Jazz’s queen of outrage: the wild, stranger-than-fiction life of Annie Ross – Telegraph.co.uk

Jazz drummer Tony Kinsey didn’t know quite how to react as a tall man with swept-back blond hair lurched into view. The individual staggering towards the stage was Peter O’Toole, who had spent the day filming David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia at St Paul’s Cathedral. Now night had fallen and O’Toole was in the mood for mischief.

Which is how, on this fateful night in 1962, he and his tipsy entourage came to darken the door of Annie Ross’s celebrated Covent Garden jazz club.

“He had brought the whole cast back to the club…they were completely out of it,” recalled jazz saxophonist Peter King, performing alongside Kinsey that evening. “O’Toole…picked up a stick and started playing on [Kinsey’s] cymbal in the middle of the gig.”

Kinsey told the stage invader to return to his seat. “Don’t you know who I am?” rumbled O’Toole. “I don’t give a f___ if you’re Lawrence of Arabia,” shot back the drummer. “Get off my drum kit.” 

In the wings Annie Ross, the club’s proprietress, took it all in. Her response to the calumny was not recorded. But it is tempting to imagine her flashing wry grin. It had been her idea to invite O’Toole and his hangers-on. She may well have suspected there would be drama. Wherever Ross went, drama seemed to follow. 

Annie Ross in the studio, circa 1957

Credit: Getty

Ross, who has passed away four days short of her 90th birthday, lived a big life, lit up in spotlights. Born into a vaudeville family in Glasgow, she became a child star in Hollywood and then one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time.

She later had success in acting, her credits including The Wicker Man and the Danny DeVito comedy Throw Mamma From A Train. She also accompanied Billie Holiday on shoplifting sprees (though she always insisted it was Holiday who did the lifting), shot heroin with doomed comedian Lenny Bruce and saw the light and dark sides of Judy Garland.

Her own life had its dark sides, too. She was young child when her mother abandoned her to return from New York to Glasgow and the wrench of that separation stayed with her. As did her love-hate – mostly the latter by the end – relationship with the actress aunt to whom it fell to raise Ross in New York.

There were affairs, including one with jazz drummer Kenny Clarke that produced a child. Her romance, in the Fifties, with Lenny Bruce was a gateway to drug addiction. Bruce was an unconventional soul and theirs was an unconventional relationship: he would write “I love you” on airplane sick bags and post them to her.

Heroin, however, devastated Ross and ruined her career in America, where she did the unthinkable and missed several gigs at the iconic Apollo Theatre in Harlem.

Her return to the UK to open Annie’s Room on Russell Street in Covent Garden had its own unhappy ending. By the mid-Sixties jazz had been replaced by rock and pop and the venue shuttered. 

But even then she was not done and she moved to the third act of her career as an actress. By this time her husband had died in a car-crash, she had lost her home and declared bankruptcy. If someone were to present Ross’s life as a novel, most publishers would surely reject it as too far fetched. And yet somehow she passed away in relative obscurity. 

“Annie was extraordinary,” says Gill Parry, producer of a 2012 documentary about Ross, No One But Me (in which the anecdote about Peter O’Toole is relayed). 

Annie Ross backstage at a 1956 West End production of Cranks

Credit: Getty

“She lived for jazz, loved music and musicians, was massively talented, funny, classy, sharp, glamorous, cool. She told the most outrageous stories and knew the most amazing people, from her close friends Billie Holiday, James Baldwin, Charlie Parker, Lenny Bruce and countless others through Hollywood and Broadway in the Forties, Paris in the Fifties, to London in the Sixties and on to settle in New York City.”

“I was pretty precocious,” Ross remembered of her childhood and her family’s move to New York when she was just four. “It was going to America. ‘You’re going to be a star, you’re going to Hollywood”.” 

Ross had a rough and tumble upbringing. Her parents saw her as a passport to the big time and apparently little else. In New York, she would pick up cigarette butts from the street and smoke them. Later, having won a talent contest organised by band leader Paul Whiteman and signed a deal with MGM, they moved to Hollywood, where Scott’s mother tried to market her daughter as “the Scottish Shirley Temple”. 

“My mother thought I was going to be Shirley Temple,” she said. “Well, they already had a Shirley Temple.” 

Still her talent was undeniable. At age seven she was cast in Our Gang Of Follies, where she sang The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomand. Later she played the younger sister of Judy Garland’s character in Presenting Lily Mars. “She was very insecure,” Ross would say of Garland, whom she would later welcome as a guest to her jazz club. “She could be wonderful or she could be distant.” 

Jon Hendricks, Dave Lambert and Annie Ross performing in 1960

Credit: Redferns

Her mother had by then had enough and returned to Glasgow. Annie was left in the care of her aunt, Broadway singer Ella Logan, who attempted to pass the child off as her daughter. “I felt I’d been sold,” remembered Ross in No One But Me. “I watched the plane take off. I was clinging with the wires saying, ‘“don’t sell me… don’t sell me”.” 

She blossomed into a jazz singer whose vocal talents seemed to verge on the supernatural. Aunt Ella, though, came to see her as a rival. So as not to be associated with a woman she had come to hate Annie changed her name from Logan to Ross (she had long since stopped using her original family name of Short). 

Unable to get along with her aunt, Ross moved back briefly to Glasgow. She found it grey and small and lacking the cosmopolitan charge of New York. So she went to Paris and immersed herself in the jazz scene there. She was already pioneering a new type of jazz singing called “vocalese”, which involved setting original lyrics to an instrumental jazz solo. She sang the way jazz players played –unbound by rules and with an emphasis on improvisation. 

In Paris she fell in with greats such as Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny “Klook” Clarke. She had a relationship with Clarke – she described it as an “affair” – that produced a baby boy, Kenny Jr. 

Ross would be wilful but she had a pragmatic streak. Unable to support themselves as a family in Paris, she and “Klook” relocated to his home town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She moved in with his family in an All-African American housing project. 

“What are you doing here… are you crazy?” she was asked by some kids, shocked at seeing a white woman in their marginalised neighbourhood. “I may be crazy,” she replied, “but this is where I live.” 

She eventually returned to New York. One of her early gigs was on a Times Square strip club masquerading as a jazz room. Her job was to sing beautifully and so clear the venue , so that the next batch of punters outside could come in and watch the strippers. The better she sang, she remembered, the faster the rush for the exit.

By then, her remarkable style was starting to draw attention. Still aged just 22 in 1952 she clocked up a solo hit with Twisted, in which she improvised the lyrics over a drum solo. She had been invited to do so by record label boss Bob Weinstock. In truth, she wasn’t sure that she could come up with a verse and chorus on the fly. But she wasn’t going to tell him that. 

“I said, of course,” said Ross. “If he had asked me if I could fly, I’d have said yes.”

Ross was now the toast of New York jazz. She was the driving force in the progressive vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. “Hip doesn’t get any hipper, cool doesn’t get any cooler, and jazz vocals don’t get any more swinging,” critic Will Friedwald wrote in a review of their 1957 album Sing A Song of Basie, in which they applied vocals to popular Count Basie numbers. “Ross’s sumptuous high and low registers supplied the trio with its real vocal muscle.” 

Back in Britain, though, she had become slightly notorious, with her 1956 single I Want You To Be My Baby banned by the BBC on account of the lyrics, “Come Upstairs and Have Some Loving”. She had also by that point struck up a friendship with Billie Holiday, with whom she would sing at the Harlem Apollo. 

Holiday had her demons. Ross would recall a boozy in evening in Paris with her idol-turned-friend. It culminated with the pair drunkenly calling on a jeweller’s on the Champs-Élysées, where Holiday purloined a fist-full of gold trinkets as the attendant was out back fetching another box of gems for them to peruse. “Look what I got,” winked Holiday as they thanked the assistant for his time and stumbled into the afternoon light.

“We stopped at more bars than you can imagine,” said Ross. “I had to drink what she was drinking. I was getting legless on the Champs-Élysées.”

The jazz scene at that time was awash with drugs, heroin especially. A woman carrying a lot of pain from childhood , Ross quickly succumbed. It didn’t help that she was seeing the notoriously reckless Lenny Bruce, who would fatally overdose in 1966. They had met on tour in Chicago and shared an instant chemistry. Ross remembered Bruce as “special…and crazy”. Soon her life was crazy, too. 

“Someone described heroin as a warm blanket. I think that’s what it was to a lot of  musicians,” she said. “It took away a lot of  fear… a lot of hurt. I had a lot of pain in my life. At one point I said ‘that’s all I  want to do – that’s the way I want to live my life’.”

To clean up she had to get away from Bruce, from New York and from jazz. “I was nuts. I was on drugs. I didn’t want to do anything except take drugs,” she said. “I  knew if I didn’t get off I’d probably die… And I wasn’t ready to die.” 

So she returned to Britain, where she opened Annie’s Room in 1961. It soon became a celebrity hang-out, with everyone from O’Toole and Judy Garland to Tony Bennett popping in. Nina Simone sang there, as did Anita O’Day and Count Basie vocalist Joe Williams. 

It was gone by the mid-Sixties, though, done in by the rise of rock and pop. And still she wasn’t done. She had already dabbled in acting (playing herself opposite Roger Moore in The Saint in 1965 for instance). But now she became serious about the screen. In 1971 she dubbed Britt Ekland’s performance in The Wicker Man (“thank you for giving me the Scottish tones,” Ekland later said bumping into Scott at the hairdresser’s). 

This lead to appearances in forgettable ITV dramas such as The Ghosts of Motley Hall and Send In The Girls and the lamentable 1976 sequel to Alfie, Alfie Darling (Michael Caine was nowhere to be seen). Her private life, for its part, was in turmoil once more. She married actor Sean Lynch in 1963. They divorced in 1975. Shortly afterwards he died in a car crash. She was bankrupt by then and lost her house. Typically, however, she took it on the chin and quickly rebounded. 

Annie Ross in 1975

Credit: Redferns

In the Eighties and Nineties Ross had another renaissance with parts in Throw Momma from the Train, opposite Danny DeVito, Superman III, with Christopher Reeve, and in Robert Altman’s 1993 masterpiece Short Cuts. 

Altman had cast Ross after hearing her sing. He wrote for her the part of an ageing jazz vocalist who’d seen and done it all and whose voice resonated with hurt and lessons learned the hard way. It was the perfect role. 

“Annie lived a jazz life, and she inspired great friendship and devotion along the way,” says producer Gill Parry. “She ended her life – and what a life – peacefully in her sleep at home, after saying a beautiful goodbye to her loving boyfriend Dave Usher, and with a jazz playlist on the sound system.”

“I’ve never gone with anything that is popular,” Ross said once. “I think I was a bit of a rebel. I was always searching, searching….” 

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