CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Annie Ross 1930–2020

Part of “the greatest jazz vocal group that ever was,” she helped develop the vocalese singing style

Annie Ross
Annie Ross, Birdland, NYC, September 2015 (photo: Jeff Tamarkin)

Annie Ross, a British-American vocalist who was among the most celebrated jazz singers of the 1950s and a noted character actress and cabaret singer in her later years, died July 21 at her home in New York City. She was four days shy of her 90th birthday.

Her death was confirmed by her personal manager Mary Scott, who said that Ross had been suffering from heart disease and emphysema.

Ross was best known as the high-harmony component in the jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, who for five years worked together as international stars. Along with partners Jon Hendricks and Dave Lambert, Ross was a key figure in the development of the singing style known as vocalese—with lyrics written to and sung along with instrumental solos that had originally been improvised. Ross’ wide-ranging voice was well suited to the acrobatic and high-velocity technique the style required, and her impeccable rhythm made her an important contributor to the trio that critic and historian Will Friedwald called “the greatest jazz vocal group that ever was.”

“One of the great thrills of my life was standing in front of those loudspeakers and hearing the assembly,” Ross told interviewer A.B. Spellman in 2010 of hearing the first Lambert, Hendricks & Ross album.

While she was to the manner born—the child of two Scottish vaudevillians and sister of another—Ross was sidelined from performance fairly early in her career by a spate of personal problems that included drug addiction and bankruptcy. She re-emerged in the mid-1970s as a London stage actress; in the ’80s, she embarked on a movie career, returning to the United States and landing memorable roles in such films as Superman III and Robert Altman’s The Player and Short Cuts.

She also parlayed her acting skills into a new musical career as a cabaret performer, recording several times in that idiom. She was the subject of a one-woman play, Twisted: The Annie Ross Story, on London’s West End in 2006, and of a documentary, No One But Me, in 2012.

Annabelle Macauley Allan Short was born July 25, 1930 in London—between vaudeville shows that her Scottish parents, Jack and Mary Short, were performing on tour. “I was born after a matinee,” Ross recalled. “My father said to [my mother] right after I was born, ‘Do you think you’ll be able to do the night show?’ And my mother reportedly threw an iron at him.”

Ross was traveling with her family by the age of four, when they arrived in the United States—and young Annabelle promptly won a talent contest that gave her an appearance on bandleader Paul Whiteman’s radio show. Recognizing a break when they saw one, her parents left her in the care of an aunt, singer/actress Ella Logan, who moved with Ross to Los Angeles. Her appearance with Whiteman led to a contract with MGM, and she made her screen debut in the studio’s Our Gang Follies of 1938. By age 12, she was acting alongside Judy Garland in Presenting Lily Mars; two years after that, she debuted as a songwriter when her song “Let’s Fly” was recorded by Johnny Mercer.

These childhood successes led to her dropping out of high school, adopting the stage name of Annie Ross, and building a career as a singer, first in London (where she saw her parents for the first time in a dozen years) and then in Paris (where she roomed with Mary Lou Williams).

She was back in New York in 1952, when Prestige Records owner Bob Weinstock asked her if she could write a song in the then-trendy “vocalese” style. Ross responded with “Twisted,” a lyric set to saxophonist Wardell Gray’s composition of that name. Both Ross and the song became a sensation, with the latter subsequently receiving popular treatments from Joni Mitchell and Bette Midler.

A few years later, a friend introduced Ross to singers Lambert and Hendricks, who were planning a vocalese recording of songs associated with Count Basie. Lambert told her that the session singers they had hired, while tonally precise, couldn’t swing—and suggested that she multitrack the backing vocals instead. Lambert, Hendricks & Ross was born. Ross would record seven albums as part of the trio between 1957 and 1962, touring to rapturous crowds all over the world.

However, she also fell prey to heroin addiction, causing her to become unreliable and leading to tensions within the group. When they arrived in London in 1962 for a date, Ross left the band and stayed in the city, where she went cold turkey from her addiction. She married actor Sean Lynch in 1963, and the following year opened Annie’s, a London nightclub. The business was short-lived, however, and work elsewhere dried up as well. By the time she and Lynch divorced in 1975 (he died shortly thereafter), she had lost her home and declared bankruptcy.

The need for work led her to audition for the stage, appearing in West End productions of The Threepenny Opera and The Pirates of Penzance. Her difficult life had robbed her singing of some of its virtuoso technique, but Ross made this into a virtue. “It doesn’t matter that all the notes weren’t all crystal pristine,” she told interviewer Monk Rowe in 2001, “because the feeling was there. And that’s the important thing.”

In 1979, Ross appeared in director John Schlesinger’s film Yanks; it led to a series of American film appearances. Ross returned to the United States in 1985 (she became a U.S. citizen in 2001), where she continued to work as an actress and singer. She was a regular at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Room for a decade, from 2007 until the club’s closure in 2017. Among the honors she received were an ASCAP Jazz Wall of Fame award, the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC) Lifetime Achievement Award, and, in 2010, an NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship.

Ross is survived by her partner of more than 30 years, David Usher; her sister, Heather Logan; her nephew, Domenick Allen; and her goddaughter, Charlotte Allan. Her son, Kenny Clarke Jr., by a brief relationship with the jazz drumming icon, predeceased Ross in 2018.

A memorial service will take place in 2021; further information will be announced once the family is confident that a safe gathering can be held.

Read Roseanna Vitro’s 2015 JazzTimes interview with Annie Ross and Gene Lees’ 1999 feature on Ross and Jon Hendricks.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.