Today Ruth Olay is retired from singing and in recent years has turned her attention more in the direction of social activism on various commissions for aging, the homeless, etc.. Also if you looked closely you could have spotted her in the crowd outside of Los Angeles' Dorothy Chandler, in 1999, protesting Elia Kazan's Lifetime Achievement Oscar.
Not long ago I had the pleasure of meeting her for the first time. Initially I made her acquaintance on the telephone when I interviewed her for the Christmas issue of Songbirds internet magazine. Her iconoclastically terse reply to the "What Was Your Favorite Xmas?" question was a bracing anodyne to the lacryrmal prolixity of some of the other singers queried on the Christmas issue. To whit: "Last year when I took a cruise to Hong Kong and happily avoided the holiday season altogether."
And in general, we hit it off so well on the phone that we decided to go for a more extensive interview. We set our luncheon date for dreaded Superbowl Sunday 2000. What better way to avoid that odious occasion, the day of the year with the highest rate of male-to-female spousal abuse than to spend it with such a notable interpreter of American Popular Song? Face to face formalities out of the way, at a Venice, California restaurant, I gave her a copy of my (then) new book, "Early Plastic," and, in return, she gifted me with a videotape copy of an appearance on the Merv Griffin show of 30 or so odd years ago. Watching it a few days later it was immediately apparent to me why she had such a long run in nightclubs, with her career as "live" performer ultimately turning out to be more successful than her recording work. On television the sleek, soigne, statuesque, sultry, sophisticated (if the alliteration fits. . .) Olay proved astonishingly adept at transcending the two-dimensional limitations of the medium. Her records are a delight to be sure, but untimately she perhaps falls into the category of Must Be Seen To Be Heard.
Once upon a time there was a thoroughfare in Los Angeles that had all the excitement of of New York's Broadway, Chicago's South Side, and Rome's Via Veneto with a little bit of Las Vegas thrown in for good measure. Olay and I began our conversation with a discussion of that fabled thoroughfare.
You were a part of LA's Central Avenue scene during the latter part of it's heyday in the late 1940s and early '50s, weren't you?
It was through a wonderful friend of mine, a musician by the name of Eddie Beal. He used to take me down to Central Avenue. And I just became friends with so many wonderful people. He took me to Ivie's Chicken Shack and the Club Alabam. It was very exciting even at that late date.
Did you ever go to a famous after hours place on Central Avenue known as Brothers?
What was Brothers?
It was a pretty wild place where movie stars hung out. Not really a club in the fullest sense of the word. More like an opium den, and it figures in a lot of histories of Central Avenue
Oh, no. I was so innocent. I never even smoked a joint. I never did anything. I just loved the music.
I don't mean to imply that you were fast.
I'm sure the guys I was hanging around with were all smoking and other stuff, but my head was in another direction. Absolutely an innocent.
As befitting the daughter of a rabbi.
He quit the rabbinate when I was six when he left my mother. That was a big no no. He went on to operate a forum. . .a liberal progressive lecture forum. He had that, and presented speakers from all over the world. Then he went into being head of research at Warner Brothers. He never wanted to be a rabbi in the first place, but his father was a rabbi and wanted him. . ..
Where was his father from?
And your father was born. . .?
Your mother was a singer.
Professional. A classical singer. I adored her. She sang in temple and she sang background chorus of things like Jeanette MacDonald Nelson Eddy movies. Did things at the Hollywood Bowl in the chorus. She gave concerts. She just loved to sing.
You were a movie brat?
No. I wasn't aware of it. My mother being divorced from my father. . .. I wasn't close to my father unfortunately. I didn't know anything about show business. It wasn't imposed on me. I just had a natural bent toward it.
And then you went to work in the movie industry.
I was working at Twentieth Century-Fox as a secretary during those years. I was still a teenager. Just hanging out. [Farther north in Hollywood proper] they had these clubs along Hollywood Boulevard: The Streets of Paris, the Zanzibar and all these other places. On Sunday afternoon they had jam sessions and every wonderful. . .. Erroll Garner, Red Callendar, Doc West, all these wonderful, great musicians would play at these jam sessions. It was only Sunday afternoon that I could go because I was under age. That was when I was sixteen, seventeen. Just out of school. And [Duke Ellington vocalist] Ivie Anderson was appearing at the Streets of Paris. I adored her. That contralto! I had met her at a party. "C'mon down, honey [to the Streets of Paris]." And I did and she got me up there to sing. Well, I'm telling ya.' Talk about nerves!
This was perhaps the first time you'd ever sung in public?
Probably. And there was Irving Ashby and Louis Gonzalez. All these great guys. Great musicians. And every Sunday Ivie would make me get up there. Just by watching here. I saw how she stood, the attitude she had. And I made that part of me. She was magnificent; she was very kind.
I read somewhere that you actually started out to become a pianist.
I was a prodigy and I outgrew it. Absolutely outgrew it. I had a teacher who slapped my hands when I did anything wrong so I just quit. I turned that [musical training] all into singing.
You studied with Florence Russell. She was a very big deal, right? A fairly well known singing teacher.
Dorothy Dandridge took from her, so many people. Abbey Lincoln. She was my mother's teacher and my mother got her a lot of students. I was working with Benny Carter on my first gig in San Diego and I found little consistency every night and I wanted to have more consistency and I went to Florence and started studying with her. Before that, I studied with my mother who had taken from Florence.
How did you meet Benny Carter?
I met him through Claire Gordon, who was a friend of the family and the wife of the songwriter Irving Gordon. ["Throw Mama from the Train," "Unforgettable"]. There was a party at my mother's house when she got remarried and she said, "Benny's got to hear you" and she arranged for this meeting with Benny. I met him when I was eighteen.
Had you sung much professionally before this?
When you worked with Benny Carter, you worked under another name.
And in the parlance of the African-American community, you passed. . .but as a black woman.
Yes, I did. I passed. In the summers I used to get very very dark. I had short dark curly hair and I could have been anything. It was an all-black group. I think we had a white drummer. 1951. I had no charts. I just did standards. I knew them all. I had no music.
How did you come to the decision to the decision to pass? I guess it was necessary a white singer with an all-black band back in 1951.
It didn't occur to me. I was so unaware it didn't occur to me.
Any other thoughts about that?
I always felt very much a part of the black community. It just never occurred to me that there was going to be a problem. I know that we couldn't eat in certain restaurants. But I let Benny and the guys handle that. I was just along for the ride. I had a good time.
How long did this last?
We were in San Diego four weeks. I quit my job at Paramount Studios to go. I had separated from my husband, and had my little girl, Amy. I was rehearsing with Benny up at his house and he told me he was going to use some singer. I nagged and nagged him. Why don't you use me. Finally I wore him down. He said, "Ruth, it's for a month." I said, "I don't care." I went in to the boss. I said, "I have this opportunity." He said, "Ruth I can't promise you your job back." I said, "I don't care." I told Benny's sister, Edna and she says, "Rachel! Do you know how hard it is to get jobs in the studios?" She meant for blacks. We'd been friends all along and she thought I was colored, to use the old phrase. I got my job back at Paramount. After Benny I worked with Jerry Fielding's band, Monday nights, things like that, while I was still working my day job at Paramount.
Where you were a secretary for another person as equally important in another field as Benny Carter was in music. Preston Sturges [hovering guru and eminance grise of cinema screwball comedy.] What it was like working for Sturges?
He was great, just great. Very formal guy up to a point. But he always took me out for dinner. If he didn't he ordered mounds of sandwiches from the Players Club that he owned up on the Sunset Strip. Shakers full of whiskey sours. Then he'd go into his office, because it was a 24 hour deal. I went into golden time. I lived on the lot. Slept on the lot. Another secretary would come in after 24 hours. We would alternate. It was a wonderful experience. I enjoyed it so much. He was a very special guy.
He was trying to regain his earlier glory years at Paramount at that point?
He was only making $750 a week. And that was nothing for him.
Were you aware of desperation on his part?
No he was a very grand person. He had three boats. I said to him, "Why don't you sell one of your boats?" "Oh, those are for my sons," he said. Quite shocked that I would suggest such a thing.
This is after Benny Carter, right? You went back to Paramount and worked for Sturges. He knew you'd taken time off to work with Benny Carter. What was his reaction?
Oh, he wanted to write a nightclub act for me. He said, "You've gotta change your name to Olga Olay. See how good that would look on a marquee!" He wanted me to do a Beatrice Lillie kind of a thing where I would come sliding in backwards in a chair. And I'd open a fan and take out a sandwich." I Said, "Ohhhh, Mr. Sturges, I'm not THAT kind of a singer." "Oh, yes you are. You don't know," he said.
I've always wondered about your last name. Olay. It's an unusual last name for a rabbi's daughter. What kind of name is it?
It's Spanish. From my first husband. His name was Lionel Olay. He was a writer. I married him in '47. I went to New York and we were married six weeks later. Because I like to think things over. [laughs] Our daughter was born in 1949.
And your son is from. . .?
How many times have you been married, if you don't mind my asking?
[very sheepishly] Three.
The mid-1950s, '54, '55, '56. My sense of things of you as a singer and a performer is that you got very "hot" during this period.
I'll tell you exactly what the sequence was. I was working as a waitress/singer at a place called Cabaret Concert Theatre which was down on Sunset. I used to sing two or three songs a night. Then I'd go back to waitressing. One night this guy came up to me and said, "Would you like to record an album?" I said, "Why not?" He was Bill Hitchcock, a wonderful arranger. He was with Zephyr Records. Which was Geordie Hormel's label. Next thing I know I'm working with Bill on arrangements. We recorded the album after a few months. It comes out and I go to the Little Club to hear Abbey Lincoln, who was a friend of mine. And she had just opened there, been there four or five nights. She told the owner, "Well you better get yourself another singer because I'm going to South America. They gave me a fur and they're giving me $750 a week, and if you're smart you'll hire my friend Ruth Olay." I went to work in November of '56.
That was a big club. Didn't you even have to audition?
It had just opened with Abbey. And that was it. They were stuck. They had to find somebody in one night. Dick Hazard was the piano player. We did not have a bass player. I had no charts all I had was a stack of sheet music. The first night I went home crying because there was no bass player. This was a Friday night. I just KNEW I was through in the music business. The next night I showed up and they had a bass player. Bob Bates.
You worked without a bass player the first night. And you thought it was bad?
I thought I was terrible. It's HARD to work without a bass player. Anyway, they didn't think it was so terrible. I was going by how I felt about it.
So the next night you've got Bob Bates, of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, on bass. . ..
And it went over soooo big. It was so fabulous the second night. And about two weeks later, two men were in. And they said, "Do you know who has to hear you?" And they went out and made a call to Dick Williams the entertainment writer of the LA Mirror News. He came in, brought a photographer, did a fantastic write-up with four or five big pictures. And that was it. The place was packed from then on seven nights a week from then on. I loved it.
How long did you work there?
A little over a year off and on. And then Bill Burton came in. He was a big manager. I signed with him. He said, "Ruth, you can't stay here." "Why not," I said. "I'm perfectly happy making $125 a week."
Not bad for the times.
But he got me into the Avant Garde making $500 a week.
What was the Avant Garde?
That was a club on the corner of Third and La Jolla [in LA] Naturally, there's something else there now. Maynard Sloate, from Las Vegas, owned it. Billie Holiday was working there with Red Norvo. But she was sick and they needed a replacement in a hurry. Bill got me the gig. I just wanted to sing. I was a big smash, absolutely packed every night. Maynard Sloate, the owner, had continuous [non-stop] entertainment. Continuous 9 pm to 1 or 2 am. The only club in LA to have that. He had Shelley Berman, the Matt Dennis Trio and me, I was the headliner. I would end up doing three sets a night.
Everybody is coming to see you; you're the flavor of the month. No false modesty here. Girl of the moment. Agreed?
Oh, yeah. I worked with Lenny Bruce at the Avant Garde and at the Crescendo.
Maybe. It's hard for me to say.
Did the Zephyr record do much for you?
It got me a lot of recognition. But monetarily I can't say that any of my records did anything for me. Just the pleasure of being able to do them.
After Zephyr, Mercury signed you.
That was due to [arranger] Peter Rugolo. He used to come into the club. He was A&R for Mercury.
Did he arrange both of your Mercury albums?
I arranged them; he orchestrated.
Then you had one album each on Everest, ABC and United Artists. And two on Laurel?
Right, right. There's another one out that nobody knows anything about. I only have two selections on it. There's one that I did live up at Ojai [California]; Abe Most, Lincoln Majorca. It was a Dixieland. . .. Abe called me one day and said, "Ruth, would you like to do a gig up in Ojai?" "Sure, sure." Ray Sherman, Ray Leatherwood, Eddie Miller, all these Dixieland guys. Nappy LaMare. . .these great names! Great guys! I don't sing Dixieland, but I got up and had the best time. It was so much fun and they put a record out. They included a couple of my numbers.
But to go back to the mid-fifties. You have the first Mercury album out and you start doing a lot of national TV.
In addition I also did Jerry Fielding's local TV show, and it was live! Then I started doing a lot of Jack Paar, Merv Griffin, Steve Allen. Also the Jackie Gleason Timex jazz show where I got to sing two numbers with Duke Ellington. But I kept getting married and screwing my life up.
Did you ever do any acting?
I was working in 1961, after the demise of my second marriage, in some club up on Sunset. Two guys came in and said, "Ruth, we're Lewis and Young. We do Sacramento theater-in-the-round, and we want you to play Julie in Showboat."
So your career has come full circle. Once more, you're "passing." You're a white woman who had at one time passed as a black woman, being asked to play a black who passed for white.
I never thought of acting in my life. I said to them, "You must have the wrong person. You must be thinking of somebody else." "No, no, no." And they carried on. "I've never acted," I told them. "That's all right, plenty of time. . ." It was a glorious couple of weeks. I loved it. I got good reviews. I was surprised. I really didn't know what I was doing.
Here's what it says on the liner notes of your album, "Sings Jazz Today": "Such fine artists as Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand have spent hours on the dark side of the spotlight to soak up the gifted Olay's rhythmic, sensitive and earthy deliveries."
Judy used to come and we would sit and talk on occasion. "How do remember all those lyrics?" And, "It takes me a whole show to warm up." She was a darling. We hit it off just great. She came in with Leonard Gersh [who write "Born in a Trunk" and was associated with Roger Edens]. Barbra Streisand, it was told to me, came in with Marty Bregman, who was her agent, at a club in New York. The Living Room. And I did "Stout-hearted Men." this really clever guy wrote a verse, and it was a gay thing: "My vacation idyll is over. . .etc." Fire Island. So I did that. And she came in. . .evidently. I've never met her. And she subsequently recorded "Stout Hearted Me." She couldn't record my original verse, though [laughs].
Who are singers that you admire?
I lovvvvvve Rosemary Clooney. I love her soul. She's one of the few singers who can touch my heart and make me cry. Such sincerity. I adore her. She used to come in the club. I've always loved her. Of course, Lena.
Did you see her one woman show?
Twice! I saw her here in LA opening night and closing night. When she did that big almost autobiographical number. When she did that one I was in tears. She was magnificent. I met her when we were both working in Vegas in the sixties. I was invited backstage to meet her by [bassist/bandleader] Chubby Jackson's son, Duffy, who was her drummer. We sat together and talked astrology. Her birthday is the day before mine.
You're friends with Pinky Winters, right?
Oh, sure. Did you know she used to teach scat singing at the Dick Grove School [in North Hollywood]. Who on earth teaches scat singing?! [laughs] Scat Singing 101 and Scat Singing 102.
Do you subscribe to the believe Scat Only When Necessary and/or that singers should be required to have a license to scat?
I agree. Except for. . .have you heard of the Cunninghams? Benny Carter and I feel that he's the best scat singer. And when Benny says Don Cunningham is THE best scat singer he's ever heard---that includes Ella, Mel, all of them. . .. I love those two. They live in Vegas now. She's Mexican. . .Alicia. I wish you could hear them in person. They are better than Manhattan Transfer. And there are only two of them. They are sooooo great.
Tell me a little bit about your post-show biz life.
Coalition for Economic survival, Countywide Alliance for HUD Tenants, Nationwide Alliance for HUD Tenants, Statewide Alliance for HUD Tenants, Office of the Americas, that's a peace movement mostly for Central America and Cuba.
You've always been politically active?
No, well, yes. I've always been aware. I was a secretary at 20th Century Fox when I was young. I was the first one out on strike. I'm very proud of that. When the secretaries supported the Electrical workers and all those other unions. You might say I'm a mild activist. I just try to help in my little way.
Are you still active in earning. . .?
A living? No, I'm not singing at all anymore.
The voice gave out because I didn't use it. And it's very true that if you don't use it you lose it. I didn't vocalize and I just got very lazy and was not motivated to continue with the anxiety of working. I just didn't want to go through that anymore. I was sixty-six when I just quit singing. I am now retired. Beautifully so, thank God.
* * *For the "record," two of Ruth Olay's LP's are still available via mail order from: Laurel Records, 2451 Nichols Canyon, Los Angeles, CA 90046. Highly recommended.
Also it should be noted that this interview was originally intended for the online magazine Songbirds, an outgrowth of a listserve chat group of the same name. Begun in earlier 1999 the magazine had a run of a half-dozen issues filled to the brim with informed reviews, interviews, discographies, career overviews and illustrations devoted to American Popular Song and especially to the female (and an occasional male counterpart) of the rara avis species known as the Jazz Singer. I had the opportunity to conduct several lengthy interviews (Jo Stafford, Pinky Winters, Francine Griffin) and write reviews for Songbirds. It was a labor of love not only for myself but for the several dozen others who wrote for it. Unfortunately the work involved in keeping to a monthly schedule proved too much for its editor, David Torresen, and so shortly after the beginning of the new millennium he put the magazine into what most accurately might be called a state of permanent hiatus. This occurred shortly after I had completed the above interview with Ruth Olay. Looking over a rough draft of it a short while back, however, I realized that it shouldn't just be sitting around in a desk drawer gathering up handfuls of old snow. Thus its appearance here. The good news regarding Songbirds Magazines is that all of the old issues are still online, and for those in search of a solid education and grounding in the Great American Songbook and its noble practitioners, I cannot recommend this web publication too highly. It is available free at www.mrlucky.com/songbirds.