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Remembering Jazz Singer Annie Ross

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Annie Ross, who was best known as a solo jazz singer and as part of the groundbreaking jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, died Tuesday of complications from emphysema and heart disease. She was 89 years old. In the '50s and '60s, she and Dave Lambert and John Hendricks were one of the most popular jazz vocal groups of their time. They specialized in vocalese, adding words and vocals to jazz instrumental arrangements and improvisations. Annie Ross herself wrote the lyrics and sang lead on her most popular song "Twisted" based on an improvisation by tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray. She recorded it solo in 1952 and then again in 1960 as a member of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. When Terry Gross spoke with Annie Ross in 1990, they started with the trio version of that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWISTED")

LAMBERT, HENDRICKS AND ROSS: (Singing) My analyst told me - what? - that I was right out of my hand. The way he described it - how? - he said I'd be better dead than live. I didn't listen to his jive. I knew all along he was all wrong and I knew that he thought - what? - I was crazy, but I'm not. Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no. My analyst told me - what? - that I was right out of my head. He said I need treatment. Yeah? But I'm not that easily led. He said I was the type that was most inclined when out of his sight to be out of my mind. And he thought I was nuts. Nuts? No more ifs or ands or buts. Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no.

They say as a child I appeared a little bit wild with all my crazy ideas, but I knew what was happening. I knew I was a genius. What's so strange when you know that you're a wizard at 3, I knew that this was meant to be. Well, I heard little children were supposed to sleep tight. That's why I drank a fifth of vodka one night. My parents got frantic, didn't know what to do. But I saw some crazy scenes before I came to. Now do you think I was crazy? I may have been only 3 but I was swinging.

They all laughed at Al Graham Bell. They all laughed at Edison and also at Einstein. So why should I feel sorry if they just couldn't understand the litany and the logic that went on in my head? I had a brain. It was insane. Don't you let them laugh at me when I refuse to ride on all those double decker buses all because there was no driver on the top. No driver on the top? It's twisted. What's the matter with her? My analyst told me - what? - that I was right out of my head...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Annie Ross, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ANNIE ROSS: Thank you.

GROSS: We just heard "Twisted."

ROSS: Yeah.

GROSS: I just need to ask you if you were in analysis when you wrote that.

ROSS: No, I was not and have never been. The title "Twisted" suggested to me the whole story of a woman going to an analyst, but, no, I wasn't in analysis.

GROSS: So how did you team up with John Hendricks and Dave Lambert?

ROSS: Well, I had come over in this revue "Cranks" with Anthony Newley, and I happened to be at a friend's house. They got a phone call from Dave, I think it was, and he said, I have this idea about putting words to a Count Basie album. Can I come over, bring John and demonstrate what we have? Round they came. They played one of Basie's numbers. They both sang the solos. I thought that's great. And the next thing I knew, they asked me if I would come down and conduct some session singers that they had engaged to record about I think four or six tracks. And they said, you know, that the women - they wanted me to give the women the Basie feel. Well, that was a laugh in itself. I mean, you can't teach that to anybody. You have to be born with it, be brought up with it. And I tried, but like I said, you can't just teach that and especially not in, you know, half an hour or whatever. They had no more that they could do because what they had was not good. They were going to scrap it. And the producer was tearing his hair out and saying, my God, we've lost this money and blah blah blah. And Dave Lambert said, well, what about if we multitrack? Well, I said, of course. I didn't know what multitracking was...

(LAUGHTER)

ROSS: ...I figured I better not show my ignorance. So he said, what we have to do, Annie, we'll get rid of the singers. You, John and I'll go in to a room. We'll rehearse. We'll learn all the harmonies so that we multitrack four times. So I said, OK. And, I mean, you know, we all had great ears, and it was I think one of the great moments of my life because we heard the first track back and that was fine. That was the melody. Then we recorded the second track. They played it with the first track. Well, well, that was something else. And then the third track was unbelievable. The fourth track was mindblowing. And we knew we had something absolutely great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERY DAY I HAVE THE BLUES")

LAMBERT, HENDRICKS AND ROSS: (Singing) You're singing the blues each time I see you, every day. You're singing the blues. Those blues won't free you, every day. I sort of expected once you'd shake them, everyday, but now I can dig they're what you make them, every day. What about it? Soon as I'm wakin' every day I have the blues. Every dawn I dig, they're waiting there to wig me, every day. What about it? Oh, every day I have the blues. What are you gonna get but blue, wish that I could help you, baby. What can I do? Well, you see me worried, baby. I've had a few. Because it's you I hate to lose. What about settling? How are you going to keep me from meddling? Nobody loves me. Whoa, nobody seems to care. Baby don't seem to care...

GROSS: So the group stuck together, but most of your stuff was not over track like that. It was mostly just straightforward trio. How would you come up with the arrangements? How were those done?

ROSS: Well, they were actual arrangements from the bands of that era. We would take, like, Horace Silver, maybe a quintet, a somewhat scaled down version. We just didn't do the big-band things that much. Except we did do Ellington.

GROSS: Let me play a song that you recorded before you teamed up with Lambert and Hendricks. This is from a 1957 session that you made with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. The title is "Annie Ross Sings A Song With Mulligan!" And I'm going to play the Dietz and Schwartz song, "I Guess I'll Have To Change My Plan."

ROSS: Oh, good.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GUESS I'LL HAVE TO CHANGE MY PLAN")

ROSS: (Singing) Well, I guess I have to change my plan. I should have realized I'd lose my favorite man. I overlooked that point completely until the big affair began. Before I knew where I was at, I found myself upon a shelf, and that was that. I tried to reach the moon, but when I got there all that I could get was the air. My feet are back upon the ground 'cause I've lost the one man that I found.

GROSS: My guest Annie Ross recorded with Gerry Mulligan. You came to America from England when you were, I think, 6 years old.

ROSS: Scotland.

GROSS: Scotland - from Scotland.

ROSS: Five and a half.

GROSS: OK.

ROSS: No, 4 1/2. I was 4 1/2 when I arrived.

GROSS: Now, once you got to America, didn't you stay there with your aunt, the singer Ella Logan?

ROSS: Yes, I did. I came to New York with my mother and father and my elder brother. And I won a contest, a radio contest. The prize was a six-month - really a token contract with MGM. And I went out to LA with my aunt because my aunt started doing films. And then my mother left. My father and mother and brother all went back. And I was raised in Beverly Hills in LA.

GROSS: How did you feel about being raised by your aunt and kind of leaving your parents behind?

ROSS: Well, when I say aunt, she was really my guardian. My aunt was really in New York doing shows, and I was raised by a nanny. And it wasn't great.

GROSS: Did your parents have any reservations about leaving you?

ROSS: I'm sure they did. Sure.

GROSS: Did they want it that way, or was it you who...

ROSS: I think they probably felt that it was best for me to do that, that maybe through doing that I could become a star. But they already had stars.

GROSS: You mean California already had stars?

ROSS: Sure. They had Shirley Temple and Jane Withers and, you know, many, many young kids.

GROSS: Well, how were you groomed? What kind of image were you given?

ROSS: The Shirley Temple image, but with a kilt.

GROSS: Oh, because you were Scottish.

ROSS: Yeah.

GROSS: Oh, boy (laughter).

ROSS: I had a thick Scottish accent, too.

GROSS: Did you have those little curls?

ROSS: Oh, sure. Absolutely.

GROSS: And did you have to be cute as a button?

ROSS: Well, I mean, I had no thought of not performing. I mean, I would perform at the drop of a hat. You know, I could swing, and I could sing well, and I could move. And I loved all the attention. I mean, very few children don't like that.

GROSS: Now you also did some "Our Gang" comedies.

ROSS: Oh, I only did one. Yeah.

GROSS: Oh, OK. And what kind of part did you have in there?

ROSS: Well, it's a little girl with a kilt who comes out, and they're producing a show, and she sings a swing version of "Loch Lomond."

GROSS: (Laughter) I should have guessed that, shouldn't I? So how did you start listening to and then performing jazz?

ROSS: Well, my aunt gave me a record of Ella Fitzgerald singing "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" when I was 4. And I learned it, and I could do it. And a wonderful thing about my aunt was that in our house in LA, there were always a lot of musicians who hung around. And they were musicians from Duke Ellington's band, indeed, Duke Ellington himself, Roy Eldridge, Erroll Garner. And so I moved toward modern jazz, as opposed to Dixieland.

GROSS: Well, I wish you the best, and I thank you very much for talking with us.

ROSS: Oh, you're very welcome.

BIANCULLI: Annie Ross visited Terry Gross and FRESH AIR in 1990. The jazz vocalist and film actress died Tuesday at age 89. Coming up, I review "Muppets Now," the new Disney Plus attempt to revive the spirit of the classic TV series "The Muppet Show." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIOR CHRONIK FEAT. YOSHINORI TAKEZAWA'S "WE ARE THE SNOWFLAKES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.