San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
Torch singer soared to fame on early ’50s TV shows
Jill Corey, a torch singer who soared to fame as a teenage television star in the early 1950s, at one point becoming one of Columbia Records’ top vocalists, died on April 3 at a hospital in Pittsburgh. She was 85.
The cause was septic shock, her daughter, Clare Hoak, said.
Corey was irresistible to the mythmakers of the time. A stirring contralto with a pixie haircut, wide expressive mouth and enormous eyes, she drew comparisons to Judy Garland and had quite an origin story.
The youngest daughter of a widowed coal miner, she was born Norma Jean Speranza in Avonmore, Pa., on Sept. 30, 1935. When she was 17, a local DJ helped her record a tape singing unaccompanied, except for the sound of a train rattling as it passed by the studio. They then sent the tape to Mitch Miller, the bandleader turned hitmaker for Columbia Records in New York City. He invited her to audition in person and sent a plane ticket.
By the end of the day, she had a record deal, auditions with television show hosts and the attention of Life magazine, which decided to make her a cover girl next to the headline “Small Town Girl Gets New Name and a New Career.” A sevenpage spread with photographs by Gordon Parks, the article recorded (or reenacted in some cases) her auditions, her leavetaking from Avonmore and her first night on television. She had just turned 18.
She earned a spot on “The Dave Garroway Show,” a Friday night variety series. Garroway was a television omnipresence at the time, part of the team that hosted the “Today” show when it began in the early 1950s. He was the one who renamed her Jill Corey — a name plucked from the phone book. On that first Friday night, Life magazine reported, she sang the classic jazz standard “I’ve Got the World on a String.”
Silver Screen magazine said she had a “voice as lovely as a glass slipper, and a personality to match.”
Before the end of the decade, Corey had a spot on the “Johnny Carson Show” (a variety show precursor to his latenight talk show) and the NBC series “Your Hit Parade,” in which a regular cast of vocalists sang the toprated songs of the week.
For a time Corey even had her own show, 15 minutes of song that followed the news once a week, a programming format that placed many popular singers in similar slots across the networks.
She recorded many records and performed at Manhattan nightclubs like the Copacabana and the Blue Angel. And she was courted by heartthrobs like Eddie Fisher and Frank Sinatra (as he and Ava Gardner were divorcing).
She also made a “terrible movie,” in her words, called “Senior Prom” (1958).
Corey was engaged to a Brazilian diplomat when Don Hoak, the third baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, began a campaign to woo her. She had sung the national anthem at one Pirates game, and he had become smitten.
They married in 1961, and she gave up her career. Their daughter, Clare, was born in 1965. Don Hoak died of a heart attack at the wheel of his car in 1969 while chasing his brotherinlaw’s stolen automobile.
Corey returned to performing a few years later and continued to work steadily at small nightclubs and in musicals around the country. But she never recaptured her early fame.