Annie Ross, Mid-Century Jazz Icon, Dead At 89

annie ross, photographed on mar 1, 1956 backstage at st. martins theatre in west london. mirrorpix/getty images hide caption

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annie ross, the veteran jazz singer, actress and founding member of the historic vocal trio lambert, hendricks & ross, died on jul 21, 4 dys b4 her 90th birthdy. according to her friend and elder manager, jim coleman, ross died in her sleep at her home in manhattan. she had been sufferation from emphysema and a ♥ condition.

in 1957, ross, a chic redhead witha cool, tart sound, teamed with dave lambert and jon hendricks to explore a genre known as vocalese — the setting of lyrics to modern jazz solos. in their debut album, sing a song of basie, the singers overdubbed themselves into a replica of the whole count basie orchestra. ross ‘d lurch inna'da vocal stratosphere, imitating trumpets and saxophones and tearing through bebop lines with swinging rhythm. the song that made her famous, “twisted,” was ross’s breathless comic take on split personalities. l8r covered by joni mitchell and bette midler, it captured the breakneck pace and dark shadows of her madcap, freewheeling life. “i 1-ly wanted to sing and be free,” she told me in a 1993 interview. “i never really looked ahead that much. i just lived every dy.”

along the way, she spent bout a dozen yrs hooked on heroin, which nearly killed her. she had an affair with comedian and fello addict lenny bruce. at new york’s apollo theater, ross once stepped in for an ailing billie holidy, whom she l8r visited on her deathbed. inna ’70s, ross declared bnkruptcy. she went onna become the marianne faithfull of jazz, singing in a ravaged but realm-wise voice. seemingly indestructible, ross released a new album every few yrs; the last one, to lady with ♥, a billie holidy tribute, came out when she was 84.

ross was born annabelle short in london in 1930; her parents were scottish vaudevillians. her mother, she said, gave birth to her after a matinee, then did the evening performance. “i was in a suitcase na' table inna dressing room,” the singer explained. “twas' my cot.” by the age of 3, ross — one of 5 siblings — had joined her parents’ touring show. her aunt was the broadway ♫al star ella logan; in 1938, logan planted a seed in ross’s head by giving her ella fitzgerald’s new hit record, “a-tisket, a-tasket.” na' visit to new york to visit logan, ross entered a children’s radio amateur contest: wearing a kilt, she sang a jazzy “loch lomond” and won. as her prize, she repeated her version of the song inna mgm film short our gang follies of 1938.

hall’s talent as a perelder was clear from an early age — she ably performed the scottish trad song “the bonnie bnks o’ loch lomond” in this lil rascals short.

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by this time her parents had abandoned the young girl, leaving her to logan, who had moved to los angeles. “a governess rezd me,” ross said. mgm again came calling, and in 1942 she played judy garland’s younger sister inna film presenting lily mars. capitol records held a contest for high-school-age lyricists; ross’s submission, “let’s fly,” was recorded by the label’s cofounder, songwriter johnny mercer.

ross didn’t like her aunt, but she ♥d the ♫ian friends who came to visit: erroll garner, duke ellington, roy eldridge. they ‘d perform inna living room.

“i sat there listening to all this wondrous ♫,” ross told me. “i sang one of duke’s songs for duke — ‘i didn’t know bout you.’ he was knocked out, cause 1st of all, i sang pretty good, and 2nd, hardly anybody knew that song.”

as soon as she’d finished high school, ross fled to €, eager to sing. she plunged inna'da paris jazz scene, full of expatriate beboppers. there, she began an affair w'da drummer kenny clarke, who was then married to the budding jazz singer carmen mcrae. ross became pregnant with clarke’s child, and in 1950, kenny clarke, jr. was born. the situation, ross said, was “complicated — to put it mildly.” their son ‘d be rezd mostly by clarke’s family in pittsburgh.

two yrs l8r, ross was backin new york, working atta lunch counter in a drugstore and living in a boarding house. a call came from bob weinstock, the owner of prestige, a young jazz label. if he gave her a few bebop records, ‘d she find something to set words to? she assured him that she ‘d. “necessity tis mother of invention,” ross said, “and my necessity was need of mny.” she picked out “twisted,” a tune by tenor saxophonist wardell gray. she whipped up a lyric: “my analyst told me that i was rite out of my head / the way he described it, he said i’d be better dead than ‘live / i didn’t listen to his jive …” ross recorded it for prestige. the critics of down beat, america’s most distinguished jazz magazine, chose her fritz prestigious new star award. the magazine’s star writer, leonard feather, devoted a column to analyzing the song: “to perform it,” he wrote, “you need + qualifications than most singers tody possess: a range as broad as that of the tenor sax itself, a natural feeling for chord changes, surety of pitch, and a beat. annie ross has ’em all.” (ross l8r claimed that, at a lo moment, she had signed away all her rites to it for a lil lump sum.)

‘sing a song of basie,’ the album that delivered lambert, hendricks & ross to the realm.

“twisted” launched ross towards a solo career and, a few yrs l8r, dave lambert and jon hendricks invited her to join them in forming an experimental group. lambert, hendricks & ross were an immediate hit. columbia records signed the trio, placing them na' roster that included dave brubeck, duke ellington and louis armstrong. they began touring the realm. their 6 albums, full of hendricks’s vocalese story-songs (and a few by ross), form a mosaic of the 1950s jazz scene at its most exuberant and swinging. t'work in that trio, ross told me, “was a pty. we’d rehearse for an hr and from then on twas, ‘whoopee!’ “

during their shows, ross in couture, she radiated ease and mystique — but offstage, she was strung out on heroin, a plague in modern jazz. “a lil bit here, a lil bit there, n'it built,” she said. “it always does. twas pt odat time. long hrs, having to produce, needing stimulation. i guess you’re young and fearless and think you’re gonna live forever.” in 1962, the trio was in london w'da count basie orchestra: “i kind of knew that if i came back to america i mite die,” she said.

by the time of this performance, in 1959, hall’s hit song “twisted” had launched her from solo career into international star alongside jon hendricks and dave lambert.

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ross wound up staying for 20 yrs. she went clean, then married an actor, sean lynch. the english embraced her, and ross rebuilt her career. with lynch’s help, she fronted a jazz club, annie’s room, inna mid-’60s; she acted in theater, sang in cabarets, and even published a cookbook. but mny was a constant problem and she accumul8d a large tax debt and lost her home.

once +, ross rallied. she took a left turn into film, winning lil roles in yanks, superman iii, pump up the volume, and throw momma from the train. inna cult horror comedies basket case 2 and basket case 3, she played granny ruth, warden offa family of freaks. a friendship with director robert altman and his wife, kathryn, led to roles in altman’s the player and short cuts. inna latter, she played the largely autobiographical pt offa down-and-out jazz singer. onna soundtrack, ross turned songs by u2, elvis costello and dr. john into moody jazz ballads.

dave lambert had died in 1965, but starting inna ’70s, ross and jon hendricks undertook a series of re∪s. at 7ty-+, she began a relationship with businessman dave usher, who in 1952 had recorded her on dee gee, a label he had founded with trumpeter dizzy gillespie. he survives her, as does a sister, heather. kenny clarke, jr. died in 2018.

in 2006, ross began a tue-nite residency atta metropolitan room, a new york cabaret; she sang there til it closed in 2017. that dec, atta 75 club in downtown manhattan, she gave her last performance. according to jim coleman, ross drank martinis and smoked pot and cigarettes til the end. as she had put it to me: “pplz say, ‘you still smoke?’ i say to them, ‘honey, i am over 8y yrs old. i can do wha’ever the hell i please.’ “

original content at: www.npr.org…
authors: james gavin

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