Acclaimed jazz singer Ruth Olay dies at 97
In 1951, Olay was separated from her first husband and raised their young daughter on her own when she left her post as secretary to Oscar-winning filmmaker Preston Sturges at Paramount Pictures to perform in San Diego with black conductor Benny Carter. It was his first professional engagement.
Despite being of Hungarian descent, Olay used the pseudonym Rachel Davis to avoid controversy – with her dark complexion and short, curly hair, it was assumed she was black.
Later, while working as a singing waitress at the Cabaret Concert Theater on Sunset Boulevard, Olay was approached by arranger Bill Hitchcock to make an album, and It’s About Time – released in 1956 on Zephyr Records, a new funded label. by the heir to the meat wrapper Geordie Hormel – caught his eye.
In November of the same year, she began a yearlong engagement at the new Ye Little Club in Beverly Hills, replacing jazz singer Abbey Lincoln, who had left for a concert in South America and recommended Olay as a replacement. She drew a nighttime celebrity crowd which included Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland.
She then took over from Billie Holiday at the Avant Garde Club for $ 500 per week, headlining comedian Shelley Berman and the Matt Dennis Trio.
Olay also worked with comedian Lenny Bruce at Avant Garde and Crescendo, where arranger Pete Rugolo heard her and then signed her to Mercury Records. His debut album for Mercury’s EmArcy label, Olay from 1958! Ruth Olay’s new sound won her more fans.
She followed with a second Mercury album, 1959 Easy Living, which paired her with the Jerry Fielding Orchestra.
Now performing at top clubs nationwide as well as festivals in Europe, she recorded a live album by Mister Kelly in Chicago in 1960, then recorded for the Everest, ABC-Paramount and Laurel labels.
Born in San Francisco on July 1, 1924, Olay moved to Los Angeles with her family when she was still a baby. Her mother was a classical singer who sang in the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy musical choir and at the Hollywood Bowl, and her father was a former rabbi who eventually became head of research at Warner Bros.
Initially a piano prodigy, teenage Olay worked as a secretary at 20th Century Fox and took voice lessons with Florence Russell, whose students included Dorothy Dandridge. Her love of jazz drove her to the many clubs that lined Central Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles at the time.
At a party, she met Ivie Anderson, the legendary Duke Ellington singer who had come out of retirement and was singing on Sunday nights at the Streets of Paris club on Hollywood Boulevard. She first performed in front of an audience when Anderson took her on stage.
“Every Sunday Ivie would take me up there,” she said in an interview in 2000. “Just looking at her I saw how she stood, the attitude she had. . And I did that part of me. She was magnificent; she was very nice.
When she worked for Sturges, her shifts were 24 hours at a time.
“He always took me out to dinner,” she said. “If he didn’t, he would order mounds of sandwiches from the Players Club he owned on the Sunset Strip. Shakers filled with sour whiskey. Then he would go to his office, because it was a 24 hour contract. I have entered the golden time. I lived in the field. Slept on the ground. Another secretary would come after 24 hours. We would alternate. It was a wonderful experience. I enjoyed it so much. He was a very special guy.
At the end of her four weeks with Carter, she returned to her job at Paramount. When Sturges realized she was gone for a nightclub gig, he offered to write a comedy for her. “But Mr. Sturges,” she said, “I’m not that kind of singer!”
In his prime, Olay also sang in programs hosted by Jack Paar, Merv Griffin and Steve Allen and performed with Ellington in a featured jazz show directed by Jackie Gleason and in The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Olay cut back on traveling after marrying Agent Lee Magid in 1963 and having a son, but she continued to sing at clubs around LA as recently as in the late 1980s when she was a regular. from the Vine Street Bar & Grill.
Survivors include her children, Amy and Adam.
This article originally appeared on THR.com.