Anita Ellis Biography

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Anita Kert, 12 April 1920, Montreal, Canada. Born into an orthodox Jewish family, Ellis grew up surrounded by music. Her mother ‘played the piano and sang everything from opera arias to popular songs to old glorious Jewish songs’. Her father was a cantor and for religious reasons the young girl was not allowed to sing in public. However, her mother was eager for her to have a showbusiness career and when, during the depths of the Depression, the family moved to Los Angeles, California the young girl sought work in films and on radio. She enjoyed a little parochial success before winning a scholarship, at 17, to study opera at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. While there, she helped pay her way by singing with a local dance band. It was during this professional engagement, and even in singing classes at college, that she discovered that she was afflicted with literally paralyzing stage fright. Although unable to perform in a live music environment, she realized that she could function on radio and in 1940 began working on a popular Cincinnati-based radio show, Moon River. She was married in 1943 to a drama student, who later became an Air Force colonel, and even though the marriage lasted only three years she thereafter used her married name for her professional career. She sang on a series of shows recorded for US military personnel serving overseas, credited only as ‘Anita, that five-foot-two bundle of brunette loveliness’. The series was also aired by CBS and she was among several broadcasters honoured by President Franklin Roosevelt for this morale-boosting work. In New York after the war, Ellis became the regular singer on Red Skelton’s popular radio show on NBC and made a handful of records. Her popularity on the Skelton show led to an invitation to return to California to dub soundtrack vocals for non-singing actresses. Almost by chance, she had found the perfect job for someone with her malaise. Ellis’ first, and most famous, vocal dub was for Rita Hayworth, singing ‘Put The Blame On Mame’ in Gilda (1946). She followed this with many others, including Hayworth again in Down To Earth (1947), The Lady From Shanghai and The Loves Of Carmen (both 1948), Shelley Winters in The Gangster (1947), Vera-Ellen in Three Little Words (1950) and The Belle Of New York (1952), Joan Caulfield, The Petty Girl (1950), and Jeanne Crain, Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955). In the 50s she recorded two complete albums, in addition to which a set of Lang-Worth transcriptions was released on one side only of an LP. During this decade, film work became less plentiful as television overtook both radio and the big screen in popularity and Ellis was forced to confront her demons and perform before a live audience in cabaret. In New York, she was warmly embraced by audiences, reviewers, artists, and showbusiness figures. Despite this acclaim, however, she never defeated her problems. After recording her third album, in 1960, she remarried and happily retired from showbusiness to be with her new husband, Mortimer Shapiro, a neurologist. Apart from occasional performances for friends and a tiny handful of television appearances, she stayed out of sight until 1974 when she was persuaded to perform at Michael’s Pub for a seven-week engagement. She then bowed out again until 1977 when she recorded two radio shows with Loonis McGlohon and Alec Wilder in their National Public Radio series, The American Popular Song (both issued on one CD by Audiophile Records in 2000). In 1979, she made a television appearance, taping For The Record for PBS, on which she was accompanied at the piano by Ellis Larkins. The soundtrack of this show was later released as A Legend Sings. During the 80s, Ellis was in constant demand for concert appearances, almost all of which she refused. Many of those that she did accept were abruptly cancelled and when she did appear the result, while musically astonishing, could be deeply disturbing to watch and was clearly deeply distressing to the singer. As James Gavin of the New York Times andVillage Voice has observed, when writing of one such concert: ‘No one who attended her now-fabled recital at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in 1979 will forget the sight of Ellis onstage: right leg shaking, arms stiff at her sides, eyes clamped shut beneath electrified ringlets of hair, face frozen in terror. For two hours she gave the sense that she was tearing her guts out to bring audiences this art.’ She made her final troubled public appearance in 1987 and then retired to spend her time in the East Side apartment she shared with her husband and also travelling overseas, mostly to Africa. Ellis’ vocal sound and style were ideal for the performance of the great standards. She sang with ringing clarity, interpreting lyrics with a depth of passion rarely achieved by other singers of the same repertoire. Her accounts to Whitney Balliett, in his book American Singers, of how she seeks and finds emotional depths in songs is very revealing, not only of the art of the performing artist but also of the sincerity and integrity of this particular singer. In 2000, now a widow, and still living in the same New York apartment overlooking Carl Schurz Park and the East River, Ellis was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Although lovingly cared for, she was no longer able to recognize her old friends and even the music was gone from her life. As McGlohon recounted in May 2000, at the time of the release of their long-ago radio show together: ‘I do very much wish she could hear this CD and realize how great she was, but even when pianists go around to play for her, there is no sign of recognition that this is music she used to love.’

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.