Every biography is a new challenge. This one was more unique than I'd ever encountered before. (And, yes, I know that the phrase "more unique" is invalid; unique is an absolute, not a comparative.)
But consider this: Ann Cornell never existed. OK, I know she made a few records, was in a film, and made many documented appearances in a 10-year career. But as a person, she never existed at all.
I can't find any birth or census record that fits. She's presumably dead by now, but I can't find a death record that fits either. Was "Cornell" a stage name? I don't know. Was she ever married? I don't know.
Here's her entire biography, as printed in Earl Wilson's syndicated column of July 24, 1943, at the beginning of her career:
Born in Philadelphia 20 years ago, Miss Cornell went to school in Jersey City, attending Lincoln High School, where Ozzie Nelson had been baseball coach. Lincoln High is the alma mammy of another fairly well known singer - Frank Swoonatra.
There are a few other sources that say she came from Philadelphia (and no others that mention New Jersey), but was she actually born in 1923? I have no idea. (One other blurb, from September 1943, said she was 19, so maybe it's in the ballpark.) However, almost everything else about Earl Wilson's two sentences is wrong. Ozzie Nelson was a football coach at Lincoln High. Sinatra attended A. J. Demarest High School in Hoboken, from which he was expelled after 47 days.
She may have been somehow related to Ella Fitzgerald, but, if so, how is unclear. Some reports called her a "niece", some a "cousin", and others a "relative". Ella was born in Newport News, Virginia and brought up in Yonkers, New York, but I don't plan on digging into her family tree.
Gossip columns are usually full of tripe concerning the people I write about. Here are the only times she was ever mentioned:
Brooklyn Daily Eagle; September 6, 1946: "Ann Cornell, sepia singer, and Joel Brian [a trumpet player] of Cootie Williams' crew - a romance item."
Brooklyn Daily Eagle; September 29, 1946: "Romance Item: Songstress Ann Cornell and Joe Turner of Lucky Millinder's Crew."
I don't think they're talking about Big Joe Turner, since he would have been referred to as a singer (and, I can't find any link between him and Lucky Millinder). Nor does it seem to be the piano player of that name. who was with Nance Stewart's group in early 1946, but not Millinder's. Note that both blurbs come from the same paper, printed only three weeks apart. And, because they both use the words "romance item" and "crew", I have to believe that they were both handed in by the same underemployed press agent.
[It took three days of frantic fruitless futile digging to put all that together (and only seconds to make an alliterative sentence out of my laborious efforts).]
She began her career, as "Katherine Ann Cornell", in mid-1943. (And yes, everything I said about not being able to find "Ann Cornell" also applies to "Katherine [Ann] Cornell".) But was it a good name? Not according to columnist Ed Sullivan, who wrote in his July 21, 1943 syndicated column: "Ella Fitzgerald's niece would be wiser not to use that Katherine Ann Cornell monicker [sic] in her singing career." Why would he say that? Probably because there was a famous stage actress at the time named Katharine Cornell.
Here's the rest of the Earl Wilson column of July 24 (whose last paragraph I've already quoted):
I am told on lousy authority that Miss Katherine Ann Cornell, the singer who opens at Barney Josephson's Cafe Society Downtown Thursday night [July 29] is better looking than Lena Horne. (Hey - another Thursday night opening! Aren't there any other nights?) Well, anyway, Miss Cornell, a cousin of Ella Fitzgerald, was taught to sing by this same Miss Fitzgerald, who took her around the country on some of her singing tours.
So now, within three days, she's touted as Ella Fitzgerald's niece and her cousin. Did she actually go around the country with Ella? There's no way to tell, since she wouldn't have been listed as a singer; she would have just been there to observe. Ella was appearing with the 4 Keys, but not "around the country"; their appearances at the time were limited to the Northeast. They also had an almost daily radio show. (I guess Earl Wilson was doomed to get everything wrong. Katherine Ann Cornell actually opened at Cafe Society on a Tuesday, July 27.)
While her press agent seemed to be staggeringly incompetent with facts, he did manage to get his client's name in the widely-read columns of Earl Wilson and Ed Sullivan.
The July 23 Brooklyn Eagle called Katherine Ann Cornell "Barney Josephson's new singing discovery", who "will make her professional debut at Cafe Society Downtown next Tuesday." Cafe Society, a nightclub owned by Josephson, was at Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village.
The Pittsburgh Courier of July 31 chimed in with "The newest rave about New York is Katherine Ann Cornell, Barney Josephson's latest discovery, whom they say is Ella Fitzgerald's cousin, and looks like a younger Lena Horne. She made her debut at the Downtown Cafe Society, Tuesday." (Doddering old Lena Horne was 26 at the time.)
The August 10, 1943 Hobart (Oklahoma) Democrat-Chief said:
Katherine Cornell working in a night club? Well anyway, Katherine Cornell, or, to make the full distinction aside from the difference in spelling the first name, Katherine Ann Cornell. [I've gone over it several times and the blurb spelled it "Katherine" all three times, so I have no idea what they're talking about.] She is the latest singing discovery at Barney Josephson's Cafe Society Downtown, which has been an incubator for such other pleasing vocalists as Lena Horne, Hazel Scott and Georgia Gibbs.
Of course, the press agents couldn't let a little success go to waste. The August 14 Pittsburgh Courier said: "That Barney Josephson really knows how to present an artist. Looking at the newspaper ads announcing the return of Hazel Scott, we could easily see why Hollywood and all America is at the feet of gals handled by the Cafe Society's owner. Downtown talk is that his new discovery, Ann Cornell, is already being eyed by the flicker city." Sorry, guys, never happened; Ann never made a Hollywood movie.
Since Georgia Gibbs was mentioned, this was in the August 21, 1943 Detroit Tribune: "Georgia Gibbs, Cafe Society Downtown star, has been replaced by Katherine Ann Cornell. Critics and Miss Cornell's press agent point out that the new find's singing is 'somewhere between Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday'. The young miss should click with Manhattan night life patrons." Since unnamed "critics" said that, we should just assume that it came directly from her unnamed press agent.
Also on August 21, Billboard reviewed her performance at Cafe Society:
Barney Josephson, whose special gift is discovering talent and incubating them in his village nightspot before presenting them to the snootier confines of his uptown cafe [Cafe Society Uptown on East 58th Street], has a collection of sepia performers in his downtown place that merits watching. Josephson has done particularly well with personalities introduced in this club: witness the development of Hazel Scott, Lena Horne, Zero Mostel, Kenneth Spencer, Golden Gate Quartet and others. His attention is now focused on Ann Cornell, Pearl Primus [dancer] and Mary Lou Williams [pianist].
Miss Cornell, related by blood and by song style to Ella Fitzgerald, is an extremely pretty singer with a flair for interpretation that enhances rhythm tunes and ballads. At show caught she put over a trio of tunes and an encore. She lacks the sure touches to be gained only by experience, but a lengthy stay in this spot should give her that polish.
"Ann Cornell Latest Rave Of Cafe Society" screamed the August 28 Pittsburgh Courier headline:
A new name is being tossed around with pleasing adjectives by the men of the writing clan who tour the city by night and as a result, Katherine Ann Cornell is creating quite a stir at Downtown Cafe Society.
Discovered by Barney Josephson, who gave the profession Hazel Scott, Lena Horne, Kenneth Spencer and Teddy Wilson, the newest delineator of modern songs is from Philadelphia.... she is both petite and pretty. Some critics have even gone so far as to call her a miniature Lena Horne.
Unseasoned in the profession that has overnight made her the talk of cafe life, Katherine Ann is more like an unpolished gem. She has the looks and the basic qualities of a good entertainer. Most men, seeing her once, twice or three times, voice a unanimous cry that a girl who looks like her doesn't have to know how to sing but so well. [And a press agent doesn't have to know how to write but so well, I guess.]
However, beauty isn't all that the diminutive song stylist has to offer. Taught to sing by Ella Fitzgerald, the obvious talent and personality of the student won her many admirers in the City of Brotherly Love. Today at Cafe Society Downtown, Katherine Ann's singing is somewhere between Ella Fitzgerald the teacher, and Billie Holiday, which is on a high plane, indeed. However, she comes through with a style and charm of her own.
Though not yet the finished artist or the perfect singer, the lady has a voice and with the Josephson touch it isn't hard to predict a great future for the latest lady to come under his professional wing. After all, he did it with Scott and Horne, so why not Katherine Ann Cornell?
It's interesting that a relationship to Ella Fitzgerald isn't mentioned here (and never would be again); it would have been an ideal place for it. Skeptic that I am, I really have to wonder if they were related at all or if it was just another press agent invention.
Her Cafe Society performance was objectively reviewed in the September 1, 1943 Variety:
If looks and ability to wear clothes were the all-important factors, Ann Cornell would rate as probably the best colored singer to hit the New York niteries since Lena Horne.
Unfortunately, however, Miss Cornell has a limited voice range, and displays such singular lack of warmth that, when caught here, she only succeeded in leaving a negative reaction.
If a sepia entertainer leaves Barney Josephson's downtown clientele cold (as a barometer and proving ground for colored entertainers, the spot's still tops), there's little likelihood he or she's ready for a N. Y. nitery career.
Miss Cornell's 'Stormy Weather', 'Heard You Cry Last Night', and 'Sunny Side Of The Street' are all sold in the same manner, with but slight variance in tempo or style.
The September 4, 1943 Billboard spoke about an all-black Hollywood musical planned by Lou Levy (manager of the Andrews Sisters and husband of Maxene Andrews). He had grand plans and had reportedly signed up Louis Jordan and the Delta Rhythm Boys. But:
Levy's big problem is finding an attractive girl who already has a reputation as a singer and he is conducting a search for "another Lena Horne." Among the ladies being considered, The Billboard learned today, are Ida James, formerly with Erskine Hawkins and now working as a single in Los Angeles niteries; Katherine Ann Cornell, singing currently at Cafe Society (Downtown), New York; Madeline Greene, who for years sang with Earl Hines and only recently left his band; and Dorothy Dandridge, best known for her work in Jump For Joy, the Duke Ellington show of two years ago. No decision has yet been made, according to Levy, and nominations still are wide open.
The process would drag on and we'll hear more about it in a few paragraphs.
And don't forget, boys and girls, jaywalking in New York City is fraught with danger. The September 1 Variety said: "Ann Cornell, colored singer at Cafe Society Downtown, struck by hit-and-run driver last week. Treated at St. Vincent's hospital." The New York Daily News of September 4, 1943 repeated the story: "Cafe Society's Ann Cornell was knocked into St. Vincent's [Hospital] by a hit-and-run driver." Note that the "Katherine" is beginning to vanish from her name.
By September 11, Josh White had opened as Cafe Society. Still there were Pearl Primus, Mary Lou Williams, and Ann Cornell ("19-year-old songstress, with engaging voice and personality", said the September 11 Asbury Park Press).
She was even mentioned in the September 17 Yank (The Army Weekly), which, unfortunately, repeated some old garbage: "Katherine Ann Cornell, who attended high school with Frank Sinatra, replaces Georgia Gibbs as vocalist at Cafe Society Downtown in New York." At least she had back in July.
Let's return to that movie. The October 2, 1943 Pittsburgh Courier said: "Madeline Greene, Katherine Ann Cornell, Ida James, Dorothy Dandridge and others are being considered for a top role, although [Lou] Levy this week intimated he wasn't yet satisfied and would continue his search indefinitely." Doesn't sound like any of them are seriously being considered; it just looks good in print. Note that roles are always talked of as "top" or "important"; they rarely are. It's a moot point here; nothing ever came of the movie.
The November 15, 1943 Down Beat noted that Ann Cornell and Hot Lips Page had been signed by Moe Gale, manager of the Ink Spots, Ella Fitzgerald, and Cootie Williams.
By November 20, "Katherine Ann Cornell" had disappeared forever and "Ann Cornell" was appearing at the Club Zombie in Detroit, along with Velma Middleton. Back on August 14, the Chicago Defender had said: "The new rave is Katherine Ann Cornell, who has decided to drop the Katherine so as not to be confused with Katherine Cornell, the great ofay stage actress.... Ann used to play the saxophone and clarinet [the only time that was ever mentioned]." I guess it took her three months to really make up her mind to drop "Katherine".
And then, it was up the food chain. The St. Louis Star And Times (December 11, 1943) talked about the new show at the local Club Plantation. Show producer Ziggy Johnson had just started a new revue there: it starred Ann Cornell.
Although it was never documented anywhere else, Ann's name turned up on a list, printed in the January 8, 1944 Cleveland Call And Post, of 150 black artists who had entertained troops in 1943 USO camp shows. Some other names on the list were Willie Bryant, "Cow Cow" Davenport, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Sally Gooding, Don Redman, Billie Holiday, Manhattan Paul, Sam Price, Ram Ramirez, the 3 Flames, and the Sugar Hill Quartet. One that surprised me was Johnny Bragg (future lead of the Prisonaires). Since he'd been arrested in February 1943, I suppose he could have entertained in January (or, of course, it could be someone else altogether with the same name).
Ann's engagement at Washington DC's Club Caverns began on January 14, 1944. The January 15 Washington Afro-American said she "sings them sweet and hot".
Not long after that, in late February, she was hired by bassist John Kirby as his band singer. The March 11 Billboard said: "John Kirby has signed Ann Cornell as his new vocalist. She will debut with the ork in Norfolk March 19, when it starts a tour of one-nighters thru the South." If she really had toured with Ella Fitzgerald, she would have known Kirby from appearances the two acts had made together early in 1943. Since Kirby was on the radio a lot, Ann must have been heard singing with the band.
The first time Ann's name shows up in a Kirby performance is when the band played the Pony Club in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, beginning March 25.
But the association didn't last too long, although it would come and go over the years. In early May, 1944, Ann opened at Le Ruban Bleu in Manhattan.
The June 1 Down Beat had a list of fan clubs. Ann's was run by Murray Agid, 152 West 42nd Street in Manhattan. I wondered who Murray was and he turned out to be a 49-year-old white real estate agent, born in Austria. He seems to have owned a cabaret in Brooklyn called the Show Place (at least in the 1930s). I'll let someone else unravel why he was in charge of Ann's fan club.
By August 4, she was at Cafe Society Uptown, and on September 22, it was Tondelayo's (also in Manhattan), along with Billy Daniels, the Tiny Grimes Trio, and Errol Garner. Those attending the opening included Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Marva Louis, Phil Moore and his wife, Jeni LeGon, and Leonard Feather.
That show was reviewed in the November 4 Billboard. Here's what they said about Ann:
Ann Cornell, in the deuce spot [she was the second act], is a lovely little thing with a figure to match. Voice, however, is weak. When caught, gal seemed to have a hard time with the ork which was racing so fast she couldn't mouth her words. Delivery is uninspired. Lyrics come out poorly giving impression of not caring one way or another.
She and Billy Daniels then went to the new Spotlight Club (Manhattan), which opened for business on November 10, 1944. The New York Age of November 11 called Ann the "contender for Lena Horne's title of 'The Most Beautiful Sepia Star'." It didn't actually say that they liked her singing, though.
A week later (November 17), she opened at the Club Bali in Washington, DC along with pianist Maurice Rocco and the dancing Nicholas Brothers. The other acts were gone by December 2, but she was still on the bill, which now included the Mills Brothers.
It took the Indianapolis Recorder until December 16 to report that Ann was at the Spotlight Club, which she'd left about a month before. By that time, she was at the Club Bali in Washington, DC.
Ann closed out 1944 at Detroit's Club Zombie, along with Wynonie Harris and the comedy team of Patterson & Jackson. They were all still there on January 6, 1945.
Only a couple of weeks later, Ann joined John Kirby for an engagement at the Red Barn in Bakersfield, California on January 22, 1945. The ad said Kirby had come "Direct From Club Bali, Washington, D. C.", but she hadn't been with him there.
But it was a one-shot deal. When he appeared at Bur-Tons in Oakland, California the following week, his vocalist was Betty Roche.
The February 10, 1945 [Tuscaloosa] Alabama Citizen said that Ann was back at the Spotlight club, along with Edna Mae Harris, Billy Daniels, Harry (The Hipster) Gibson, and the Skeets Tolbert Orchestra.
The March 15 Down Beat said that "Ann Cornell, subbed for Dinah Washington for a week of Lionel Hampton's Canadian tour." No dates were given.
Another facet to Ann's career was mentioned in the March 24 Chicago Defender: "Cafe de Society has picked Ann Cornell to play piano melodies in the lounge while dance music is featured at the Sunday cocktail parties and Saturday nights." This is the only time it was ever mentioned that Ann played the piano.
The April 21 Detroit Tribune had this cryptic blurb: "Ann Cornell, who suffered from a street car accident at Detroit, is back in this town [Chicago]." It didn't say what she'd been doing in Detroit, nor what she was currently doing in Chicago. However, considering her previous run in with a hit-and-run driver, she really needed help crossing the street.
The May 5, 1945 Billboard had this: "Anne Cornell and her accompanist, Eddie Arnold, now at Bamboo Room, Kenosha, Wis." I don't believe this is our Ann Cornell.
There's no further trace of Ann until February 16, 1946. That was the date of Billie Holiday's Town Hall (Manhattan) concert. One account said that Billie used Ann to help her with costume changes.
The March 9 Pittsburgh Courier reported on a new play:
News from New England has it that "St. Louis Woman" is still running into star difficulties, and while its producers hope to bring it into the Martin Beck [Theater] on schedule, that idea will be discarded unless a New Della Green is found before that time. Recent tryouts for the role included Muriel Rahn (from "Carmen Jones") and Ann Cornell among others, but there's still no doubt in anybody's mind that Lena Horne fits the part like a glove."
[Actually, they had gotten Lena Horne, by special dispensation of M-G-M Pictures. The cast also had Pearl Bailey, Rex Ingram, and the Nicholas Brothers. However, at the last minute, Lena Horne decided that the play depicted blacks badly and refused to appear in it (making M-G-M very displeased). With Pearl Bailey now in the lead, it finally opened on March 30, 1946 and lasted for 113 performances.]
A New York Age columnist went to see Ann Cornell when she was appearing at the Little Casino (Greenwich Village) in April 1946. On April 27, he said (about having seen her "last week"): "Drifting into the Little Casino down the Village way to hear Ann Cornell who is very cute. She disappointed us a bit with her vocalizing, perhaps it was because she had a very bad cold." Seems to me a more sympathetic reviewer would have said that she did her best in spite of a very bad cold.
But maybe it was more than that. The May 6, 1946 Down Beat also talked about her Little Casino act and had this: "She had to pull out of the singing spot two weeks ago because of the tragic suicide of her brother." I understand that the blurb was about Ann, but had they mentioned her brother's name, I could possibly have figured out just who Ann Cornell was.
Ann was back with John Kirby again for his June 20-26, 1946 appearance at the RKO-Boston Theater. The June 21 Boston Globe said: "Tops on the bill is John Kirby and his small swing combination, a truly superb orchestra with the best arrangements in the business. 'Rose Room,' 'I Cover The Waterfront' with Ann Cornell as vocalist, 'All The Things You Are' and others are turned out with finesse and gentle style." Note that, although Ann is mentioned in write-ups, her name doesn't appear in Kirby ads during this period.
Ann was also with Kirby for his July 12-18 appearance at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia (along with the Deep River Boys). The July 13 Philadelphia Inquirer said: "Lissome Miss Cornell lends charm and a pleasantly husky voice to 'Them There Eyes', 'On The Sunny Side Of The Street', and 'I Cover The Waterfront'."
On August 1, 1946, Ann and the Kirby band were at Loew's State (Manhattan). The August 10, 1946 Billboard reviewed the show:
John Kirby (5 [5-piece band]) does three numbers, of which his St. Louis Blues was the ace. Number is arranged beautifully and the boys give it plenty of zing. A clary solo in this number pulled big hands. Kirby also came in with a canary, Ann Cornell, a cute light-skin youngster who showed one of the best voices around. Styling is kind of Billie Holidayish, but pipes have a rich, lazy quality which makes them ideal for selling blues. Gal waves arms too much, but there is nothing the matter with her voice or appearance.
Note that this is the point at which the two "romance items" that I quoted at the beginning were printed. This is also the last time her name is linked with the Kirby band.
Sometime in September, Ann filmed a sequence, accompanied by Roger "Ram" Ramirez on piano ("I Just Refuse To Sing The Blues"), that was incorporated into the Herald Pictures release Boy! What A Girl! This film (which is actually pretty cute, if primitive), was shot in New York. It starred Tim Moore, and had Deek Watson & the Brown Dots, the Sid Catlett orchestra, the Slam Stewart Trio, the International Jitterbugs, and Patterson & Jackson. It was supposed to be released in mid-November, but it would be six more months before it was first shown.
January 24, 1947 found Ann Cornell at the Cafe St. Michel, in Montreal, for two weeks. However, the date clashes with the following, from the February 1 New York Age (a day on which both their typesetter and their proofreader awoke with the biggest hangovers in history):
Trumpeter "Cat" Anderson, fresh out of the 'Ellington band' has organized his own band and played one-night stand at Club Sudan January 24th. Also on bill will be the was the singer bill was the singer Ann Cornell and shake artist Dottie Rhodes. "Shim-Sham was Em-cee. [I swear to you, that's verbatim, including the single quote at the beginning of Shim-Sham.]
The New York Daily News of February 9, 1947 said that Ann's film was imminent:
Herald Pictures, a new producing organization in New York, has made a musical film with an all-Negro cast. "Boy! What A Girl!" directed by Arthur Leonard, will be released on Broadway as soon as a theatre is available. Ann Cornell and Betti Mays, two young singers who've gained fame in the night clubs of New York, have leading roles in the picture.... [In my world, singing one song (and not even being identified as the singer) does not constitute a "leading role".]
However, Boy! What A Girl! wasn't released until April 6, 1947, when it was shown at the Howard Theater (Fulton Street, Brooklyn) on Easter Sunday. The April 7 Brooklyn Eagle said: "Ann Cornell, popular with cafe society, shares the singing assignment with Betti Mays and Deek Watson's Brown Dots. 'Just In Case You Change Your Mind' and 'I Just Refuse To Sing The Blues', two of the numbers they introduce, are well worth rehearing."
Let's have a serious talk about the serial comma. [What? Has he finally lost his mind? Quiet down. Is this your article or mine?] Consider the following sentences:
I like this, that and the other.
I like this, that, and the other.
The second one has a serial comma (the one before the "and"). Is there any other difference? No; the sentences are identical in meaning. So, how about this one:
The cast for Boy! What A Girl! includes Tim Moore, Warren Patterson, Al Jackson, ... Slam Stewart, Ann Cornell and the International Jitterbugs.
Now, we have a problem. Many sites, picking up on that construction, talk about "Ann Cornell and the International Jitterbugs", assuming that she was a part of that dance group. Don't let anyone tell you the serial comma isn't important. Always use it. [This has been a Public Service Announcement brought to you by Friends Of The Serial Comma.]
Ann went into the Riviera Club in St. Louis on March 21, 1947, replacing Little Miss Cornshucks.
Some recordings. Since there's no date associated with them, I'm going to throw them in here. I believe that, sometime in 1947, Ann made a couple of demo recordings for Leonard Feather's Modern Age Music Company of 1650 Broadway (which was stamped on the demos' labels). They were pressed on Hazard "Buzz" Reeves' Soundcraft label (Audition series), which had been formed in July 1946. The songs were: "Overwork Blues" and "Don't Hold It Against Me". Both are short (under two minutes) and only have a piano. Although there's a space for it on the label, there's no date written in. I've seen two other Soundcraft Audition discs; one had a September 1948 date entered; the other said 1949.
"Overwork Blues", published by Modern Age Music, had been copyrighted November 24, 1946 by Leroy Williams; it would be recorded by Etta Jones on December 8, 1947.
"Don't Hold It Against Me", also published by Modern Age Music, was written by Frank Hedges and Louis Palmer. Dinah Washington recorded it on June 1, 1951. Hedges and Palmer also wrote Wynonie Harris' "Come Back, Baby", as well as "Richest Guy In The Graveyard", recorded by Etta Jones on March 11, 1947.
Since the Ann Cornell recordings only have a piano, they were demos recorded either to get a feel for the songs or to play them for others who might be interested in recording them. The demos are datable between late 1946 and early 1951, although I believe 1947 is the best bet. Remember that a March 1945 blurb said that Ann played the piano, so it's reasonable that she's accompanying herself.
Finally, Ann received a measure of long-awaited fame. Beginning in September 1947, newspapers (and possibly magazines) began to run an ad from Howard Tresses (wigs and hair extensions) featuring a large photo of Ann Cornell (the smaller photos are hair models). I have to say that she looks completely different in a side view and not at all like the woman in the movie (or in any other photo). However, she's identified in the ad as being the woman in that picture.
In mid-September, New York's Sterling Records announced the signing of Dolores Brown, Irving Kaufman, the Diamond Jubilee Singers, Larry Steward, Bob Harter, and (of course) Ann Cornell. In August, she'd recorded four songs for Sterling, backed up by the Skippy Williams Orchestra: "I've Got It Bad And That Ain't Good", "Why Is It So", "Mad About You", and "When Your Lover Has Gone ". They were all released in November.
Billboard reviewed (and savaged) all four Sterling sides on November 29, 1947:
While the husky voicing of Ann Cornell is scaled to the torch register, her singing is without any stylized delivery or rhythmic feel to make it any degree of song selling. Skippy Williams' small rhythm band supports, but with little spark in their syncos as in the singing. Never getting into a winning way for the wordage, Miss Cornell torched it throaty for three slow blues ballads, taking a lively beat for When Your Lover Has Gone. Nothing here that makes for nickels.
However, the Philadelphia Inquirer (December 19) had something good to say: "Pretty Ann Cornell's torrid record of 'Mad About You' looks like a national hit. She's a former local girl who sang with the John Kirby and Lionel Hampton bands." This is the only mention of her with Hampton; I can't find any performances they did together.
1948 opened with Ann appearing at Emerson's in Philadelphia in mid-January.
After their November 29 bad review, Billboard decided, on January 17, 1948, that they now liked "Mad About You". It was in The Billboard Picks column, which was headed "In the opinion of The Billboard music staff, records listed below are most likely to achieve popularity as determined by entry into best selling, most played, or most heard features of the Chart." They said of "Mad About You" (which had also been done by Ronnie Deauville, with the Ram Ramirez Quartet):
Tune, penned by Ram Ramirez and kicked around by jazzmen for a couple of years, gets slow, straight handling with big Ann Cornell vocal on the Sterling label. Super-Disc platter also in slow styling with sincere Deauville piping and subdued yet solid Ramirez Quartet backing.
Cash Box climbed aboard, reviewing "Mad About You" and "When Your Lover Has Gone" (but never Ann's other Sterling record) on January 31:
Here's a ditty you'll want to feature in your machines - but pronto. It's thrush Ann Cornell and the heavy wordage of "Mad About You" to set off a spark of coin play from coast to coast. Ann's vocal efforts here are bound to go a long way toward hypoing phono play and in a big way at that. The stuff is set way down low, with the lyric and the gal's pitch in there all the way. On the flip with the standard "When Your Lover Has Gone", the canary comes thru with more teeming tones that glow. Both sides of this piece for some mad play.
In spite of Cash Box's praise and Billboard's turnaround, the song was never a hit by either artist. After the good reviews, it was a surprise to read this one from the January 14 Down Beat:
A very very pretty girl singing Ram Ramirez' very very pretty tune. The only trouble is that she isn't a very good singer. She sings Lover up tempo, a shame since she misses all the subtlety of the exquisite tune.
On February 15, 1948, Ann sang at a trade affair held at Frank Palumbo's in Philadelphia. It was the annual banquet of the Phonograph Operators' Association. (In English: an association of those who owed jukeboxes.) Also present was Louis Prima's band and Frankie Laine.
On April 2, Ann opened at the new Murrain's Cabaret in the Bronx. The original Murrain's was still on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan; now John Murrain had opened a second location in the Bronx.
I'm not sure what to make of this: There was a Triangle Record Distributors ad in the June 5, 1948 Billboard saying "We are closing out Sterling Records". They were offering 2000 copies of "Mad About You" at 15 cents each. My best guess is that Triangle would no longer be distributing Sterling.
In August, Ann was signed by Bandwagon Records, which, at the time, was owned jointly by Al Middleman (owner of Sterling Records) and George J. Bennett (the a&r man for Sterling, as he had been for Manor in 1946). Therefore, she wasn't really switching labels. At the same time, Bandwagon signed the Rhythm Masters, who, for their first appearance on record, backed up Ann on two songs, released in September: "Always Mine" and "I've Been Through The Mill With Bill". The pairing became the Race Disk O' The Week in the October 2, 1948 Cash Box.
In that same Cash Box, George Bennett said that "Always Mine" was on its way to being a smash hit, with 25,000 advance sales. That's just the usual industry hype; it wasn't a hit.
They were also reviewed in the October 9 Billboard, although there were no raves here:
Always Mine (71): Thrush shows fine feeling and excellently controlled voice and phrasing here, but male vocal group backing is only ordinary.
I've Been Through The Mill With Bill (64): Cornell gal's talent all but obscured in an unimaginatively conceived pop cleffing.
Note that the Billboard review came a week before the record showed up in its "Advance Record Releases" column.
Sometime in February 1949, Ann was supposed to open at the Club Savannah in New York. However, a February 19 ad for the club shows Billy Daniels, Manhattan Paul, and several others, but not Ann.
On Friday, March 25, Ann made it to television as one of the acts on a CBS program called Adventures In Jazz. Others that night were three bandleaders: Ismael "Esy" Morales (younger brother of bandleader Noro Morales), Buddy DeFranco, and Bobby Sherwood. The host was New York City DJ William B. Williams (who'd one day take over "Make Believe Ballroom" on WNEW).
The April 2 Detroit Tribune listed Ann as one of the cast of the movie "Harlem Follies". I haven't seen the film, but she's not listed in the cast (which included Savannah Churchill, Stepin Fetchit, and Juanita Hall). Actually, different sources list different cast members, but Ann isn't on any of the lists. If she'd really recorded a sequence, it was cut.
On July 29, 1949, Ann was one of the guests on a CBS TV show called This Is Broadway, with host Clifton Fadiman. Those scheduled to appear were panelists George S. Kaufman, Abe Burrows, and actor Charles "Buddy" Rogers (who'd appeared in 1927's "Wings", the first film to win a "Best Picture" Academy Award). Other performers were vocalist Art Lund, opera singer Elaine Malbin, and comic actor Joshua Shelley.
By October 25, Ann was back at the Cafe Society Downtown. This time, the rest of the show had Jackie "Moms" Mabley, Harry (The Hipster) Gibson, and the Billy Taylor Quintet.
The October 29 Billboard reviewed the show and said this of Ann:
Ann Cornell, first caught here some years ago, is back. But during the years she has lost that childish naivete and freshness that made her singing distinctive. She has since gained experience, not to mention a few superfluous pounds, and is now a stylist with many voice tricks, some of them intriguing. The over-all reaction, however, is an appeal now limited to the connoisseur who thrills to high stylings.
I guess she's out of favor at Billboard. On November 3, Ann and the Billy Taylor Quintet were joined by Nellie Lutcher at the Cafe Society.
At least Wink Locklair, who wrote a column that appeared in some North Carolina newspapers, liked her. His review of the Cafe Society Downtown show, printed on November 17, 1949 said:
About midnight the houselights faded out and Billy Taylor and his crew went to work on "Lover," "How High The Moon," and some original bop. The roar tapered off a little when Ann Cornell came on to sing. She is reminiscent in style and stamina to Lena Horne, who was also on display last week-end at the Capitol Theater. Miss Cornell does "I Get A Kick Out Of You" with natural enthusiasm and her "Old Black Magic," and "I Do, Do, Do Like You."
The November 19 Billboard also had a review of the Cafe Society show featuring Ann and Nellie Lutcher:
With comic Bernie Hern lamming after one week, this compact little bistro's current show is down to two singing acts, Nellie Lutcher and Ann Cornell, and the Billy Taylor band (5) [that is, five musicians]. Miss Lutcher, of course, is the draw as the result of her Capitol record click some time back. Spotting the two fem warblers back to back, without a band number or two in between, makes little sense, for the contrast between them is so marked that it takes the edge off any impression Miss Cornell, on first, makes. The obvious thing to do is to have Bill Taylor's band break up its three numbers, which open the show, and sandwich one in between the two singers.
Miss Cornell is a petite, attractive gal with a small voice which she uses with an over abundancy [sic] of grimaces, sufficient after a while to become distracting. With her appearance, tho, and with her intimate and smoky voice, well suited for places of this nature, she should get by. Her principal weakness is failing to project strongly enough.
Nellie Lutcher, on the other hand, fills the joint with her voice and her free-wheeling, uninhibited style, She provides a lot of entertainment, tho, both as a result of that style and her off-the-beaten-path numbers. Despite the audience's approval and its insistence on additional tunes, she stayed on too long, doing about 10 songs all told.
By the end of November, Ann appeared at the Cheat Lake Supper Club in Uniontown, Pennsylvania for a week.
Remember back at the start of her career, when "Katherine Ann Cornell" could be confused with actress Katherine Cornell? Well, now, it just got worse. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle of May 23, 1950 sent its crack reporter out to get the story and he came back with: "Savannah Cafe rushes season with Summer show featuring Ann Cornell, Lana Turner's protege, bowing in Thursday [May 25]." How did Lana Turner get in there? Turns out that, about a year previously, a Hollywood actress named Ann Cornell came on the scene. Generally, the press didn't confuse them (although the Internet Movie Database does). Our Ann only made the single movie (Boy! What A Girl!); all other movies are by that Hollywood upstart.
However, it was true that Ann started (and starred) in the new Club Savannah show. The summer revue was called "The World Series Of 1950" and also had Manhattan Paul, Al & Roxie, Alma Ford ("Jive Bomber"), Earl Jackson, Connie Harris, Louise Woods, and Lucille Dixon & Her Band. The club was at 68 West 3rd Street in Greenwich Village.
From October 9-15, Ann was at the Club Harlem in Philadelphia, along with Charlie Parker's band and Slim Gaillard. A month later (November 19), she was at the Columbia Theater in Detroit, primarily a burlesque house.
On November 23-24, she was part of the show at the Regal Theater in Cincinnati. Others on the bill were Sugar Chile Robinson, Arnold Dover, and the Gay Crosse Orchestra.
A year later (late October 1951), Ann Cornell was on a picket line protesting the discrimination against Josephine Baker by New York City's famed Stork Club. Thelma Carpenter was also walking the line.
I don't know when she started, but the December 1, 1951 Pittsburgh Courier said: "Ann Cornell continues to be the singing attraction at the Chantilly on the lower East Side of Gotham [West 4th Street]." She was still there when the January 19, 1952 New York Age printed "Sloe Eyed Ann Cornell, who once thrilled patrons locally at Jock's Place, has the downtowners beating a pathway to the Chantilly in the Village to hear her distinctive songs." Jock's Place was in Harlem, but there were few ads for the place and nothing else saying Ann ever appeared there.
Ann was supposed to open at the New Town Tavern (Philadelphia) on March 5, 1952 but she had to cancel because of illness. Betty Logan was rushed in to replace her.
In 1952, there was a stage production called "New Faces Of 1952" (later filmed and released as a 1954 movie - it was the first film I ever saw twice). It introduced the world to Paul Lynde, Alice Ghostley, Ronnie Graham, Eartha Kitt, Carol Lawrence, and Robert Clary (with Mel Brooks doing much of the writing). In August 1952, Phil Moore was looking to produce a "night club edition of New Faces". To that end, he held auditions at La Vie En Rose (Manhattan); Ann Cornell was one of those he auditioned and passed on. An interesting project, but it never came to anything.
By late December, Ann was appearing at the Emerson in Philadelphia.
"And now, the end is near" as someone once said. The June 27, 1953 New York Age said:
For the information of Broadwayites who have been wondering about Ann Cornell. She is now planning a comeback via RCA recordings and a tour of Seaboard night clubs. We hadn't seen her for many months prior to last week when she appeared as one of the guests at Grace Houston's birthday party, and she is looking pretty with a gorgeous sun tan. Ann is a very talented girl and I hope she gets back in the groove.
There were never any RCA recordings (or, at least, no RCA records) and I can't find a single appearance Ann made after the Emerson in December 1952.
Her name turns up once more, in the September 18, 1954 New York Age's "Whatever Happened To" column: "... pert and unpredictable Ann Cornell, whose star was at its highest point just five years ago?"
We may never know the answer to that. It's seemingly the last time her name was mentioned anywhere. "The rest", as Bill said, "is silence."
Ann Cornell didn't give us much to remember her by: just six released songs and a single movie tune. But I like them, and I wish I could find out what happened to her.
Special thanks to Jay Bruder.
MOVIE - Boy! What A Girl! - 4/47
I Just Refuse To Just Sing The Blues
SOUNDCRAFT (demo recordings for Leonard Feather; no record number)
#### Don't Hold It Against Me / Overwork Blues - ca 47
STERLING (Ann Cornell with the Skippy Williams Orchestra)
3003 I've Got It Bad And That Ain't Good / Why Is It So - 11/47
3004 Mad About You / When Your Lover Has Gone - 11/47
BANDWAGON (Ann Cornell with the Rhythm Masters)
517 I've Been Through The Mill With Bill / Always Mine - 9/48