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“There never was a woman like Gilda!” trumpeted advertisements for Columbia Pictures’ 1946 film noir, and for once, the flacks weren’t exaggerating. Rita Hayworth, at the peak of her iconic voluptuousness, ignited the screen as a tempestuous nightclub performer. The studio, faced with the daunting task of finding a voice to dub nonsinger Hayworth’s musical numbers, had chosen Anita Ellis, a 25-year-old Canadian-born radio vocalist. When Hollywood’s “love goddess” lip-synched the sultry “Put the Blame on Mame,” moviegoers surrendered to a siren’s call.
Subsequently, Ellis dubbed Hayworth in three more movies and vocalized for other actresses, including Shelley Winters, Vera-Ellen, Joan Caulfield, and Jeanne Crain. Most performers would have felt frustrated by the anonymity of ghosting vocals, but Ellis welcomed the assignment, though not because she lacked sufficient glamour to appear on-screen herself. With her finely sculpted features and cascading brunet hair, the petite singer was strikingly attractive. But, plagued by shyness and insecurity since childhood, she felt most comfortable performing for radio, soundtracks, and studio recordings, media that allowed her to sing without the pressure of having to face live audiences.
Ellis’ rare first two albums, I Wonder What Became of Me and Hims—recorded in the mid-’50s, out of print within a few years, and avidly sought by collectors ever since—have recently been reissued by Pennsylvania oldies label Collectables. Both are billed as “Collectables Jazz Classics,” a misleading classification, because Ellis was not a vocal improviser and seldom chose jazz accompaniment. She was, rather, an exceptionally gifted cabaret artist who invested familiar and obscure songs with the exacting musicianship of a classically trained vocalist and the expressive intensity of Judy Garland and Edith Piaf.
Born Anita Kert in Montreal on April 12, 1920, Ellis was introduced to music by her cantor father and her singer-pianist mother. In 1930, the Kerts moved to Hollywood, where Anita and her brother Larry (who later played Tony in the original Broadway production of West Side Story) registered with Central Casting. Young Anita was signed by MGM and can be briefly glimpsed dancing in Busby Berkeley’s production numbers in the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney musicals Babes in Arms and Strike Up the Band.
After graduating from Hollywood High School, Ellis enrolled at UCLA with the intention of majoring in psychology, then transferred to the Cincinnati College of Music, where she was awarded a scholarship to study opera. But her uneasiness about performing in public led her to take a job singing popular songs on a local radio station, which she found less stressful. As she told Whitney Balliett in an 1978 New Yorker profile, “If there was a studio audience, I’d turn sideways and sing at the control room, which I couldn’t see very well anyway, because of my nearsightedness.”
Returning to California, Ellis began a two-year run on the CBS wartime radio program Songs Overseas, then moved to New York, where she starred in her own show for the Mutual Network and appeared as a regular on the Red Skelton and Jack Carson comedy programs. By the early ’50s, the emergence of television had diminished the market for live musical radio broadcasts, and Ellis, battling stage fright, mustered up the courage to perform at the Blue Angel, the Bon Soir, and other Manhattan clubs.
In 1956, Ellis made I Wonder What Became of Me, her first commercially released record. This ambitious, offbeat project, a precursor of the contemporary concept album, charts a woman’s passage from youthful innocence through a doomed love affair that leaves her consumed by loneliness and regret. Ellis links the songs by reciting a narration written by novelist Davis Grubb, author of the best seller The Night of the Hunter. Grubb’s overripe prose (“When your heart dies, why doesn’t the rest of you die, too?”) is an embarrassment that Collectables should have isolated on separate tracks.
On five songs, arranger-conductor Luther Henderson employed a bland, intrusive chorus. But if there was ever a singer who had no need for backup vocals, it was Ellis. It would be difficult to name another pop or jazz vocalist with such a formidable technique. Unlike Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, and other classic songstresses who evolved individualistic sounds to compensate for vocal limitations, Ellis, with her tuning-fork pitch, immaculate breath control, flawless diction, and impeccably executed glissandos, was almost punishingly precise. This perfectionist approach never became an end in itself, however, but always served the meanings and moods of her repertoire.
On the opening track, “Theme and Exposition,” Henderson underscored Ellis’ wordless voice with a dirgelike four-note motif that weaves through the following 11 songs, the first half of which chronicle the nameless narrator’s impetuous relationship with a musician. Backed by woodwinds and guitar, Ellis infused the folkish “If I Had a Ribbon Bow” with girlish sweetness that ripens into infatuation in the giddy Rodgers and Hart waltz “Wait Till You See Him.” The attraction grows passionate in the smoldering “Man With a Horn,” sparked by Mel Davis’ virtuosic trumpet introduction and coda, and in the rollicking “I Ain’t Got No Shame,” a seldom-performed song from Porgy and Bess. Ellis’ reflective interpretation of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” accompanied by after-hours solo piano, serves as the album’s dramatic fulcrum.
The remaining selections darken as the narrator struggles to cope with her lover’s departure. In “Walk Up” and “Four Walls (And One Dirty Window Blues),” she eloquently captures the claustrophobic aftermath of abandonment. In both the impassioned “I Loves You Porgy” and the lascivious “Roller Coaster Blues,” she sings of vainly attempting to find a new lover. The closing songs afford no resolution. In the introspective Ellington-Strayhorn “Something to Live For,” recast by Henderson as a beguine, the narrator searches for redemption—a fruitless quest that leads to the climactic Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer-penned title song, a poetic plaint of disenchantment: “Lights are bright/Pianos making music all the night/And they pour champagne/Just like it was rain/It’s a sight to see/But I wonder what became of me.”
The punningly titled Hims, released in 1958, is an 11-song collection of tunes with men’s names in their titles, rounded off by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s celebration of masculinity, “That’s Him.” In a misguided gesture of generosity, Collectables has appended three intrusive bonus selections that would have been better left in limbo: “Forbidden Fruit” and “How Will I Know,” two dreadfully twangy 1957 pop singles, and “Fan Tan Fannie,” a 58-second throwaway from the original cast album of Flower Drum Song, the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in which Ellis played a cameo role.
A singing actress, Ellis shaped each performance in this sound gallery of male portraits—some admiring, some censorious—to reflect a singular persona. Not all of these character vignettes succeed. “Clap Hands (Here Comes Charley),” Ellis’ gratingly high-pitched flapper-era tribute to a bon vivant, is excessively contrived, as is her heavy-breathing attempt to reinvent the vintage novelty tune “Piccolo Pete” as a sexy ballad. But the remaining tracks effectively showcase her vibrant voice and sure dramatic instincts. Her tender, moonstruck interpretation of “Bill,” in which a woman contemplates her inexplicable infatuation with an unexceptional man, shimmers in arranger Hal Schaefer’s setting for woodwinds, vibes, and solo violin. And her intimate yet full-voiced delivery illuminates two masochistic torch songs: “Good for Nothin’ Joe,” a prostitute’s unashamed acknowledgment of her codependent relationship with a cold-hearted pimp, and “Jim,” an unabashed confession of unreciprocated adoration.
Hims’ most memorable tracks are four meltingly sensitive ballads. In “Goodbye, John,” Ellis portrayed a young girl bidding farewell to her soldier lover, a wrenching departure that Schaefer underscored with fragments of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.” I’ve never heard a more affecting version of “Danny Boy” than Ellis’ crystalline reading, capped by a high note of exquisite purity. “Larry,” a lilting waltz composed for the album, pays tribute to Ellis’ adored brother (who died of AIDS in 1991). Hims closes on a swooningly romantic note, with Schaefer’s strings-and-brass arrangement and Ellis’ seductive phrasing embracing Nash’s wry “That’s Him” lyric: “He’s like a book directly from the printer: You look at him—he’s so commenceable/He’s comforting as woolens in the winter/He’s indispensable.”
Over the next few years, Ellis produced one more soundtrack vocal, singing the whimsically suggestive Jack Kerouac-David Amram title song for Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s underground short Pull My Daisy, and made another LP, The World in My Arms. She then married neurologist Mortimer Shapiro and withdrew from performing for more than a decade. In 1974, she conquered her insecurity and made a critically acclaimed comeback at Manhattan’s Michael’s Pub. The following five years proved to be the most productive of her career: She appeared on Alec Wilder’s NPR series American Popular Song; made her final brace of albums, A Legend Sings and Anita Ellis; taped the PBS special For the Record accompanied by pianist Ellis Larkins; and, in 1979, gave her first (and last) solo concert at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. Although she sang beautifully, her anxiety was palpable. At one point, dissatisfied with her approach to the opening notes of a ballad, she stopped singing, dropped to her knees, and angrily pounded the stage with her fists before starting the number over again.
Following a handful of similarly fraught appearances, Ellis ended her singing career in 1987. She presently resides in the expansive New York apartment that she shared with her late husband and, in the cruelest of ironies, suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, the same ailment that took the life of Rita Hayworth. Although Ellis’ voice is stilled, thanks to Collectables’ resurrection of these rare recordings, we can now marvel at the legacy of the nearly forgotten artist whom soprano Eileen Farrell—no slouch herself when it comes to performing standards—regards as “the best American popular singer.” CP