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Susannah McCorkle: Tragic End for Gifted Singer

SOURCE: Published: 2001-05-22

Jazz singer Susannah McCorkle was found dead outside her home in New York. The singer, who suffered from bouts of clinical depression throughout her life, apparently committed suicide. A note was found in her apartment, along with a Will and a detailed instructions regarding her estate.

It was a tragic end to a life and career in which she established herself as one of the best jazz singers of her generation. Her interpretations of jazz standards, blues and Latin songs straddled the boundaries between jazz and pop, with the emphasis firmly on conveying the meaning and poetry of the lyrics rather than vocal improvisation. Billie Holiday was a constant influence in her approach, and as a writer herself, she brought a refined literary awareness to her delivery of lyrics, bringing out often sublimated moods and unexpected undercurrents in even the most familiar songs.

Her appetite for learning songs was insatiable. Estimates put her repertoire at somewhere around 3,000 songs, stretching from early blues to contemporary pop songs by Paul Simon or Leiber and Stoller. She released 17 albums of material, including themed tributes to songwriters like Johnny Mercer, George Gershwin, Harry Warren, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin.

Her most recent release was “Hearts And Minds," (2000), but she had completed the recording of another album before her death, which was scheduled for release in August. She made her own translations of some of the Portuguese lyrics for the selection of Brazilian songs she covered on Sabia (1990), and sang others in the original language. She also sang fluently in French and Italian.

She was a published writer, contributing fiction to Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan and The O. Henry Book of Prize Short Stories, and writing articles for The New York Times Magazine and American Heritage, including extended essays on Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith and Irving Berlin. Her cabaret performances also included a rich fund of anecdotes and information on the songwriters whose work she interpreted in her own distinctive fashion.

Her father was an anthropologist who moved to a number of different colleges while she was growing up, and her childhood was spent in a variety of university towns in America. She attended the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied Italian literature, then travelled to Europe, intending to study languages and be a writer.

Ironically, she discovered jazz while living in Paris, and later said that hearing a recording by Billie Holiday casued her to revised her plans entirely, and turned her toward singing. She moved to London in 1972, and worked with trumpeters John Chilton and Digby Fairweather, and pianist Keith Ingham, whom she married. She recorded her first album in 1976, and sang with both British musicians and visiting Americans like Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon.

By her own admission, she had been something of an outsider, and likened becoming involved in the jazz scene to “finding my tribe”. In the course of the decade, she established herself as a significant song interpreter, both in Europe and in occasional forays to New York.

She returned permanently to America at the end of the Seventies, and established herself in New York in a seven-month residence at The Cookery in Greenwich Village. She performed regularly at leading cabaret venues like the Algonquin Hotel, as well as concert appearances at prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, and was known for her ability to build literate cabaret shows around a given theme or songwriter. In the Nineties, she expanded her activities into conducting regular interactive music workshops for children in both public venues and schools.

She is survived by her mother, Margery McCorkle; two sisters, Margery Pinson and Kate McCorkle; and her former husbands, Dan DiNicola and Keith Ingham.




Kenny Mathieson is a freelance writer based in Scotland. His book Giant Steps: Bebop and The Creators of Modern Jazz (1999) is published by Payback Press. E-mail: kenmat@dircon.co.uk

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