365 DAYS PROJECT

2007   AUGUST 22   #234

Merigail Moreland

MP3:
1.) Reputation (with harmonica solo) - Merigail and Don Moreland (2:41)
2.) Reputation (working on the ending) - Merigail and Don Moreland (0:38)
3.) Reputation (weird ending) - Merigail and Don Moreland (1:46)
4.) Reputation (final 1953 version) - Merigail and Don Moreland (1:46)
5.) Mommy Daddy Bye Bye - Merigail and Don Moreland (2:21)
6.) Head Cheese - Merigail Moreland and Family (2:21)
7.) Head Cheese - Merigail Moreland and Family (2:52)
8.) The Song From Moulin Rouge - Merigail Moreland (1:18)
9.) I'm Walking Behind You - Merigail Moreland (1:45)
10.) I Want My Mommy and Daddy Together for Christmas - Merigail Moreland (2:33)
11.) Reputation (1957 Version) - Merigail and Don Moreland (2:05)
12.) Caught In the Rain - Merri Gail (2:02)
13.) I Feel So Blue - Merri Gail (2:25)
14.) Unchained Melody - Merri Gail (2:21)
15.) Oo-Lee, Oo-Lee, Papa, Oo-Lee - Merri Gail (2:07)

IMAGES:
     A Hit In Show Biz
     New Recording of Yule Song
     Little League Queen
     Teen Club
     Tape Box
     Oo-Lee, Oo-Lee, Papa, Oo-Lee
     A First Week Hit

"Clearly, she was born to sing".

That's what a close friend said upon hearing the last few of the songs I'll be sharing today. It captures my thoughts perfectly.

The first time I heard the voice of Merigail Moreland, about 15 years ago, I had no way of knowing who she was. The next time I heard her voice, I had a name to go along with the voice, but nothing more. I wanted to know more, and I wrote as much during the previous 365 days project. I am definitely the type who likes to get to the bottom of a musical mystery. And now, as a result of the previous project, I know much more of Merigail's story, in all it's bittersweet glory.

As I wrote in the project, each fall, for about 18 years, I used to go to a wondrous sale called "The Mammoth Music Mart" in Skokie, Illinois. In the early 90's, in a bin of 78's, I found an unlabeled acetate, and grabbed it quick, like I always do with such finds. Later, I was happy to find that it contained, on one side, a jazzy sort of guitar backed song, sung by a male chorus, apparently called "Backfire". But it was the other side, a song which could only have been called "Reputation", which really grabbed me. A young girl sang the song along with a couple of men, one of whom took the lead for one chorus, accompanied by more nice guitar playing.

After awhile, the song drifted into the back of my brain. Then, at least five years later, I was again at the sale when I came across a batch of tapes, all labeled in the same handwriting, and prominently featuring the phrase "Head Cheese". How could one possibly pass that up? And, looking in more detail at a few of the tapes, I saw that this was a song title, and that another song on some of the tapes was titled "Reputation"! Could it be? I snapped up every tape I could find with this person's writing on it - about ten in all - and bought them.

Sure enough, it was the same girl, singing not only Reputation, both as a very young girl, and in the teen vocal I had already heard on that acetate, but also singing the ridiculous song "Head Cheese", and a handful of other tunes, in between many recordings of other singers and musicians trying out a variety of songs. Her name was spelled at least two different ways, and was sometimes listed with a Don Moreland (who was also featured on another tape hosting and singing on his own radio show).

And that's what I knew of the story when I wrote my original post for the original 365 days project. Two years later, I was astonished to hear from one of Merigail's cousins, who shared Merigail's story with me, starting with the correct spelling of her name, and giving me enough information that I was able to dig into local archives and find out more. Because, by some weird coincidence, it turns out that the house I've subsequently moved to (while in the same Metro area as Skokie, but not particularly close) sits less than two miles from where Merigail lived when these tapes were made. In addition to the family I was in touch with, I was also able to access the archives of the local paper, where I learned that Merigail was quite a local celebrity, with one Christmas single released when she was about 12, a Chicago TV show (akin to Bandstand) that she co-hosted at 14, and two singles she released on a local label at age 16.

Some of this material is a bit repetitive, with multiple takes of a few songs, but you may well find the early material rewarding, and some of the latter material is, in my opinion, jaw-droppingly good. On all but the weakest material here, Merigail's voice captivates me like few others I've heard.

Merigail was born in 1943, and the first versions you'll hear of "Reputation" date from when she was about ten years old. First come the initial rehearsals, one largely a cappella (except for a harmonica which plays the solo in a different key), one attempt to learn the ending, and one complete take with an slightly off kilter ending. This is followed by the finished product, which appeared in lower sound quality in the 2003 project. This is the version of the song I prefer - I love the little flip in her voice.

From roughly the same time are a batch of more juvenile recordings, first the maudlin "Mommy Daddy Bye Bye" (again featuring her father Don, as well), and then a couple of takes of the aforementioned "Head Cheese". This may be among the silliest songs ever recorded, and yet... there is still something about that voice, as if even singing something goofy and fun and gleefully stupid, she couldn't stop herself from using the training she undoubtedly was already receiving.

Following this are a couple of a cappella recordings of recent hits, "The Song From Moulin Rouge" (sadly, incomplete) and "I'm Walking Behind You". Although it is clear that we are listening to an amateur here, it surprised me to find out that she was no more than 11 years old at the time of this record.

More amazing, although in the service of a recording that's not really to my tastes as a record or a song, is the voice heard a little more than one year later, on the local Chicago Christmas release "I Want My Mommy and Daddy Together for Christmas". That she was at most 13 at the time of this recording simply amazes me.

At age 14, Merigail, a Freshman at the local High School, was tapped to join an up and coming local personality named Wally Phillips (soon to be a radio legend) as the co-host of an American Bandstand style TV show. I have no idea how long the show lasted, but it got several write-up's in local papers and magazines. That same year, 1958, she recorded the second version of "Reputation", which is heard here in a repeat from the previous project, again in better sound quality. This is definitely the slicker version, tuned down for her more mature voice, slowed down, and Merigail gives a noticeably more controlled performance. I love it, but not quite as much as that manic earlier version.

Virtually all of this music (except the Christmas single, and certainly not the background information), I knew before I heard from Merigail's family, but the big surprise came when I learned that, at age 16 or so, she had recorded two 45's for the Cha-Cha label on the South Side of Chicago. The reason I'd never come across them, in my internet searches, was because they were released under the name "Merri Gail". I was promised a copy, and was soon head over heels in love with a voice from the year I was born.

One single, "Caught In the Rain" b/w "I Feel So Blue" is quite good, and shows a growth in the two years since "Reputation" that is at the very least remarkable. But the other single...

On the B-side, which I heard first, was a heartbreaking version of "Unchained Melody", colored perfectly by accordion, and sung by a sultry, world-weary-sounding voice, still a bit shaky in places, but with a command of dynamics and emotion which stopped me in my tracks, and which was virtually unrecognizable from the recordings made a few years earlier.

But it was the A-side, the oddly titled "Oo-Lee, Oo-Lee, Papa, Oo-Lee" which went into heavy rotation for me, over the next six months. (By the way, yes it really does start in mid-musical-phrase.) Overcoming some occasionally trite lyrics (truly horrendous in places), she captures the longing expressed in the better parts of the lyrics, and her singing of the nonsense lyrics of the title, particularly near the start of the record, expresses a level of desire and passion for the object of her affection that I've rarely heard from someone still at high school age. Her soft-loud dynamics are fabulous, too. Taken with both sides of the 45, particularly "Oo-Lee...", this is, quite simply, one of my favorite records ever.

The trail ends there, for now. There are apparently more recordings, never released on record, that I may get to hear someday. Merigail did some performing in Wisconsin, then married and moved to Atlanta, and spent much of her life entertaining in nightclubs in that area. I always wished to meet her, and to tell her how much my friend and I have grown to love her recordings. What is sad for me, however, is tragic for Merigail, as learned of her early death, at age 47, from Lupus, in early 1990, perhaps a year before I came across that unmarked acetate of "Reputation".

Godspeed, Merigail. You live on in the ears, heart and soul of this compulsive collector of wonderful sounds.

- Contributed by: Bob Purse

 

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