Boogie-woogie is a type of music that’s a little difficult to pin down and define with precision, mostly because it’s like ice cream — it comes in a lot of different flavors, and they’re all downright tasty. But I will at least try to edge into something approaching a definition. I’m not a trained musician – unless you count my clarinet lessons when I was young, and you shouldn’t – so I won’t use a lot of technical terms, and besides that, I don’t really understand all those funny words anyhow.
Boogie-woogie is all about the beat; that bouncing, repetitive, irresistible rhythm. It probably all started on the piano, back in the early days of jazz, and it soon became a part of every pianist’s favorite music. When the swing bands came to power in the 1930’s, boogie-woogie continued to be part of every band’s book, and some songs became big hits. Tommy Dorsey sold a lot of records with his version, simply called “Boogie-Woogie”, but all the bands had similar tunes and they were a favorite of listeners.
It was about this time that country music also discovered boogie-woogie, and it fit in pretty well with the honky-tonk sound that was the specialty of a lot of early country musicians. Eventually it came to be called hillbilly boogie or Okie boogie. In the post-war years, some of the best known musicians included Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith and the Western swing flavor of boogie-woogie performed by Bob Wills. Eventually some of the music transitioned to the beginnings of early rock and roll, and that’s where Ella Mae Morse comes in. Others helped pave the way, including Bill Haley in his pre-Comets days, but it was Ella Mae who provides a fascinating story to go along with her big hit, “Cow-Cow Boogie”.
Ella Mae was originally a big band vocalist, or at least she tried to be. When Jimmy Dorsey’s band appeared in her home town of Dallas she was only 14, but she auditioned anyway – pretending to be older – and was hired. Unfortunately, the local school board told Dorsey her true age and informed him that he was responsible for her. Wanting no part of that, he fired her.
A few years later – at age 17 – she really hit the big time when she joined Freddie Slack’s band and recorded her hit, a song written by Benny Carter years before. It had been composed for a Western movie (but was not used) and its boogie-woogie beat with a Western twang provided an irresistible combination for listeners. “Cow-Cow Boogie” became a number one hit – the first for Capitol Records – and Ella Mae was a star.
Ella Mae was never able to hit the top again, but for years she continued to appear on pop and R&B charts as she explored various sounds. She had a good seller with “Dream A Little Dream Of Me”, years before it became a hit for Cass Elliott and the Mamas and Papas, and songs such as “Blacksmith Blues” and “House Of Blue Lights” demonstrated how she often approached what would become early rock and roll.
Ella Mae’s career wound down in the late 1950’s and she retired from the recording end of the business, but she shouldn’t be forgotten by current fans of rock and roll. She was one of the many performers who helped contribute to the beginnings of today’s pop music.