Susannah McCorkle

Born on 1st January 1946, the jazz vocalist and sometime writer was a troubled soul and tragically took her own life at the age of 55. On 19th May 2001 McCorkle jumped from the balcony of her 16th storey apartment in Manhattan. There were no suspicious circumstances surrounding her death and the verdict of suicide was entered.

Throughout her career she suffered many ups and downs, and often it seemed that her singing would be her saviour but sadly this was not to be.  McCorkle has however left behind a body of work that show her skills as a fine interpreter of the Great American Songbook and her thorough research into her chosen repertoire would unearth some seldom heard gems.

McCorkle was born in Berkeley, California and her initial studies at the University of California were in languages where she studied Italian. With a gift for languages, she left the America bound for Europe where she continued her linguistic studies while supporting herself financially with translating jobs.

It was while working in Paris that she heard a record of Billie Holiday and decided that singing was what she wanted to do. Declining further work as a translator she moved to Italy where she taught English, and looked to hone her skills as a singer. 

Just a couple of years later, in 1972 she moved to London where she became a regular performer in clubs around the city working with leading British jazz musicians such as trumpeter John Cilton, saxophonist and clarinettist Bruce Turner and pianist Keith Ingham with who she recorded her first albums. As her abilities and reputation grew, she would also work with American musicians including cornet player Bobby Hackett and tenor saxophonist, Ben Webster.

McCorkle released a series of recordings for the Inner City imprint before signing to Concord Records and making a dozen albums for the label. Some of these recordings capture the singer at the peak of her powers.

Susannah McCorkle was perhaps the last of a breed of singers and performers who had no formal musical training. Learning her craft as she went along, she honed her skills on the bandstand. This often caused problems with musicians as she was unable to express in musical terms what she wanted, and at times she was deemed awkward or difficult to work with. 

At her best, McCorkle was a fine interpreter of the lyrics that she sang, and for this she could be forgiven for the occasional lapse of intonation as she brings an emotional depth, as did her idol and inspiration Bilie Holiday, to her material that is raw and full of feeling.

Susannah McCorkles’s Finest Recordings:

The Music of Harry Warren (1976)

Debut album from McCorkle that features some excellent songs and a top notch British band featuring altoist Bruce Turner and pianist Keith Ingram. She swings with elegance and solid sense of timing on ‘Lullaby of Bradway’ and her delicate and softly delivered vocals on ‘There Will Never Be Another You’ has a hint of innocence that it is touchingly engaging.

Sabia (1990)

The vocalist’s second album for Concord Records is a delightful exploration of Brazilian and Latin American songs that benefit from the intuitive backing of saxophonist Scott Hamilton, check out his playing on the ‘Estate’, and the late Emily Remer on guitar. 

McCorkle’s laid back approach to ‘So Many Stars’ is delectable and tantalising by turns, and her poise on ‘Manhã De Carnaval (Sunrise)’ is sublime. The vocalist linguistic skills again come into play on the album in which she sings in English, Portuguese and Italian.

I’ll Take Romance (takes the most of each opportunity) (1992)

Just as the title suggests an album for the singer that looks at romance from the optimism of the title track to the caution of ‘My Foolish Heart’. The tempos are once again meticulously thought out, and McCorkle makes the most of each of these lovely arrangements and makes ‘Let’s Get Lost’ a most attractive proposition. Frank Wess is sublime on flute, and his tenor playing on ‘Lover Man’ is perfectly matched to the singer’s pensive and heartfelt delivery.

From Bessie To Brazil (1993)

Another swinging affair with Ken Peplowski replacing Hamilton on tenor duties in another set of standards. She makes ‘Hit The Road To Dreamland’ sparkle with hidden delights, and a worldly-wise reading of ‘The Ole Devil Called Love’. To cap it all, McCorkle makes the notoriously difficult ‘Waters of March’ sound easy, with a deceptive tempo that brings out the lyric and the harmonic ingenuity of the song.

Someone To Watch Over Me: The Songs of George Gershwin (1998)

Another composer that McCorkle seems to have an instant connection. Her opening ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ is a million miles away from Billie Holiday’s recordings of the song, and this is all to Susannah’s credit. The title track is handled with a poignancy and longing that is captivating, and exquisite reading of ‘I Loves You Porgy’ in a duet with guitarist Howard Alden that has the listener leaning forward to catch her every word and syllable.

Hearts And Minds (2000)

Sadly, this was to be Susannah McCorkle’s final studio album, and possibly her finest recording. With a sympathetic rhythm section or two, the vocalist sets down wonderful readings of ‘For All We Know’ and ‘It Could Happen To You’. Susannah also makes a connection with the music and lyrics of Simon Wallace and Fran Landesmann on ‘Feet Do You Stuff’ that swings mightily with a searing solo from saxophonist Dick Oates, and the singer totally owns ‘Down. Her duet with pianist Allen Farnham on the third and final offering from Wallace/Landesmann on the album, ‘Scars’, is as close to perfection as it is possible to get.

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