She was of the same vintage as Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Big May Belle, Big Mama Thornton, Sarah Vaughan, Nellie Lutcher, Ruth Brown and Lavern Baker – disparate blues-affiliated divas prised into the world between the start of the Great War and the Wall Street Crash. Like them too, she inhabited a stylistic area bordered by gospel, jazz, hillbilly, showbiz evergreens, vaudeville and all manner of trace elements in North America’s cultural melting pot – which she processed through a voice that, by European bel canto standards, was devoid of plummy eloquence and nicety of intonation. Yet it could convey such exquisite brush strokes of gravelly enunciation and inflection that, backing off until the microphone was at arm’s length, just a sandpapery quiver during a dragged-out note could be as loaded as a roar with it halfway down her throat.
Ella Mae Morse was also white, and, through her father, half British. Moreover, her upbringing in Mansfield, Texas – where she was born on 12th December 1924 - embraced the innately decent ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ virtues of small towns in the Deep South where, before television became an indispensable domestic fixture, ‘musical evenings’ were a frequent occurrence in many homesteads. Before being packed off to bed, Ella or sister Florence might be led forth, glistening with embarrassment, to the centre of the room to pipe out ‘Donkey Riding’, ‘The Dashing White Sergeant’ or maybe a hymn, usually accompanied by the piano beneath the hands of Mr. Morse. Ella Mae’s translation to stardom began with a crowd staring up at a twelve-year-old making a stage debut with the outfit shortly before her parents’ divorce and an uprooting with mother to Paris, two hundred miles north where she reached a wider public via local radio prior to a move to Dallas in 1936.
Somewhere along the way, there’d been a road-to-Damascus moment when Ella Mae understood that popular music’s erotic content was not always cloaked in stardust-and-roses. A free-spirited young woman, she’d gravitated to juke-joints in run-down suburbs to fraternise with the state’s most shunned sub-culture for inspiration. Originally released on vinyl in 1954, and highlighted here along with some of her other most notable records, Barrelhouse, Boogie and the Blues was the defining release of Morse’s career, showcasing her full range as a performer and eclectic music taste gained from her many travels.