Saturday morning, I went for my usual walk in the park and, as I often do, I put on my earbuds and set my smartphone mp3 player to shuffle all. There are nearly 4,000 songs on my SD card, so it is certain that at sometime during my walk, I’ll get to reconnect with a long lost friend … an old favorite that I haven’t listened to in a long time. The song that caught my ear Saturday was The Computer Age written and performed by Susannah McCorkle. Odds are good you’ve never heard of her and I wouldn’t have either if it weren’t for the good old days of CD listening stations at Borders. The CD I listened to way back then when was Hearts and Minds. The intimacy of Susannah’s simple, jazzy style appealed to me instantly, so I bought the CD.
When I got home from the park Saturday, I looked up Susannah McCorkle on Amazon Music to see what she’d recorded lately. Oddly, she hadn’t recorded anything in years. With a little research, I learned that McCorkle had taken her own life, despondent over setbacks to her singing career. A lovely and touching article, Jazz Bird, in New York Nightlife, put it this way: Brainy, warm, and funny, McCorkle belonged to an exclusive coterie of American singers: She performed in the best rooms, recorded nineteen albums, and enjoyed more than two decades of acclaim from the jazz press as well as the devotion of fans around the world. But in the months before her death at 55 stunned them all, her record company, Concord, had decided to issue a compilation album instead of a new one, and the Algonquin Hotel had given her precious fall slot at the Oak Room, one of cabaret’s most prestigious venues, to a younger singer. McCorkle, who had written a short story that received an O’Henry Award, also felt she was getting nowhere working on a memoir she’d been struggling with for years.
The back story is that in spite of her on stage charm and apparent self-confidence, McCorkle suffered from severe depression that she carefully concealed from fans and friends. Her three Stereo Review Album of the Year awards and High Fidelity‘s Francis Davis calling her “the best female jazz singer of her generation” notwithstanding, she was hardly getting by in New York. And not only did mental illness run in her family, suicide did, too. Both her father and aunt were suicides and her parents were members of the Hemlock Society which supports death by choice. In the weeks leading up to her death, she had been off her medications, as is so common in bipolar syndromes. In the early morning of May 19, 2001, she sent off emails to her friends, left a note for her best friend and jumped from her sixteenth story apartment window.
I am always saddened by musical talent is stilled while still in full bloom and it’s especially poignant when silenced by the musician’s own hand. Concord Records, which had chosen to put together a greatest hits CD instead of publishing her her latest recording, found that it outsold all of her previous recordings after her death. I suppose that makes it a wise business decision to them. Me? I am sad that I didn’t appreciate her a little more while she was alive and feel just a bit guilty buying her recordings now, not that my few purchases would have made any difference. The least I can do is post a few of her songs here as my belated tribute to a beautiful artist.
I hope you take the time to listen. If you are interested, the article, Jazz Bird, is here.