To move and inspire: the life and legacy of ‘Jazz Master’ Annie Ross

© Barbara Bordnick

By Stuart Harris-Logan, Keeper of Archives and Collections at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

In November last year, I was contacted by the estate of the late Annie Ross, who had sadly passed away earlier in the year just four days before her ninetieth birthday. 

Annie had made it known that she would like some of her memorabilia to be donated to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Archives and Collections, and her executors were making good on that wish.

I first met Annie in 2012. She was in Glasgow for the premiere of a documentary on her life, No One But Me, which was screened as part of the Glasgow Film Festival that year to a sell-out audience. 

No One But Me was a joint CONNECTfilm and BBC Scotland production directed by Brian Ross and Gill Parry, and they had contacted me during the making of it to ask if they could use material from one of our largest and most popular archives: the Jimmy Logan Collection. 

Jimmy was Annie’s big brother, and although he predeceased her by almost twenty years (he died in 2001), Annie retained very fond memories of her brother ‘across the pond.’

In 2012, Annie was in her eighties, but sparkly-eyed and full of soul. You might think that missing her flight from New York to Glasgow due to not realising that her passport had expired, and then facing the thought of renewing it on a public holiday, might be quite enough for one week – and this was only Tuesday. 

Not Annie. After her premiere, during which she took part in a Q&A and live performance, she went on to Oran Mor in Glasgow’s West End where she gave a ninety-minute concert to a packed venue. Did I mention she was in her eighties?

Annie was no ordinary talent. A precocious child, Annie was brought up by her aunt Ella Logan, a famous Broadway actress and performer. Like her aunt Ella she started young, beginning her performance career as a child actress – think of Shirley Temple and you won’t go too wrong, they were born just two years apart. 

Her first big break came in 1943, when at just twelve years old Annie was to star alongside Judy Garland and Van Heflin in Norman Taurog’s Presenting Lily Mars, an MGM production.

Presenting Lily Mars production still (1943), Annie Ross Memorabilia [AR/5/3]

It was to be Judy Garland’s first film in which she performed an adult role, and Annie’s first experience of the bright lights of cinema. We know how proud she was as although she is uncredited in the above studio still, she wrote her name in pen later before having it framed.

Annie’s real talent, however, was as a singer. At the tender age of fourteen she entered her own song Let’s Fly into a song-writing competition, and won.  It was recorded on LP by Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers and released by Capitol Records.

Let’s Fly vinyl LP, Annie Ross Memorabilia [AR/3/29]

It was just the beginning. In 1952, she met Bob Weinstock, owner of Prestige Records, who asked her to write lyrics to jazz solo known as ‘vocalese’.  In twenty-four hours she came back to him with Twisted, a vocalese treatment of saxophonist Wardell Gray’s composition of the same name. In typical Annie fashion, she made it all about psychoanalysis:

              My analyst told me I was right out of my head

           He said I’d need treatment but I’m not that easily led …

              … They say as a child I appeared a little bit wild

              With all my crazy ideas

              But I knew what was happenin’, I knew I was a genius

              What’s so strange when you know that you’re a wizard at three?

              I knew that this was meant to be …

It was so popular Twisted became an underground sensation, winning her Down Beat Magazine’s ‘New Star Award.’ Just one of many she was to garner throughout her many years of performance. 

The enduring appeal of Twisted is a story told by the number of cover versions recorded since Annie first sang it, including one by Joni Mitchell in 1973 and another by Bette Midler one year later.

It’s fair to say that from the mid-1950s, Annie’s career as a jazz vocalist and performer just took off, and never really came back down to ground again. 

She recorded no fewer than seven albums as part of the celebrated group Lambert, Hendricks & Ross with co-stars Jon Hendricks and Dave Lambert, and – when she left the group – opened her own jazz lounge in London: Annie’s Room. An early booking was a young Nina Simone who, in 1965, was already breaking new ground with provocative and overtly political performances.

It’s not possible to give a complete account of Annie’s career in such a small space, so varied and long and colourful it would be stupid to even try. But Annie’s enduring influence and popularity are her legacy, and that story is told with a clear voice in the archive of memorabilia she bequeathed to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

President Barack Obama’s Letter to Annie Ross (28/10/2010), Annie Ross Memorabilia [AR/8/5/2].

For me, one of the gems of the collection is a letter she received in January 2010, congratulating her on receiving one of her many awards: the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master’s Award. She thought so much of the letter she had it framed, and I think if I received it I would have too. It was from the then President of the United States, Barack Obama. He says:

The power of the arts to move and inspire transcends languages and borders.  Since the beginning of the 20th century, American jazz artists have fostered creativity and self-expression at home and around the world, bringing beauty and unique sounds into our daily lives.  As NEA Jazz Masters, you have shared our passion for this distinctly American music with your fellow citizens.  I hope you take pride in your pursuit of excellence and your contributions to our Nation’s living cultural heritage.

It clearly touched Annie very much, as in her reply she said to him: ‘Apart from my citizenship, which I obtained June 17, 2002, to be named a “Jazz Master” by the NEA is the greatest gift my country could give me. [AR/8/5/3]

In her bequest to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Archives & Collections, the gift carries on; or, as Annie would have put it: ‘STRAIGHT AHEAD!’


The complete catalogue of the Annie Ross Memorabilia collection can be found on the Archives Hub.

If you have any questions about accessing the archival materials and collections please contact our Keeper of Archives & Collections, Stuart Harris-Logan at archives@rcs.ac.uk


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