Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Eateries and Watering Holes: The House of Blue Lights

Ella Mae Morse with Freddie Slack and his Orchestra: House of Blue Lights


"The House of Blue Lights" is a knocked-out shack at the edge of town, serving fryers, broilers, Detroit BBQ ribs and fine egg beats. I always assumed the House of Blue Lights was in Michigan. (Does anyone outside of Detroit boast about that city's brand of barbecue?) But, I can't find any evidence to suggest it was a real place, located anywhere in particular. If there is a House of Blue Lights, you'll want to spend the rest of your brights there. But, before you do, take a moment to think about the talents that created this rock/R&B/country-swing classic.

"Blue Lights" was first recorded by Ella Mae Morse with the Freddie Slack Orchestra. Slack, who wrote the tune with collaborator Don Raye (the lyricist of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy"), rose to fame playing in a number of big bands in the '30s and '40s. In the late 1930s, during a stint with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, Slack met Ella Mae Morse. She briefly sang with the Dorsey outfit, until Dorsey discovered she had exaggerated her age by several years. (Morse told him she was 19.)

Listen to the interplay between Morse and Raye at the start of "Blue Lights," and you'll hear why Morse was often mistakenly assumed to be black. "People used to tell me, 'I hope you don't take this the wrong way but you sing like a black girl,'" she said in an interview. "I'd wonder, what other way is there to take that than a great compliment?" Legend has it that, upon meeting Morse, Sammy Davis Jr. enthused, "Ella, baby, I thought you were one of us." Morse's views on race were remarkable given the time and place she came from. (Born in 1924, she grew up around Paris and Dallas, Texas.) Both her parents were musicians. The book All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music includes a typical Morse quote on race: "My parents didn't understand racism. They wanted no part of that, and I was brought up to believe in equality and acceptance of others."

Slack and Morse first teamed in 1942 and immediately scored a major hit, "Cow Cow Boogie," the first gold record on the fledgling Capitol label. Morse and Slack continued to work together throughout the 1940s, releasing a series of charting records. Morse briefly retired to raise her kids, while Slack struggled to stay afloat in the music business. He died at age 55 in 1965. Morse returned to recording in 1953, focusing on a wide range of jazz, pop and country material (including a memorable duet with Tennessee Ernie Ford, "I'm Hog-Tied Over You"). She continued to perform around the L.A. area, including frequent appearances at Disneyland, until retiring for good in 1987. She passed away in 1999; her son posted a touching page memorializing his absentee mother.

It's a shame Slack and Morse's collaboration didn't last longer. But, don't let sad thoughts keep you from enjoying your time down at the house, the House of Blue Lights.

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