Lee Morse, circa 1930
|Birth name||Lena Corinne Taylor|
|Born||November 30, 1897|
|Died||December 16, 1954(aged 57)|
|Labels||Pathé, Perfect, Columbia|
Lee Morse (November 30, 1897 — December 16, 1954) was a US jazz and blues singer and songwriter whose greatest popularity was in the 1920s and early 1930s, although her career began around 1917 and continued until her death in 1954. Morse was known for her strong, deep singing voice and vocal range, which often belied the fact that she was merely five feet tall and weighed less than 100 pounds. Among her best known trademarks was her yodeling. Morse was also moderately successful as an actress on the Broadway stage. Her life and career, however, were marred by alcoholism.
Birth and family background
Morse was born Lena Corinne Taylor in Cove, Oregon, the ninth of twelve children (and the third daughter) of Pleasant John Taylor, a local pastor, and his wife Olive Higgins Fleming. The Taylor family was musical and prior to Lena's birth had toured Idaho by covered wagon as the Taylor Family Concert Company. Lena spent her early years in the small town of Kooskia, Idaho. She learned to sing by the time she was three years old by impersonating her brothers, which accounts for her later ability to master deeper registers in her vocal range.
First marriage and early career
On May 2, 1915, Lena married Elmer Morse, a local woodworker. She gave birth to a son, Jack, the following year. Lena, however, had a desire for a career as a singer and separated from Morse in 1920. Her first professional notice came around 1918, when she performed under the name "Mrs. Elmer Morse" at a local silent movie house. During the next few years she played largely in small Pacific Northwestern towns such as Spokane and Chewelah.
Lee Morse's family was involved in politics as well as music. In 1920 her father was elected as a delegate to the Democratic Convention. Morse accompanied her father to San Francisco and, while there, performed in a convention at the Hotel St. Francis. As a result, she was noticed by Will King, a famous vaudeville producer of the day, who subsequently signed her to a contract.
Morse seized the opportunity for a career in the vaudeville of the West Coast, she left Kooskia—and her husband Elmer—behind for good. Her brother Glen later observed, "she left home when we were barefoot and had the best suite in a Portland hotel when I saw her again."
In 1921, Morse began working in musical revues under Kolb and Dill. In 1922, she joined the Pantages circuit with a 15-minute act titled Do You Remember One Small Girl a Whole Quartet. One reviewer observed "she sings a baritone 'Silver Moon,' then swings into a bass with 'Asleep in the Deep' and finishes in a soprano with 'Just a Song of Twilight.'" In November 1922 the reviewer for Variety noted "She gives the impression of a male impersonator, yodels rather sweetly, sings the 'blues' number better than the majority." 
Hitchy Koo and Artists and Models
She next performed in the Shubert revue Artists and Models, which opened on Broadway on August 20, 1923.
In 1924, Morse began her recording career with a contract with the Pathé label. During this era of acoustic recording, the power of her voice was essential to the success of her recordings. Also during this time, she was given the opportunity to record many of her own compositions. Among her notable recordings from this period are "Telling Eyes," "Those Daisy Days," "An Old-Fashioned Romance" ( which she re-recorded for Columbia in 1927), "Blue Waltz", "The Shadows on the Wall," "Deep Wide Ocean Blues," "A Little Love," and "Daddy's Girl."
Pathé gave Morse the opportunity to indulge in a level of experimentation, not only by recording her own songs, but also through the opportunity to explore the limits of her vocal abilities. Prevalent on these early recordings are her characteristic whoops, yips and yodels. Although dismissed by some as a gimmick, these techniques added a personality to her voice and enabled her to fully demonstrate her multi-octave range.
Lee Morse's success as an entertainer took its toll on her personal life. Her husband, Elmer Morse, had created a home for her complete with furnishings he'd built himself. On February 18, 1925 he filed for divorce on the grounds of desertion and abandonment. Although she had deserted her husband and child five years earlier, Morse was able to keep custody of their son Jack. In October 1926, Elmer Morse died of scarlet fever in Spokane at the young age of 35.
Columbia and Simple Simon
In 1927, along with other prominent Pathe/Perfect vocal artists (Willard Robison, Annette Hanshaw, Cliff Edwards), Morse moved to the Columbia label. From 1927 to 1932, she was one of the label's most popular female performers, second only to Ruth Etting. Morse continued to do vaudeville and other stage work during this time, landing a role in Ziegfeld's Simple Simon that may have made her an even bigger star. Sadly, her alcoholism left her ill and unable to perform a mere 24 hours before the show's Broadway debut on February 18, 1930. Minus their star, the producers asked Ruth Etting to step up in the eleventh hour to fill Morse's shoes. As a result, the show's memorable "Ten Cents a Dance" became Etting's signature while Morse's once promising Broadway career abruptly ended.
In the mid-1920s, Morse met pianist Bob Downey. He became her accompanist on stage and companion in life. They subsequently lived together as a couple, although whether or not they were ever actually married remains questionable. She and Downey eventually opened a small club in Texas, which they operated until it burned down in 1939. Later they resettled in Rochester, New York. Downey eventually left Morse for a striptease dancer. This end to their relationship left Morse devastated and ever more dependent upon alcohol, which by the 1930s had become a constant companion.
Three short films
Although Morse's Broadway prospects had dimmed by the 1930s, she could still be seen in a number of musical film shorts, including A Million Me's (Paramount, April 25, 1930), The Music Racket (Vitaphone, June 30, 1930), and Song Service (Paramount, October 24, 1930).
Lee had always preferred stage audiences to small clubs, once commenting "I get nervous! I can't stand it! I want to scream!" However, as the business changed in the 1930s, she found herself taking club dates when stage gigs grew scarce. In fact, in the mid-1930s, she and then-partner Downey opened a small club in Texas. After the 1939 fire, they resettled in Rochester, New York, an area that had been kind to her over the years.
Third marriage and final years
After her relationship with Bob Downey ended in the late 1930s, Morse weathered a rocky period that left those closest to her worried for her health. Life improved when she met Ray Farese, whom she married in 1946. Farese helped her revitalize her career by getting her a Rochester-based radio show and securing local club dates. She attempted a comeback with the song "Don't Even Change a Picture on the Wall," written in the 1940s for the World War II soldiers and finally recorded in 1951. Although the song enjoyed local success, it failed to launch her to the heights she had once enjoyed.
Death and aftermath
Lee Morse died suddenly on December 16, 1954 while visiting a neighbor. She was only 57 years old.
After her death, her husband, Ray Farese, turned her photos and scrapbook over to Rochester-based journalist Howard Hosmer, who apparently produced a Morse career retrospective for a local station. Farese died before Hosmer could return Lee's mementos. Hosmer himself died in 1986.
- Morse’s younger brother, Glen Taylor, held a seat in the United States Senate in 1948 and ran unsuccessfully for the Vice-Presidency with Henry Wallace. Remembered as the "Singing Senator," Glen Taylor had enjoyed a career in show business from the age of 15.
- Liner notes by Ian House for the CD Lee Morse — Echoes of a Songbird, page 6.
- Liner notes by Ian House for the CD Lee Morse — Echoes of a Songbird, page 7.
- Liner notes by Jim Bedoian for the CD Lee Morse — A Musical Portrait, p. 3.
- Liner notes by Ian House for the CD Lee Morse — Echoes of a Songbird, page 8.
- Miss Lee Morse: The First Recorded Jazz Singer by Dennis Nyback http://www.washingtonhistory.org/files/library/LeeMorse.pdf retrieved 1/6/15
- Little has been written about Morse's relationship with her son. It was apparently no secret that they did not have the close relationship that both would have liked; some have commented that Morse related to her son more as a peer than as a son, and he spent many of his early years away at boarding school. He was last known to be living in California, and is now deceased.- www.leemorse.com
- Bob Downey was a cousin of then-popular singer Morton Downey.
- "Howard C. Hosmer, 74". Orlando Sentinel. July 8, 1986.
- Lee Morse Collection, part of the International Jazz Collections at the University of Idaho Library
- Lee Morse at the Internet Movie Database
- Lee Morse at the Internet Broadway Database