times were changing, very few of these numbers charted, and by the time of Morses recorded her last sessions for Capitol in 1955 and 1956, record buyers were more comfortable with the original artists. Some attempts at rock 'n' roll novelties flopped, and her personal life fell apart at the same time.
In 1958, she married one last time, and although Capitol let her go, she performed regularly around Southern California and toured with all-star bands from time to time. She retired in 1978 and died in 1999, at which point her pioneering hits had been rediscovered by a new generation.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the south of France. The music he played by Ella Mae Morse is from Ella Mae Rocks on Bear Family Records. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
I'm Terry Gross.