Friday, December 15, 2006

Susannah McCorkle

Ed here: I tend to divide my music listening between rock and jazz. In the latter category Susannah McCorkle was one of my true lasting pleasures, though she was (according to Those Who Know) too cabaret for jazz and too jazz for cabaret. She made the hoariest of standards sound new. She had a voice that could both cut and crush. I never get tired of hearing her. For all the years I've listened to her I didn't really know much about her other than that some of my wife's theater friends in NYC were nuts about her. From Newsweek/MSNBC/Slate came this last month:
Books: Remembering Jazz Great Susannah McCorkle
A new biography details the talented, tragic life of singer Susannah McCorkle.
By David M. Alpern
Updated: 11:32 p.m. MT Nov 18, 2006

Nov. 17, 2006 - When celebrated jazz-cabaret singer Susannah McCorkle recorded a dirgelike version of the usually up-tempo tune “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” from Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun,” many called it a refreshing, imaginative, alternative take, insightful about hard realities of the entertainment world, sensitive to Berlin’s own long struggle with dark moods.
“There’s no people like show people, they smile when they are low …” Susannah sang. “… You’re broken hearted, but you go on. You go on!” Now Linda Dahl’s new biography of McCorkle, who committed suicide five years ago, makes clear that track was a sad anthem of self-definition, McCorkle’s very own “You Don’t Know the Half of It, Dearie, Blues.”

Talented as a writer of short stories and profiles as well as an interpreter of “standard" songs from the 1930s, '40s and '50s (“The Great American Songbook,” as some would have it), with a score of CDs to her credit and gigs at posh nightspots like the Oak Room at New York’s storied Algonquin Hotel (think Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and their writers’ roundtable), McCorkle seemed a singular success. She was attractive, cheerful, helpful, interesting and caring with most of her wide circle of fans and friends, myself among them.

After she threw herself from her Manhattan apartment window at the age of 55, we were mortified. How could it be? Quickly came some basic context: she had her own long history of debilitating depressions; her father had committed suicide, as had an aunt; Concord Records had canceled a new CD recording; the Oak Room had downgraded her annual run, other bookings were scarce, a major love affair had ended badly.

But we knew that couldn’t be the whole story, though depression itself is one of today’s most insidious killers. So friends were pleased to learn that Susannah’s death—and life—had piqued the interest of music biographer Linda Dahl, author of “Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women,” and “Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams.” I was eager to share memories of the Susannah I knew, and even more eager to learn what others had to say. Now I know, and almost wish I didn’t.

Dahl’s “Haunted Heart” takes its apt title from a 1948 ballad of lost love by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz that appears on one of Susannah’s last recordings. The book might well have been subtitled “'All About Eve' Meets 'Three Faces of Eve'.” Dahl’s diligent research and informed analysis forge a compelling, sympathetic but often chilling view not only of McCorkle’s complexities but also of the difficult business of music itself and of the widespread always potentially fatal illness now better known as bipolar disorder, which the singer hid from so many, even from herself for many years.

From letters, interviews with family and friends, and Susannah’s own stories, both published and unpublished, Dahl assembles a disturbing story of music and madness, the portrait of a woman whose singing brought joy to many yet who could never fully enjoy her own life, her talent, intelligence and good looks. One of three daughters of emotionally distant parents, she grew up plagued by contradictory impulses: ambition and self-doubt, perfectionism and paranoia, strong sexuality and good-girl propriety. Suicide figured in several of her early short stories, even before her father, a frustrated academic, joined the Hemlock Society and took his own life.

McCorkle left California for Europe as a twentysomething in the 1960s to work as a translator, English teacher and professional writer, encouraged by widespread acclaim at the Berkeley campus humor magazine and early success in a writing contest. Despite exuberant letters home, however, she was often tormented by loneliness, traumatized by a rape, tortured by her first real love affair—with a married musician.

Then, hearing a Billie Holiday recording transformed her world; McCorkle at once was determined, even obsessed, with making that sort of singing her career—her life. In Dahl’s recounting, singing almost seems like a form of self-medication, a socially acceptable way for Susannah to unleash all the conflicting emotions of joy and sadness, hope and fear, passion and anger, that she harbored from childhood. But the contrast between the idealized world of the lyrics she loved and her own life only made for more pain. “She would sing these songs and want her life to be these songs. And it was not possible that her life could ever be that way,” recalls her close friend and fellow cabaret star Mark Nadler.

McCorkle, we learn from Dahl, sang at first like the Billie-wannabe she was, but later developed her own style, though she could also evoke vocal greats like Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters (a neighbor of mine in Brooklyn decades ago, and the subject of my first real conversation with Susannah). But even her singing was a study in contradiction. Called too jazzy by many in cabaret, where emotional intimacy with the audience is essential, she was not free-form enough for some real jazz aficionados. Her voice had an earthy lustiness, but also a lingering, little-girl quality. She could be rollicking on CD tracks, and strangely wooden in live performance, fixing her gaze on a near wall and avoiding eye contact with all the fans around her.

Rather than acting songs like some stars of the musical theater, she seemed more to channel the essence of great lyrics by Berlin, Cole Porter, Larry Hart, Ira Gershwin and less familiar masters like Leo Robin (“Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” “Thanks for the Memory”) and E. Y. (Yip) Harburg (“Over the Rainbow,” “Old Devil Moon”). She also drew on her own linguistic skills to write sensitive translations for contemporary Brazilian classics. But in hiding the dark torments of her own soul, Dahl shows us, Susannah proved a better actress than we knew.
So, bravo! Still it was painful for me to learn how difficult Susannah could be with some of her colleagues, lovers and husbands (three of them, though she wed the first only to get an English work permit). And sadder still to learn how many of them failed her, consciously and unconsciously, as things fell apart. Like many with bipolar disorder, she didn’t like the side effects of some medications, and a new prescription was left unopened in her apartment at her death. She preferred a more holistic approach, an alternative-medicine, health-food regimen. But at the end, her holistic doctor took a week’s vacation. One psychiatrist no longer had time for her, and another couldn’t begin treatment right away. Good friends were busy with work and family—not realizing how close to the edge she was.

“There’s something irresistible in Down!” McCorkle sings on one of her last CDs, which seemed to me, on balance, increasingly autobiographical, less ebullient, more sadly introspective than earlier recordings. In the end, Dahl’s account suggests, a lack of places to do the kind of singing she lived for seemed to cripple her as much as the loss of income and prospects that singing had provided.

McCorkle’s many accomplishments—all the recordings, awards, loyal fans and friends, despite her inner demons—are a testament to her willpower. How she failed to prevail in the end is a stark warning about the immense danger of depression and the need to diagnose and deal with it directly. McCorkle’s musical legacy speaks—sings—for itself. Or to quote Dahl’s inevitable last line, going back to Berlin: “The melody lingers on.”

© 2006

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for remembering her, Ed. I heard her a number of times at a small New York jazz club, Fat Tuesday's, now defunct. She was an exraordinary talent and not just as a singer. She won an O. Henry Award for a short story.
If you like McCorkle, you might also try another singer who does both jazz and cabaret, Wesla Whitfield, who is based in San Francisco, but does tour. And if you're looking for a young jazz singer, Karrin Allyson is a major, major talent.