Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Corky Hale, queen of harps


The latest Croydon Municipal release is from the little known but wonderful harp player Corky Hale, and it's a gorgeous, summer evening of an album, a collection of instrumentals from 1957. Her Zelig-like career has, in more recent times, seen Corky play on Bjork’s album Debut, and George Michael's Songs From The Last Century, though she neglected to release an album of her own for four decades after her own debut. Fifty years after it was released, Corky finally made her Carnegie Hall debut - as a piano soloist - in 2007.



Corky Hale was born Merrilyn Hecht in Freeport, Illinois, and started taking piano lessons almost as soon as she could walk. At the age of seven, while on a family vacation n Florida, Corky was heard playing in the hotel lobby by resident bandleader Horace Heidt who had a little band jacket made for her and began to feature her in his evening show. Quite the prodigy, young Merrilyn began studying piano at Chicago Conservatory at the age of seven, and harp a year later.

Heidt and his specially designed jacket must have instilled the show-biz bug in Merrilyn, and she ran away from home – well, she ran away from UCLA where her dad had enrolled her – to play the harp on Freddie Martin's TV Show in the early '50s. 

The novelty of a gorgeous teenage harpist was one thing, but she was evidently a real talent. As soon as the show was aired she received a call inviting her onto Liberace's show. His only stipulation was that she dye her dark hair blonde, as he thought it would show up better under the spotlight. She went on to accompany him for three years at a time when he was one of the world's most famous entertainers.

Her parents were entirely unaware of all this malarkey until she turned up, platinum blonde, on their TV screen in Freeport. At 18, Merrilyn had her own flat and a white Buick convertible. She was asked to play harp on Cecil B De Mille's the Ten Commandments, and had a regular slot at the Coconut Grove nightclub, reunited with the Freddie Martin Orchestra, where she started as a harpist, then played piano during intermissions, and even had a few singing spots. Sharing the stage with Frank Sinatra (who she briefly dated), Tony Bennett and Peggy Lee, with Lana Turner, Robert Taylor and Van Johnson in the audience, it was just about the glamorous place Freeport's Merrilyn Hecht could have found herself.

It was during her stint at the Coconut Lounge that Merrilyn Hecht became Corky Hale – her Saturday shows were broadcast on the radio and she needed a more Hollywood-friendly name. Her one and only studio recording session was supervised by promoter and jazz enthusiast Gene Norman who put together a stellar line-up to back Corky's harp playing: on vibraphone was Larry Bunker who had recorded with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee; bassist Red Mitchell was a sidekick of Ornette Coleman and Andre Previn among others; drummer Chico Hamilton had his own respected West Coast jazz quartet, and he brought along flute and tenor sax player Buddy Collette, who had played with Charles Mingus when he was just 16; finally there was session guitarist Howard Roberts who would go on to play on everything from Peggy Lee's Fever to the Munsters theme.

After the album was released, Corky's parents moved to LA and opened up a clothes shop on the Sunset Strip (called Corky Hale) which she was obliged to run, sidelining her performing and recording career. She met and married an Italian knitwear salesman, and her hair returned to its natural colour. After they divorced, she spent time in Italy and London before finding herself in New York in the late '60s, where once again she began playing her harp and piano, on recording sessions for the likes Judy Collins, James Brown and Barbra Streisand, who also hired Corky for three TV specials. She also met her second husband, Mike Stoller of the famous Leiber/Stoller team, in New York – they married in 1970 and are still together.
 
Outside of music, Corky has been honoured as a Champion of Choice by NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) due to her lifelong support for women’s rights; with husband Mike, she is also a strong advocate of the Southern Poverty Law Centre and serves on the board of the National Coalition to Ban Gun Violence.

Did I mention she also ran Corky's Restaurant on the Lower East Side in the '70s? No wonder she hardly ever had time to go to the studio. All hail Corky Hale, an all-round super lady and a wonderful musician - it's a pleasure to put her very first album back in the racks.

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