Annie Ross isn't just an artist, she's a phenomenon, but there are a few things you need to know before you listen to this CD. When I received it in the mail, I noted the ensemble was composed just of her and the father / son combo Bucky and John Pizzarelli on guitars. "Wow," I thought, "what a great move!". The title, To Lady with Love, obviously connoted Billie Holiday—no jazz aficionado ever reads 'Lady' and mistakes that—and thus my interest was piqued. And in case you weren't aware, that surname of hers, 'Ross', is the same one you knew in the legendary Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, still a benchmark in modern music…but there's a lot you don't know.
Ross, nee Annabelle Allan Short, was born to vaudevillian parents, and her aunt was Ella Logan, singer, and film and TV star sometimes known as 'Sharon McLonergan'; thus, Annie was destined for the life of an artist, at the tender age of 4 already signed to MGM. At 7, she sang in Our Gang Follies of 1938 and was Judy Garland's sister in Presenting Lily Mars. At 14, Annie penned Let's Fly and not only won a songwriting contest but saw the very popular Johnny Mercer and The Pied Pipers recording the tune. Let me emphasize: she was barely in high school! By late 10th grade, Ross had forsaken the educational system, flown to England, and started a singing career.
Ya know the song Twisted that first Joni Mitchell and then Bette Midler re-popularized after the British invasion? Originally a Wardell Gray comp, Ross was the one who wrote the lyrics to it. That nabbed her DownBeat's New Star award in 1952. She later wrote I Want You to be my Baby, banned by the BBC in '56 for its racy lyrics, but meanwhile was appearing and recording with Gerry Mulligan, Georgie Fame, Hoagy Carmichael, Tommy Flanagan, and a host of the artists we all revere. This led to Hendricks, Lambert, and Ross forming and a string of seven LPs, after which she opened a nightclub, Annie's Room, frequent home to Joe Williams, Blossom Dearie, Erroll Garner, and many others. Every silver cloud, however, comes with a dark lining.
In '49, Ross had an affair with drummer Kenny Clarke, which produced a son who was raised by Clarke's family. While with Lambert & Co,. Annie became addicted to heroin and in the late 50s had another affair, this time with Lenny Bruce, the greatest comic this planet's ever produced but also a smackhead, which helped neither's situation a bit. By that time, Ross' performances were suffering so badly that Carol Sloane oft substituted for her. In '62, Annie entered rehab in England and kicked the habit, in '63 marrying actor Sean Lynch, divorcing in '75, after which he died in a tragic car crash. Not much later, Ms. Ross lost her home and declared bankruptcy. My question, then: Ya think she paid her dues to sing the blues? Damn straight, but she also proved to be an indomitable character.
Becoming a U.S. citizen, she began appearing in films and doing voiceovers. You can see her in Superman 3, Throw Mama from the Train, Short Cuts, and many other flicks. Remember The Wicker Man in '73? That wasn't Britt Eklund's voice you heard, it was Annie's. She also took to stage performances, appearing in quite a number of famous ones, including The Pirates of Penzance with cult actor extraordinaire Tim Curry ('82). The 90s saw her in the culty comedo-horror Basket Case 2 and Basket Case 3: The Progeny films. Recently, Brian McGeachan presented the one-woman stage play TWISTED: The Annie Ross Story, starring first Verity Quade and then Betsy Pennington. No One but Me, a film documentary of Ross, premiered in 2012, and, herself not one to sit still very long, Ross is a regular at The Metropolitan Room in NYC, backed by a quartet with no less a personage than Warren Vache on trumpet.
Whew!! Good God almighty, let me catch my breath! Did I say she was a phenom or did I say she was a phenom? And this CD (music) / DVD (15-minutes of interviews) combination is the capstone of the now-84-year-old's unbelievable career. What you hear is not just music but the metaphor for an entire life. YouTube has plenty of clips of Ross that you can easily peruse, but I'll run this one from 1959, a take on Twisted and Every Day I Have the Blues, by you ('n dig the late 50s hipster ambience!):
The reason I've done so is to contrast her pinnacle singing days with their long subsequent aftermath, an existentially engaging contrast marked by this release redefining the singer's art without orchestral apologies and obscurations but instead a sweet raw retrospective, a whole new wrinkle in the genre's vocabularistics. Lend an ear to I'm a Fool to Want You and You Don't Know what Love Is for the most distinct illuminations (though When Your Love has Gone has some exceedingly striking passages as well). Everyone here—Ross and the two Pizarellis—blend together for a realpolitik of music too readily ignored in our culture: the reminiscence of those who have lived a full and adventurous life and are reporting back to the those of us on the same route as to exactly what to expect.
To Lady with Love is a singular disc from a singular woman inspired by another singular woman (Billie Holiday), two ladies who well knew the rough and tumble of life but managed to, by dint of grit and talent, make it to the top of the heap. The CD must be heard from a vantage point all too rare in our society or not heard at all. Frankly, I doubt we'll have the chance to witness this sort of milestone again any time soon, and those who choose to pass the unique experience by will do so at risk of aesthetic stultification, narrowing down inner breadth for a much safer conformity to the routine and the expected…which I needn't tell anyone here, isn't jazz or art but rather a high school sandbox of pop music that's galaxies removed from human breath, the pulse of the heart, and all the infinite shades of memory. With Annie Ross' entire catalogue, we have as full a panoply as has ever been seen or heard.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2014, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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