Friday, October 13, 2006

Ode to Susannah

If you've never heard of Susannah McCorkle, then David Hajdu's masterful review, in The New Republic, of a new McCorkle biography by Linda Dahl, might not sing to you. But then again, it just might:

I pictured McCorkle aging into a figure like Blossom Dearie, an odd bird revered after a long career as an endangered species.
Indeed, you might just love it for the sentences.

Alas, McCorkle was not to see old age, having thrown herself out of the window of her 16th-floor Manhattan apartment several years ago, after she lost her regular singing gig at the Algonquin. McCorkle was a singer who worked with jazz musicians, but you wouldn't exactly call her a jazz singer. And she wasn't exactly a typical caberet singer, either, possessed, as she occasionally was, with the bombast born of a rock 'n' roll past. But, wow, could she put over a song, as she teased her own emotional color out of every note she chose to sing -- sometimes a little flat.

I saw her perform twice -- once in some room in Manhattan whose name I can't remember, sitting next to a drunk who kept calling out, "Sing Curly Sue!" -- a pickled-brain reference to one of McCorkle's signature tunes, "The Legend of Pearly Sue," a charming feminist anthem by Gerry Mulligan. The lyric tells the story of a little girl who plays the trumpet and becomes president of the United States. I think she also goes into space. It was a great tune for McCorkle, who was a lot of things besides a talented performer. She was a writer of both fiction and non-fiction (winner of an O. Henry Award), and a linguist. That song had been the vehicle by which my dad turned me onto McCorkle, with a father's conceit that the protagonist's exploits somehow echoed those of his daughter (who, though not exactly famous herself, knew a couple of famous people).

The second time I saw McCorkle perform, it was at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., with my soon-to-be-ex-husband. The singer did a mystically melancholy set of Brazilian tunes in Portuguese, offering, as well, a brilliant imitation of João Gilberto singing a Cole Porter song in English. The seminal "Getz/Gilberto" record that brought bossa nova to the United States in the early 1960s had provided a large part of the soundtrack for my marriage, my husband having purloined the vinyl from his father's collection. McCorkle was the closer.

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