The Morse code

Texan Ella Mae influenced rock, then she crawled under one

"I was pretty intimidated by the whole thing," Morse recalls of her first step into the New York limelight. "All the celebrities in the audience made me nervous, and I never could get in the groove."

After a disastrous radio appearance in which Morse sang a bawdy "race" version of one song and then forgot the words to another, she was canned by Dorsey and replaced by Helen O'Connell.

"I was devastated," Morse says. "I was just so young, and I'd never really known failure before, but for it to happen up there in the public eye--in New York of all places--was just too much."

After Ella Mae spent a couple of years recovering in Dallas, the Morses moved to San Diego, where her mother had a brother. It was there, at the Pacific Square Ballroom, that something good finally came of Morse's stint as Dorsey's "girl singer." She met up with Dorsey's former piano player, Freddie Slack, who had put together his own band and was looking for a singer for an upcoming session at the brand-new Capitol Records label.

In Ella Mae Morse, Slack found everything he was looking for, and then some. Remembering her bouts with nervousness, he wasn't sure she could swing in the studio. After expressing this concern to Johnny Mercer, who was producing the first session, Slack lead his orchestra and featured vocalist Morse in a run-through of "Cow Cow Boogie," which had originally been recorded by Ella Fitzgerald. When the rehearsal take was through, Mercer was ecstatic. "That's a take!" he shouted. Unbeknownst to the band or the singer, Mercer had the tape rolling and captured the loose rollick that would soon hit No. 1 on the charts.

"I started crying when Johnny said it was a take, and I told him, 'But I can do it better.' Mercer's answer was a succinct, "No, you can't."

Throughout her short yet remarkable heyday, Morse continued to make music that couldn't be sung any better, whether she was singing all over the anvil beat of "The Blacksmith Blues" (1952), her last hit, or burying Tennessee Ernie Ford in their duet on "Hog-Tied Over You." She kept hearing the same thing, even from stars like Sammy Davis Jr. who was stunned to discover that this singer of sexy R&B numbers was white: "Ella, baby, I thought you were one of us!" Davis exclaimed.

"I am," was the swift reply from Ella Mae Morse.

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