A Celebration of Susannah McCorkle's Cerebral Music
by Joseph Palis
When Susannah McCorkle died last May 2001 in New York, the world was robbed of an intelligent singer whose way with the song outranks major singers of the world. Yet the irony of it all is that she was not so well known outside of the New York café society that nurtured such talent. Which was what she probably wanted.
McCorkle has been dazzling erudite listeners with her intimate phrasing for many years in that warm and husky tone that complemented her pixie hairdo. She can bring you to the era of Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters by her sexy roulades about a sweetie that "went away but didn't say where" and the irresistible appeal of thieves in the night who stole one's heart. She can skyrocket to the 70s and heartbreakingly evoke Jimmy Webb's hushed drama of a loved one who was left behind by lovingly documenting the thing s/he is doing and the gradual build-up of distance between them. Or she can become like many of us who must have been wallflowers to "people that we never get to love." Then with apparent ease, McCorkle can samba in our lives and with precise cadence, sing the waters of March or why we are desafinado. We tearfully applauded the story of Pearly Sue and her mother and were transported to World War II when she sang "P.S. I Love You" to her soldier-lover. In the grand tradition of singers who tell stories, Susannah McCorkle was the rightful successor to Lee Wiley, Abbey Lincoln and Cleo Laine.
Her songbooks may not be as hugely popular as Ella Fitzgerald's, but her re-imagination of songs transports you to the high heavens. She can waltz to your life via Irving Berlin's songs, or regale you with the wit of a Cole Porter, or show shades and hues of a George Gershwin song.
From Bessie to Brazil is a very good album to savor the artistry of McCorkle. She sings all types of songs that ranged from the wails of the tortured souls of the Empress of the Blues to Paul Simon's ode to a bohemian past. As always, her way with the lyric makes her a cut above the rest of singers whose idea of singing is vocal pyrotechnics. McCorkle almost whispers the intimacy of a hushed love, or tell you in her own terms how deep is the ocean with just a guitar. She can unearth obscure songs and breathe new life to it. Rupert Holmes' "The People That You Never Get To Love" lovingly if, sadly, tell a story about our encounters with people we would have wanted to talk and get to know, but were much too soon gone. And forever. McCorkle locates the heart of hearts of the song and make us relate to it as though she was gifted with the power to articulate what cannot be expressed.
And then there's the sad quality of her voice that heightens our perceptions of the everydayness and mundaneness. It is as though she understood what we are going through. Like a Raymond Carver short story, the absence of drama in her singing shows (ironic as it may sound) minimalism at its best. It was as though the songs were moments in our lives. And soundtracks of our minds.
McCorkle was also one of the singers unafraid to use her voice as one of the instruments in a song. In her Irving Berlin tribute Let's Face The Music the album kicked off with an unknown "I'd Rather Lead The Band" and we heard her trade eights and fours with the musicians. She is just as daring to use atonal phrasing to capture the nuance of a lyric. Witness how she was coquettishly sly in "Let's Do It" from her album of Cole Porter tunes just to get the exact amount of feeling of a woman tasked to narrate the amorous propensities of animals with sleazy undercurrents that seem to bubble at the surface yet never fully explains itself.
She can make you pay attention to a "modern" song by mining a grandeur not achieved by the original and decidedly earlier version. Her "How Do You Keep The Music Playing" from the album of the same name lovingly traced the affections of two people with music as euphemism for their love. This is similar to another gifted cabaret singer Andrea Marcovicci's live performance of "It Might Be You" that conveyed the meaning's enduring message by the heartfelt readings.
A few years ago, McCorkle recorded a happy song about suicide, "I Don't Think I'll End It All Today," that enumerated the reasons why suicide is not an option when the world has lots of beautiful things. There was a wistful quality when she sang that song. When McCorkle plunged to her death from her New York apartment in May 2001, I remembered that song and thought that she was actually one of those ineffably beautiful things in life.
Her recordings therefore are essential no music collector (serious or not) should be without.