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8/6/10

Susannah McCorkle




I never kept count of how many records I critiqued nor of articles I wrote during my 28 years as a Contributing Editor at Stereo Review. There were several years when I was assigned an average of 12 reviews per month, and there was hardly a day when the mail or a messenger didn't bring several albums to my apartment. So many, that I couldn't possibly find time to hear them all, so I often relied on my editors or friends to alert me to new performers whose work commanded attention. I think it was Bill Livingstone who first told me about Susannah McCorkle and while I can't be absolutely sure about that, I do recall with scientific certainty that I became an instant fan.

It did not take long for us to develop a friendship, and I think that began when she came to my apartment for an interview and we discovered how, in many ways, we had followed similar  career paths. Before Susannah left, the interview had seamlessly morphed into an exchange of experiences and lessons learned. Susannah had led a nomadic life, first moving around in this country as her father, an anthropologist, changed teaching jobs, then relocating to Europe on her own. It was in Europe that she heard a Billie Holiday record that made her pursue a career as a singer. It was a natural choice for her, but Susannah's talent breezed far beyond the songs she so eloquently delivered. Her major at the University of California in Berkley was Italian literature and that interest eventually made her enter the literary field, contributing articles and short stories to major magazines. It was a talent she continued to pursue, even after returning to the U.S. and enjoying success as a vocalist, but she found a way to combine the two interests by writing about singers whom she admired. Two excellent pieces on Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters, respectively, appeared in American Heritage, and she wanted to make me the subject of her next article. I think it was because she felt we had much in common and, like Sally Rand, she was intrigued by someone from Iceland immersing himself in black American culture. I don't know if she had started writing at the time of her death, but she had spent a few hours interviewing me (there is a reference to that in one of the letters below)—an odd role reversal, I thought, and we laughed about it.

In 1984 when a group of people decided to honor me at a special affair held in a popular New York discotheque, they asked Susannah to perform, and she seemed happy to do it. I was very flattered. Why was I being honored? I am still trying to figure that one out, but I agreed to it on the condition that proceeds be given to The United Negro College Fund. I hope that request was honored. I don't recall what they were charged at the door, but approximately two thousand people showed up, including a few surprise guests, such as "Professor" Irwin Corey, Ruth Warrick ("Phoebe" from All My Children). Dan Morgenstern had just asked me what the evening was all about, and I had just told him that I hadn't the foggiest when I saw him look up and drop his face. Liberace, an unexpected guest, descended the stairs to a private area that was reserved for me and my personal guests. To quote Mahalia when the Newport audience gave her a warm welcome, "You make me feel like I'm a star." Well, she truly was, but I was only made to feel like one—I mean, they had a NYC cop wearing a tuxedo and acting as my bodyguard! When I wanted to move in the crowded main area, he became Moses and parted the crowd to make a path for me—the whole thing didn't make sense, but, I'm ashamed to say, I found myself enjoying all that attention. My mother loved it, they had flown her and her husband in from Seattle, and people were having a good time.

Getting back to Liberace, who was appearing at Radio City Music Hall, he was all smiles as he stepped down to my level. "What a wonderful party," he said, shaking my hand, "I just love it when I look around and see such a diverse sea of humanity."

I sensed Dan Morgenstern's bewilderment, and shared it.

That was the only time I ever met Liberace. I don't know if he was still at the Red Parrot when midnight came and Susannah sang, but I hope so. 



Susannah sent me many letters over the years, always hand-written and full of the warmth her personality exuded. Here are a three. Click on them for enlargement.


Having recorded earlier for a few labels that gave her little or no promotion— either for lack of money or interest—Susannah considered herself fortunate when Carl Jefferson signed her to his Concord Jazz label. Carl owned a successful Lincoln-Mercury dealership in Concord, California, and he loved jazz music. Having founded the Concord Jazz Festival in the late Sixties, Carl saw its enormous success as his cue to also start a record label., and eventually the label. He made unorthodox deals with the artists, giving them control over their material that had the rest of the recording industry all but labeling him a traitor. Well, that may be a bit harsh, but let's just say that it offered a nice contrast to the usual, label-favoring contract. I had known Carl Jefferson for several years and held him in high regard, so I was glad when he called me to say that he signed up Susannah. 

Carl passed away in 1995 and Concord Jazz went into less caring hands. The attitude of the new owners typified the bottom-line mentality that had all but snuffed out the recording industry. The new Concord went about diluting the label's artist roster and Susannah was treated shamefully. That—I suspect—contributed to the escalating depression that led her to take her own life on May 19, 2001. Susannah was 54 and her future as an artist and writer looked bright. Like many others who knew her, I had never sensed the problem within, but it was apparently deep-rooted.



A representative of Concord Jazz had the gall to show up and speak at the St. Peter's Church memorial service for Susannah—his words rang hollow. Actually, the most moving spoken tribute to Susannah came from critic Rex Reed, who that day rose in my estimation. 



Susanna always sent me a Christmas card with a personal message. Here is the last one I received.

Finally, I should mention that a biography of Susannah, Haunted Heart, was published in 2006. Unfortunately, it was written by Linda Dahl, a writer who often has difficulty distinguishing between fact and whatever comes to her must-sell-the-book mind. She did a horrendous job on her Mary Lou Williams biography, so I think we can assume that this is more of the same. I may be wrong, she may have gotten it right, but I was so disgusted with her twisted work on Mary Lou's story that I decided to not even read the blurb on the Susannah McCorkle book.

Let me add that I have just come across David Michael Wade's fond words, audio and video re Susannah. Accordingly, I refer you to Serenading the Demons/The Music of John Bartee.

4 comments:

  1. While not a big fan of 'vocalists', a number of friends reved about Ms. McCorkle and I also became an immediate admirer.

    Thanks for the best single article I've yet seen on her.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for sharing your friend, Susannah. She truly has left behind a gift to touch her listener's hearts.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you for that comment and for your own tribute to Susannah.

    ReplyDelete