Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Ross, Annie (Annabelle Short)

A founding member of the groundbreaking vocalese trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, and lyricist for the hit song “Twisted,” Annie Ross has enjoyed a career which has ranged from bebop to musical theater and film. Along the way, she has worked with such jazz luminaries as Chet Baker, Zoot Sims, and Gerry Mulligan.

Born Annabelle Short in Mitcham, England in 1930 to Vaudevillian parents, May Dalziel and Jack Short, At age three, Ross was taken by her aunt Ella Logan, a successful musical actress, to live in Los Angeles. Logan and her husband were jazz enthusiasts with friends in the music business and a house full of records, so Ross was immersed in jazz from an early age.

Ross acted as a child in such films as the short feature Our Gang Follies of 1938, a role she earned by singing a jazz version of “Loch Lomond” in her audition, and the MGM musical Presenting Lily Mars, in which she played Judy Garland’s little sister, in 1943. At 14, she won a songwriting contest for a tune she wrote called “Let’s Fly.”

A trip to New York in 1947 to see her aunt perform on Broadway in Finian’s Rainbow awakened Ross’s enduring interest in musical theater. After being introduced to the Manhattan social whirl at clubs like the Stork and Twenty-One, Ross set out on her own for Europe and soon settled in London, where she sang in West End jazz clubs and took on acting jobs.

From there she moved to Paris, where she began a love affair with drummer Kenny Clarke, then separated from his wife Carmen McRae. The couple had a son together in 1950, and Ross continued to perform with Clarke in Paris over the next few years. In an interview with Don Heckman for the Los Angeles Times in 1998, Ross said, “It was a wonderful time...there was a great exodus of black musicians from America. And I was blessed to be friends with Kenny Clarke and James Moody... they would play chords for me and say, ‘OK, sing the chords down.’ I always had a good ear, but they introduced me to different chord changes... that just opened up a whole new world for me.”

Ross returned to the United States in the early 1950s. She recorded her first record, Singin’ and Swingin’, in New York in 1952 with members of the Modern Jazz Quartet. That same year she cut four tracks on an album with King Pleasure, who gained fame for his rendition of Eddie Jefferson's lyrics to the bebop tune “Moody’s Mood for Love.”

One of Ross’s four tracks on that album was “Twisted,” with lyrics she wrote to tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray’s tune of the same name. In 1952 these words reflected the ubiquitous presence of Freud in the popular culture. Joni Mitchell covered the song on her 1974 hit album Court and Spark, which introduced vocalese to a generation of younger listeners.

“Twisted” and Ross's other early vocalese performances attracted the attention of Jon Hendricks and Dave Lambert, who in 1953 were looking for singers to join them in recording other examples of vocalese. They hired Annie Ross as a consultant to coach the singers who came to audition, only to find, according to Hendricks, that “They couldn’t swing at all. It was awful...We sent all the singers home.” It took them awhile to figure out that Ross herself was their ideal candidate.

Ross spent the next few years back on the other side of the Atlantic in a revue called Cranks. When she returned to New York in 1957 for a gig at Upstairs at the Downstairs, Lambert and Hendricks heard her again and realized that Ross would provide the showmanship and the jazz feel they needed to make their vocalese concept successful.

After Ross agreed to join them, the group took off, recording five albums over the next five years, starting with Sing a Song of Basie in 1957, which included such Basie classics as “Avenue C” and “One O’Clock Jump,” with lyrics written by Hendricks. Their second record, The Swingers, was a critical success that led to a contract with Columbia for another three albums.

The first of their Columbia albums, Lambert, Hendricks & and Ross, in 1959, was subtitled “The Hottest New Group in Jazz:” it included a new rendition of “Twisted” and favorites like “Cloudburst” and “Gimme That Wine.” During the period in which she was active with the trio, Ross also paired with Gerry Mulligan on one record in 1958 and with tenor sax player Zoot Sims in 1959, on an unusual album called A Gasser, which is now available as a Japanese import.

After two more successful records with the trio, Ross left the group and returned to England, citing exhaustion. There she took on acting roles, and in 1964 she opened her own club, Annie’s Room, in London, bringing an array of performers that included Joe Williams, Blossom Dearie, Anita O’Day, Jon Hendricks, and Erroll Garner, and singing there herself.

Some of Ross's performances at Annie's Room have been collected on a recent CD compilation called Live in London. This eclectic array of songs reveals the range of Ross’s musical taste. It includes standards like Arlen and Mercer’s “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” scaled down versions of vocalese favorites like “Doodlin’,” and one show tune that would have been new at that time, “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” from the Schmidt and Jones musical The Fantasticks. While the recording is marred by less-than-adequate sound, it remains worth a listen.

Over the next 20 years, Ross sang in theatrical productions in London and the U.S., including Side by Side By Sondheim and Joe Papp’s Pirates of Penzance. She also built up a long list of film and television credits, moving eventually into a series of character roles in large-scale commercial films like Superman III in 1983, and Robert Altman’s film Short Cuts in 1993, in which she played a singer named Tess Trainer.

During these years Ross continued to tour, record, and sing in clubs, demonstrating her skill as a ballad singer for audiences who had known her primarily for her earlier agility with the instrumental sounds of vocalese. In 1999, she reunited with Jon Hendricks for a concert in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and for the past several years she has sung regularly in New York, most recently at the Metropolitan Room with Tardo Hammer on piano, Neal Miner on bass, Tony Jefferson on drums, and Warren Vaché on trumpet.

In 2005, Ross released a new CD, Let Me Sing. She continues to take on the challenges of a varied repertoire with great style, intelligence, and wit, and her earlier recordings with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross continue to delight new generations of musicians and listeners.

Select Discography

as Annie Ross

Singin' and Swingin' (originally released in 1952 on Savoy; available on CD from Columbia/Japan)

King Pleasure Sings/Annie Ross Sings (recorded October 9, 1952 to December 7, 1954; now available on CD from Original Jazz Classics)

Skylark (recorded on August 27 and 28, 1956 and released in 1957 on the Pye Recording label; now available on CD from DRG)

Sings A Song With Mulligan! (originally released in 1958; now available on CD from DRG)

A Gasser! (originally released in February 1959; now available as a Japanese import on Toshiba EMI)

Live In London (recordings from Annie’s Room in 1965 now available in a CD compilation by Harkit)

Annie Ross and Pony Poindexter Live (originally released in March 1967 from a concert appearance in Frankfurt, Germany; now available as import from Universal Japan)

Music Is Forever (DRG, 1996; discontinued by manufacturer but available used)

Short Cuts Soundtrack (Imago Records 1993/2001; featuring Annie and various other artists, including Mark Isham, Jon Hendricks, and Doc Pomus)

Let Me Sing (CAP 2005)

Lambert, Hendricks & Ross

Sing A Song of Basie (originally released on Verve in 1957; now available on CD by import from Jasmine UK)

The Swingers (originally released on World Pacific in 1958; now available on CD from Toshiba EMI Japan)

Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross! (originally released on August 6, 1959 on Columbia; now available on two-disc CD set from Sony)

Sing Ellington/High Flying (originally released in 1960 and 1962 on the Columbia label; now available together on CD from Sony)

The Real Ambassadors (originally released on Columbia/Legacy 1961; now available on CD from Columbia)

Contributor: Sue Russell