For all my (self-) vaunted dedication to popular culture, I had no idea who Jill Corey, pictured above, was. When I glanced at the New York Times obituary feature about her last month, it didn’t ring enough of a bell for me to read it. But I left the section lying around for some reason, and finally read it last night. Her life is a story filled with ethics enlightenment about life, luck, and priorities.
On Nov. 9, 1953, when she was only 17, Norma Jean Speranza of Avonmore, Westmoreland County, a coal miner’s daughter just like Loretta Lynn, was featured in a Life Magazine cover story called “Small Town Girl Gets New Name And a New Career.” She became a true overnight sensation, recording hundreds of songs for Columbia Records, including “Love Me to Pieces,” “I Love My Baby,” “Let It Be Me” (which the Everly Brothers covered memorably) and “Sometimes I’m Happy,” the featured single on her career-defining album, “Sometimes I’m Happy, Sometimes I’m Blue.” Corey, it is fair to say, had one of those rare female voices that are instantly appealing, like Judy Garland and Karen Carpenter. Listen…
Those low notes!
Critics and audiences loved her. Silver Screen magazine said she had a “voice as lovely as a glass slipper, and a personality to match,” and that was typical. Corey was a regular on the television variety programs “Robert Q’s Matinee” (1950–1956) “The Dave Garroway Show” (1953–1954), the 1958–1959 version of the iconic “Your Hit Parade,” and on Johnny Carson’s CBS comedy-variety show before he took over “Tonight.” She also had her own syndicated radio and television shows. In 1958 she starred in a feature-length musical film, “Senior Prom” (co-produced by Moe Howard!)
So why doesn’t (almost) anyone remember her today?
In 1961, she married Don Hoak. He’s remembered now more than Corey is thanks to “City Slickers”: in a scene on a dude ranch, the one woman in the group complains to Billy Crystal and his two friends that she doesn’t understand men’s obsession with baseball. Who cares who played third base for the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, she asks hypothetically, and the words are barely out of her mouth before the three guys blurt out, “Don Hoak!”
Corey stopped performing and recording to raise a family; she and Hoak had a daughter. He dropped dead of a heart attack in 1969 at the age of 41 while chasing a thief who had stolen his brother’s car. Unexpectedly, Jill Corey had to return to singing. But her moment had passed. She was no longer famous or in demand, and popular music, the culture and public tastes had moved at supersonic speed in the eight years between 1961 and 1969. Once seemingly everywhere in magazines, TV and the radio and seemingly headed to a long career, she was back to being an unknown. When she died in May at the age of 85, few noticed.