Ethel Merman Biography

Ethel Agnes Zimmermann, 16 January 1909, Astoria, New York, USA, d. 15 February 1984, New York, USA. One of the most celebrated ladies of the Broadway musical stage, a dynamic entertainer, with a loud, brash, theatrical singing style, flawless diction, and extravagant manner, who usually played a gutsy lady with a heart of gold. Merman worked first as a secretary, then sang in nightclubs, eventually graduating to the best spots. Noticed by producer Vinton Freedley while singing at the Brooklyn Paramount, she was signed for George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin’s Broadway show Girl Crazy (1930), and was a great success, stopping the show with her version of ‘I Got Rhythm’, a song which became one of her life-long themes. She was equally successful in George White’s Scandals (1931), in which she co-starred with Rudy Vallee, and sang ‘My Song’ and ‘Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries’; and Take A Chance (1932), when her two big numbers were ‘Eadie Was A Lady’ and ‘Rise ‘N’ Shine’. In 1934, Merman starred in Anything Goes, the first of five Cole Porter musical shows in which she was to appear. The score was top drawer Porter, full of song hits such as ‘I Get A Kick Out Of You’, ‘All Through The Night’, ‘You’re The Top’ (one of the composer’s renowned ‘list’ songs’), ‘Anything Goes’ and ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow’.

Merman also appeared in the 1936 film version of the show with Bing Crosby. The other Porter productions in which she appeared were Red, Hot And Blue! (1936), co-starring Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope, with the songs, ‘Down In The Depths (On The Ninetieth Floor)’, ‘It’s De-Lovely’ and ‘Ridin’ High’; Du Barry Was A Lady (1939), with ‘But In The Morning, No!’, ‘Do I Love You?’, ‘Give Him The Oo-La-La’, ‘Katie Went To Haiti’ and ‘Friendship’; Panama Hattie (1940), featuring ‘I’ve Still Got My Health’, ‘Let’s Be Buddies’, ‘Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please’ and ‘I’m Throwing A Ball Tonight’; and Something For The Boys (1943) with ‘Hey, Good Lookin’’, ‘He’s A Right Guy’, ‘Could It Be You’ and ‘The Leader Of A Big Time Band’. Merman’s longest-running musical was Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun (1946), which lasted for 1, 147 performances. As the sharp-shooting Annie Oakley, she introduced such Berlin classics as ‘They Say It’s Wonderful’, ‘Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly’, ‘I Got The Sun In The Morning’, ‘You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun’, and the song which was to become another of her anthems, ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’. Merman’s next Broadway show, Call Me Madam (1950), again had a Berlin score. This time, as Sally Adams, ambassador to the mythical country of Lichtenburg, she triumphed again with numbers such as ‘Marrying For Love’, ‘You’re Just In Love’, ‘The Best Thing For You’, ‘Can You Use Any Money Today?’, and ‘The Hostess With The Mostes’ On The Ball’.

She also starred in the 1953 film version of the previous show, with George Sanders, Donald O’Connor, and Vera-Ellen. Often cited as the peak of Merman’s career, Gypsy (1959), with a magnificent score by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim saw her cast as the domineering mother of the legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, and Merman gave the kind of performance for which she had never before been asked. Her songs included ‘Some People’, ‘Small World’, ‘You’ll Never Get Away From Me’, ‘Together’, ‘Rose’s Turn’, and her triumphant hymn, ‘Everthing’s Coming Up Roses’. Apart from a brief revival of Annie Get Your Gun (1966), and a spell as a replacement in Hello, Dolly!, (she had turned down the role when the show was originally cast), Gypsy was Merman’s last Broadway musical appearance. Although the stage was her métier, she made several successful Hollywood movies such as We’re Not Dressing (1934), Kid Millions (1934) and Strike Me Pink (both with Eddie Cantor), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), with Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, and Don Ameche; and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), in which she co-starred with Dan Dailey, Donald O’Connor and Marilyn Monroe.

There were also non-singing roles in comedy movies such as It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), The Art Of Love (1965) and Airplane! (1980). Merman appeared regularly on television from the 50s through to the 70s in specials and guest spots, merely because she was Ethel Merman, and also starred in cabaret. In 1953 she teamed up with another Broadway legend, Mary Martin, for the historic Ford 50th Anniversary Show, highlights of which were issued on a Decca Records album. The same label issued the double A Musical Autobiography. Besides the many hits from her shows, her record successes included ‘How Deep Is The Ocean’, ‘Move It Over’, and four duets with Ray Bolger, ‘Dearie’, ‘I Said My Pajamas (And Put On My Prayers)’, ‘If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked A Cake’, and ‘Once Upon A Nickel’. After a distinguished career lasting over 50 years, Merman’s final major appearance was at a Carnegie Hall benefit concert in 1982. A year after her death in 1984, a biographical tribute show entitled Call Me Miss Birdseye: Ethel Merman - The Lady And Her Music, was presented at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London. In 1994 the US Post Service somewhat optimistically mounted a search for an ‘Ethel Merman Soundalike’ (‘no lip-synching!’) in conjunction with the release of the Legends of American Music stamps. The first prize was, appropriately enough, an appearance in the Broadway hit musical Crazy For You.

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

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