Annie Ross was 4 when she arrived in America, coming through Ellis Island. But as the daughter of Scottish vaudevillians, she was already acquainted with singing, acting and life on the road. “My mum and dad wanted me to be a star,” she once said. “They used to call me the Scottish Shirley Temple.”
She grew up to become one of the most dynamic jazz artists of her generation, writing lyrics and electrifying audiences with her daring, high-speed singing as part of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, a groundbreaking vocal trio of the late 1950s.
Ross, who was 89, died July 21 at her home in Manhattan. She had emphysema and heart disease, said Jim Coleman, her former manager.
After her early transatlantic crossing, Ross grew up in Hollywood, where she was raised by her aunt, Ella Logan, who had a long career as a singer and actress. Ross appeared in an “Our Gang” short film in 1937, singing “Loch Lomond,” then played Judy Garland’s little sister in the 1943 film “Presenting Lily Mars.”
Later in her career, she had roles in “Superman III” (1983), “Throw Momma From the Train” (1987) and Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” (1993), in which she played a character she understood all too well: a jazz singer who knew what it was like to climb back from drug addiction and obscurity.
Between those movie bookends, the scarlet-haired Ross was a musical innovator with an often-troubled personal life, which included heroin addiction and a tumultuous relationship with taboo-breaking comedian Lenny Bruce.
Her breakthrough came in 1952 when Prestige Records founder Bob Weinstock asked if Ross could write lyrics in the “vocalese” style — a jazz sensation at the time in which words were written to match the improvised lines of an instrumental jazz solo.
“I said, of course,” Ross recalled, in an oft-told story. “If he had asked me if I could fly, I’d have said yes.”
Ross chose “Twisted,” a complicated bebop tune by saxophonist Wardell Gray. Overnight, the 22-year-old Ross wrote a complex lyric about the “twisted” recollections of a neurotic psychiatric patient:
— — –
My analyst told me that I was right out of my head
The way he described it, he said I’d be better dead than live
I didn’t listen to his jive
I knew all along he was all wrong
And I knew that he thought I was crazy but I’m not
With each phrase fitted into the contours of Gray’s quicksilver saxophone solo, “Twisted” became a hipster’s anthem of nonconformity. Ross was anointed a rising star, and the tune was recorded by singers Joni Mitchell, Bette Midler and Mark Murphy, among others.
In 1957, with a rising reputation in the jazz world, Ross first teamed with singers Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks, who were working on an album of music associated with big-band leader Count Basie.
Background singers hired for the recording session were so disappointing that Ross was asked to teach them the elusive concept of “swing,” or the flowing sense of rhythm that is the essential rhythmic element of jazz.
When that attempt came to naught, Lambert suggested that the trio — Lambert, Hendricks and Ross — overdub all the parts themselves. It was one of the first times multitrack recording had been used for a vocal album.
The three vocalists sang the lyrics and imitated the instruments of big band: Ross, with her bright soprano, sang the trumpet and piano parts, while Hendricks and Lambert supplied the equivalent of saxophone, trombone and rhythm sections.
The resulting album, “Sing a Song of Basie,” became a hugely popular jazz album of the late 1950s. With daring harmonies, interweaving like birds in flight, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross created a new vocabulary for jazz singing. They were also among the first integrated jazz vocal groups.
“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 his seminal guide to jazz and pop singers. “Ross’s sumptuous high and low registers supplied the trio with its real vocal muscle.”
The trio recorded several more times and won a Grammy Award in 1962 for the album “High Flying.” Audiences were awestruck by the group’s intricate arrangements performed at breakneck speed.
Ross left the group in 1962 amid a growing addiction to heroin. Her problem was abetted by her relationship with the charismatic and troubled Bruce, who once saved Ross from a near-fatal overdose. “He was very special — and crazy,” Ross said years later. “He would write ‘I love you’ on an airplane sick bag and mail it to me.”
After she left the group, Lambert and Hendricks soldiered on with other female singers, but they could not match Ross’s timing, bravura style and high-note confidence. Second-generation performers, such as Manhattan Transfer and jazz singers Kurt Elling and Al Jarreau borrowed the vocalese style of LH&R, but the early magic was gone.
Lambert, Hendricks and Ross “showed how an instrumental, big band performance could be translated into vocal terms — not only with voices, but with words,” Friedwald wrote. “In the process, they became the greatest jazz vocal group that ever was.”
Annabelle Allan Short was born July 25, 1930, in London, while her parents were on tour in music halls and theaters. Her older brother, a comedian and impresario known as Jimmy Logan, became a beloved entertainer in Scotland.
Soon after she arrived in the United States in 1935, Ross won a talent contest to appear on a radio show with bandleader Paul Whiteman. In Hollywood, she attended school with actress Elizabeth Taylor but didn’t see her parents again for 12 years.
“I was totally abandoned as a child,” Ross told the Glasgow Herald in 1994. She had an abusive nanny and an oddly competitive relationship with her Aunt Ella, who starred on Broadway in “Finian’s Rainbow” in the 1940s.
“My aunt said to me, ‘Why don’t you become a set designer, because you can’t sing — you haven’t got the magic,’ ” Ross recalled in a 2012 bio-documentary film, “No One But Me.”
Ross became devoted to jazz and was only 14 when she co-wrote “Let’s Fly,” which was recorded by singer-songwriter Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers. Quitting school and adopting a new stage name, Ross moved to Britain and then to Paris, where she was living on her own at 17.
“I hated my childhood,” she told the Herald. “I couldn’t wait to grow up. To be a woman … That feeling of worthlessness is so ingrained, though, that it still messes me up at times today. I had to work on it for a long, long time.”
She roomed in Paris with pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams and met touring jazz musicians. Ross was still in her teens when she had a son from a short-lived relationship with jazz drummer Kenny Clarke. (He was raised by Clarke’s brother and sister-in-law as Ross pursued her career.)
In Paris, she joined a vocal group led by Hugh Martin, who became better known as the composer of “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” She performed throughout Europe and North Africa, then split her time between Europe and New York until the mid-1950s.
She recorded well-received jazz albums, including one with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and trumpeter Chet Baker, a notorious heroin addict. “We cut one side,” Ross recalled, “and Chet Baker went to the toilet and never came back.”
She led the jazz life, a freewheeling blur of smoke-filled nights, glamour, instability and intense musical experiences. After leaving Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, she stayed in London in part to kick her drug habit. “There was no rehab,” she later said. “I did it myself.”
She married an actor, Sean Lynch, in 1963 and they briefly ran a London cabaret. The marriage ended in divorce in 1975, Lynch died in a car wreck soon afterward, and Ross declared bankruptcy.
Desperate to find work, she returned to acting onstage and in movies. She also reunited with Hendricks for occasional concerts in the 1980s and ’90s, recapturing the soaring spirit of LH&R. (Lambert died in 1966; Hendricks died in 2017.)
In 1992, Ross had a cameo appearance in Altman’s film “The Player.” A year later, the director created a role for her in “Short Cuts” as a hard-drinking, seen-it-all singer who performs several mesmerizing songs. The film revived Ross’s career and led to recording contracts and appearances in leading clubs and cabarets.
Ross became a U.S. citizen in 2001 and received the Jazz Master honor from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2010. A play by Brian McGeachan, “Twisted: The Annie Ross Story,” premiered in London in 2006.
Survivors include her son.
Ross remained a show business trouper well into her 80s, singing, acting, writing and sometimes reflecting on the triumphs and heartaches of her improvised life.
“If you can’t do what you really want to do, you tell yourself you don’t care, when in your heart you care a lot,” she told The New York Times in 1993. “People say, ‘Oh, there, there — you were a great singer.’ You say thank you, but you think, damn it, I’m still a great singer.”