Despite a singing voice that was sometimes described as limited, Jeri Southern was able to build a good career in the 1950s by becoming the quintessential torch singer, a gal who could deliver a song with impact and verve. And she was also the voice behind a memorable and ‘fiery’ movie song that I still remember from my teens.
While growing up in rural Depression-era Nebraska, young Genevieve Lillian Hering was a musical prodigy, learning piano at age 3 and training in the classics by age 6. But by the time she began appearing professionally in the post-war years under the stage name Jeri Southern, she was completely into jazz, and had started to attract some notice as a singer who could deliver the goods.
By the 1950s she was selling a lot of records with songs like “You Better Go Now,” “That Old Devil Called Love,” and “An Occasional Man,” and she also began to get some Hollywood soundtrack work — including the theme song for the film I remember, 1957’s Fire Down Below. (Not to be confused with the 1997 Steven Seagal film.)
The movie starred Robert Mitchum, Jack Lemmon, and Rita Hayworth, and its action-packed story combined with the colorful Caribbean locale certainly hit the target with me. The film’s title refers to the climax, which features one of a pair of former partners — Mitchum and Lemmon, who had feuded over Rita — saving the other from a vicious fire in the bowels of a ship. Of course, when you watch gorgeous Rita dancing for the guys earlier in the film, it’s easy to imagine a few other meanings for its title.
The song became one of Jeri Southern’s best-selling records, but by the 1960s she had grown disillusioned by the music world and ended up retiring to raise a family. Although she did continue to work occasionally behind the scenes on movie soundtracks and as a vocal coach, she never returned as a performer. She died in 1991 on the eve of what would have been her 65th birthday.