From Anita O’Day to Morgana King: Underrated Dames from a Most Underrated Decade

by M.C. Antil on October 22, 2010

You don’t have to work very hard to make a case that artistically the relatively calm and uneventful 1950’s stack up against any decade of the past century; certainly against the lionized ten year period that followed.  Because while many artifacts of Sixties pop culture have failed miserably the exacting test of time, the comparable pop artistry that arose throughout the decade of the Fifties only seems to grow in status with each passing year.

The Fifties were, after all, the decade of Marlon Brando and James Dean, and the decade of the young Elvis.  They were the decade of Hank Williams, Tennessee Williams, Maria Callas and Arthur Miller; the decade of Jackson Pollock and the decade of On the Waterfront and On the Road; the decade of A Raisin in the Sun and The Catcher in the Rye

In the ten-year period between 1950 and 1959, Alfred Hitchcock reached his artistic peak, film noir got elevated from B-movie ghetto to cinematic art form, and with “Kind of Blue” Miles Davis turn down the heat on jazz so utterly that he, quite literally, invented cool.  And in the Fifties, television not only reached critical mass, it achieved a combination of immediacy and dramatic artistry many feel has not been achieved since.

Among the 1950's gifts to American pop culture; Miles Davis and cool.

And even though To Kill a Mockingbird was first published in 1960, and the movie released two years later, both of them – the book and the movie – feel more like products of the Fifties than the decade in which they actually appeared. 

Hell, artistic achievement aside; the 1950’s were even the decade of Willie, Mickey and the Duke, and as they say, that ain’t hay.

Yet when most people think of the Fifties they think of tail fins, I Like Ike, the Cold War, Joe McCarthy and the onset of suburban sprawl – not to mention any number of quirky cultural oddities like the hula hoop, Davy Crockett hats and drive-in movies.  Few, if any, view the Eisenhower years as a watershed moment in American popular culture.

Me, when I think of that decade, what invariably comes to mind are the many female singers — most of them African Americans — who peaked creatively; most notably, Ella Fitzgerald who  recorded five of the eight “Songbook” albums she would eventually do for Norman Granz at Verve.

I also think of the other black ladies active in that decade whose bodies of work and whose collective influence on music are difficult, if not impossible, to overstate: Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne, Nina Simone, a young Etta James, an aging Ethel Waters and, of course, a still-essential Billie Holliday

However, given that, I find most people have to really work to recall even a handful of the Fifties’ terrific (ahem) white ladies of song.  (And forgive my using skin color as the point of distinction between the names you’ve just read and the ones you are about to, but the simple fact is the ten African American songstresses above have had their musical legacies etched into our national consciousness, while the 25 talented ladies below – each of whom is white – continue to freefall through the cracks of time toward the dustbin of pop culture irrelevance.)

I won’t get into the whys and the wherefores of that dynamic; I’ll only point out that it exists and offer this informal list of my personal favorite all-but-forgotten Fifties ladies of song. 

(And, should you not have discovered any of these ladies yourself, I urge you to spend a series of rainy Sunday afternoons in the not-too-distant future downloading to your heart’s content – especially songs from the top four.)

1.  Anita O’Day   
Call me a a sucker for a pretty girl with a heroin habit, especially when she sings like Anita O’Day.  But I’m not sure words alone can capture the breadth of this amazing artist.  O’Day cut her chops in a series of high-energy 1940’s swing bands, notably those of Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton, but it wasn’t until Granz signed her to his new label (which eventually became Verve) in 1952 that she began tapping into her incredible gift for subtle, sultry jazz.  Unfortunately, that was also roughly the time her recreational drug use made the quantum leap from marijuana to heroin, a narcotic she would later claim was “better than sex.”  And much like Holiday – another magnificently flawed lady who not only sang jazz, but lived it – eventually the line between O’Day’s life and music disappeared altogether.  (Unlike Holiday, however, she somehow kicked her habit and lived to tell the tale, which she did in an amazing documentary released just months after her death in 2006.)

Anita O'Day

  • Suggested albums:  “This is Anita” and  “Anita Sings the Most”
  • Suggested videos:  “Let Me Off Uptown” and “Boogie Ride” with Gene Krupa and Roy Eldridge (two 1940’s lip-synched shorts available on YouTube); “Anita O’Day: Life of a Jazz Singer” on DVD; “Jazz from a Summer’s Day” on DVD (a documentary about the ‘58 NewportJazz Festival, where O’Day stole the show while on heroin) 

2.   Keely Smith   
Just as Jerry Lewis’ antics could often overwhelm Dean Martin’s gifts as a singer, Keely Smith’s incredible ability to wrap her voice around a song never got its due, in large part because in their iconic stage show at the Sahara in Las Vegas – as well as their in many TV appearances – her partner, husband and live-in hambone, Louis Prima, often seemed to place comedy over music.  Don’t get me wrong, Prima could be pretty funny and he was an amazing musical talent.  (His composition “Sing, Sing, Sing” was the “Stairway to Heaven” of the big band era, and his vocal performance on “I Wanna Be Like You” from Disney’s “The Jungle Book” is absolutely fabulous.)  But don’t kid yourself for a minute.  Much like Sonny & Cher nearly two decades later, the success of Keely Smith and Louis Prima in the 1950’s had little to do with the goofiness of the guy in the act, and everything to do the sex appeal, singing talent and deadpan comedic delivery of the young raven-haired Cherokee girl standing next to him.

Louis Prima and Keely Smith

  • Suggested album:  “Spotlight on Keely Smith” (from the Capitol “Great Ladies of Song” series)
  • Suggested downloads:  “Fools Rush In” and “I Wish You Love”
  • Suggested videos: Take your pick; YouTube has dozens of them


3.  Blossom Dearie
In many ways, Blossom Dearie was the Nat “King” Cole of the Fifties jazz ladies.  Cole, for all his acclaim as a singer, always considered himself, first and foremost, a piano player.  Singing was just something he did while playing.  So too with Dearie, a little girl from the Catskills who moved to Greenwich Village just after high school and began living the Bohemian life of a jazz pianist.  She soon went to Paris where the ubiquitous Granz found her one night in a tiny club and signed her.  Then, much like Cole, her one-of-a-kind voice trumped her abilities as a pianist and Blossom Dearie became from that point forward “a singer.”  And trust me, the first time you hear her sing, you’ll completely understand why.  Because to hear Dearie’s dainty little-girl voice for the first time is to somehow relive — I don’t know — maybe, your first kiss. It’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced before and you’ll find yourself with, literally, no frame of reference.  What’s more, when you hear Blossom Dearie take a venerable old chestnut like “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” and make it her own is the moment that you’ll realize that, for all you think you may know about music or singing, or perhaps both, there’s a very strong possibility you might not know shit.

Blossom Dearie

  • Suggested album:  “Jazz Masters 51: Blossom Dearie” (from Verve’s “Jazz Masters” series)
  • Suggested downloads:  “I Won’t Dance” and “Someone to Watch Over Me”
  • Suggested videos:Blossom Dearie Sings “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” (intro by Tonight Show host Jack Paar; available on YouTube)



4.  Julie London 
While I can understand to some begrudging degree why Blossom Dearie and Keely Smith have fallen prey to historical ennui and been largely forgotten by contemporary pop culture, I cannot for the life of me explain why Julie London has suffered that same fate.  After all, she was Ann-Margaret before there was such a thing as Ann-Margaret.  She was a terrific actress, could flat-out sing, and was absolutely beautiful.  But more than that, she was sexy.  My God was she sexy.  And I’m not talking hubba-hubba sexy, nudge-nudge, wink-wink sexy; or even sweaty-palm sexy.  I’m talking drain-the-bank-account sexy.  I’m talking give-up-everything-you-own-for-just-one-night sexy.  That was Julie London back in that day.  Forget hot; she was scalding.  And did I mention she could sing?  In fact, for my money no singer in the Fifties, man or woman, could fill a torch song with the kind of bluesy, boozy breathlessness that Julie London brought to bear.  And you know what a torch song is, don’t you?  It’s a song about pain, suffering and loss; a melancholy song; the kind of song Frank Sinatra could use like a carving knife; a smoky, end-of-the-bar jukebox number that reaches in and twists your heart into knots; much the same way a train whistle can pierce the eerie stillness of a sad and lonely night.

Julie London

  • Suggested album:  “Wild, Cool and Swingin’” (from Capitol’s “Artist Collection” series)
  • Suggested downloads:  “Cry Me a River,” “Blues in the Night” and (I kid you not) “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” (a bubblegum hit from the Sixties which in London’s hand, comes as close as pop music can ever get to hard-core porn)
  • Suggested video: “Black Coffee” (accompanied by a montage of 1950’s-era publicity stills; available on YouTube)


5.  Helen Merrill
If this is a list of underrated jazz singers, Merrill wins the award for the most underrated of the underrated; a jazz singer who seemed to favor  quality over quantity, who never seemed to ignore her muse, and who was artistically courageous enough to be willing to at least try the road less traveled

  • Suggested albums: “The Nearness of You” and “The Complete Helen Merrill on Mercury”


6.  Eydie Gorme
She was more than Steve Lawrence’s better half; she was a beautiful little Jewish Latina girl from the Bronx with a pitch-perfect voice and someone who could (and often did) sing just about every kind of song in the book .

Eydie Gorme

  • Suggested album:  “Eydie Swings the Blues”
  • Suggested downloads:  “This Could Be the Start of Something Big” (duet with Steve Lawrence), “Blame it on the Bossa Nova”
  • Suggested video: “Sweet Talk” (available on YouTube),  “Blame it on the Bossa Nova” (a scene from “The West Wing” in which a tipsy White House staffer gets caught dancing in her bathrobe by the President of the United States; available on YouTube)


7.  Peggy Lee
A fascinating performer whose singing talent was matched only by her songwriting ability, her eclectic taste in material and, later in her career, her utter courage in defending the rights of artists everywhere

  • Suggested downloads: “Fever” and “Is That All There Is?”
  • Suggested videos:“Pete Kelly’s Blues” on DVD (she copped an Oscar nom for her portrayal of an alcoholic blues singer);  Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp” on DVD (Lee wrote some of the songs and performed four of them in various character voices); “Making Whoopee” (a duet with the amazing Toots Thielemans on harmonica; available on YouTube)

8.  June Christy
Another former big band swinger who made a seamless transition to the smaller venues and the cool, stripped-down jazz of the Fifties

  • Suggested albums:“Ballads for Night People” and “The Best of June Christy: The Jazz Sessions” (a Capitol Jazz release)
  • Suggested downloads: “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and “Something Cool”
  • Suggested video: “All God’s Children Got Rhythm” and “In the Heart of San Anton” (the latter with Stan Kenton; both available on YouTube)


9.  Doris Day  
Oscar Levant once said, “I knew Doris Day before she as a virgin.”  But before she was Doris Day, squeaky clean movie star/love interest to  squeaky clean gay-hunk Rock Hudson, she was Doris Day, jazz singer, balladeer and actress extraordinaire

Doris Day and Rock Hudson


  • Suggested albums:  “Love Me or Leave Me” (soundtrack), “Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day” (a unique tribute album conceived and lovingly rendered by the amazing Nellie McKay)
  • Suggested downloads: “Sooner or Later,” “Secret Love” and “Till the End of Time” (with Les Brown)
  • Suggested video:“Love Me or Leave Me” on DVD (one of the great bio-pics ever made, with Day as singer Ruth Etting and Jimmy Cagney as her possessive and occasionally trigger-happy gangster/husband, Martin “Moe the Gimp” Snyder)


10.  Dinah Shore
I’m convinced she got her start on radio because long before the major networks were willing to put black female singers on the air someone once sat in a Monday morning staff meeting and said, “Hey, how ‘bout we try a white girl from the South who just sounds black?”

  • Suggested download: “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy”


11.  Rosemary Clooney
George’s aunt Rosie was once a terrific singer with a voice that was simultaneously as pure as honey and as raspy as a slightly used emery board. Unfortunately for her musical legacy, Rosie Clooney was a bankable star, and sometimes in the music business – as in Hollywood – art simply must take a back seat to commerce


12.  Jaye P. Morgan
Long before all those cheesy “Match Game” and “Gong Show” appearances in the Seventies, she was one of the coolest young song stylists of the Fifties; too bad she never seemed to find a producer or arranger who could consistently showcase her enormous talent

  • Suggested albums: “Jaye P. Morgan” (on RCA)
  • Suggested downloads: “It All Goes Round” and “Nobody’s Sweetheart”


13.  Jeri Southern
Worth a listen, if only for her spunky version of the infectious paean to female pleasure-seeking, “An Occasional Man”

14.  Lee Wiley
If the posh Upper East Side of Manhattan had a singing voice it would sound a lot like the smooth, refined and ultra-stylish renderings of one Miss Lee Wiley


15.  Joni James
A little Italian girl from Chicago who grew up to become one of the decade’s most successful and critically acclaimed torch singers

  • Suggested albums: “When I Fall in Love” and “In the Still of the Night”
  • Suggested downloads: “My Foolish Heart”



16.  Polly Bergen
The fact that she was such a great actress – watch her as psycho-killer Robert Mitchum pops that egg while advancing menacingly toward her in the original “Cape Fear” – probably helped Polly Bergen play sad on record better than just about any singer this side of Patsy Cline

  • Suggested albums: “All Alone by the Phone” and “Four Seasons of Love”


17.   Patti Page
Memo to the current crop of pop divas: remember it’s not about you, it’s about the song.  Follow Patti Page’s lead; just open up your heart, sing the damn song, and leave the vocal flourishes in the shower where they belong.

  • Suggested downloads:  “Old Cape Cod,” “Tennessee Waltz” and “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte


18.  Kay Starr
Very few singers of the era had a stronger set of pipes or a brassier delivery than Kay Starr; and when she wanted to crank it up she could literally rock the house

  • Suggested downloads: “The Man with the Bag” (a rollicking swing-era tribute to Santa Claus that should be required holiday listening for any rock star contemplating a Christmas album)


19.  Sylvia Syms
Sinatra once called her “the world’s greatest saloon singer” – and she sure knew her way around a jazz arrangement as well 

  • Suggested album: “Songs of Sylvia Syms” and “Sylvia Syms Sings”
  • Suggested downloads:  “Love Walked In” and “Like Someone I Love”

20.  Gogi Grant
She may have been a one-hit wonder, but she continued to record some terrific music throughout the back half of the decade 

  • Suggested album:  “Torch Time”
  • Suggested download: “The Wayward Wind”


21.  Jo Stafford
One of the most versatile singers of the era, capable of singing jazz, ballads, country and even song parodies with grace and just a touch of  impishness

  • Suggested downloads: “You Belong to Me” and “Shrimp Boats”


22.  Teresa Brewer
She wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but you’d have to look long and hard for a singer with more exuberance and energy

  • Suggested download:  “Music, Music, Music”


23.  Frances Wayne
The wife of trumpeter Neil Hefti (composer of the “Odd Couple” and “Batman” theme songs, as well as the classic “Girl Talk”), Wayne was a talented singer who, to paraphrase the All Music Guide, could combine sexy and sweet like few others


24.  Connie Haines 
A former duet partner with Sinatra in Tommy Dorsey’s hugely successful band, Haines was the perky little pixie with the big voice who matured into a terrific and largely overlooked cabaret singer

  • Suggested album:“Connie Haines Sings a Tribute to Helen Morgan”
  • Suggested download: “Oh, Look at Me Now” (with Sinatra and Dorsey)


25.   Morgana King
Long before she was Mama Corleone in “The Godfather,” she was simply Morgana King, one of the sultriest and most evocative singers on the planet.

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