SHOW PEOPLE / A heart and soul sister: ANNIE ROSS

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The Independent Culture
IT'S A story that would be hard to believe even in a novel by some latter-day Henry Fielding. Annabelle Lynch, sister to the Scottish comedian Jimmy Logan, is left as a child in the care of an American aunt by her vaudevillean parents. She grows up in a household where Duke Ellington is likely to call in for tea, goes to school with Elizabeth Taylor, plays Judy Garland's daughter in a film, and eventually becomes a famous jazz singer and friend of Billie Holiday. After many further adventures, including having a son by the bebop drummer Kenny Clarke and running the archetypal Swinging London nightclub, Annie's Room in Covent Garden, she becomes a Hollywood star in her sixties and returns to England once again in triumph.

Annie Ross, as Annabelle Lynch became, seems to have accommodated several lifetimes' worth of experience into her 63 years. Here to promote Short Cuts, the Robert Altman film in which she plays, in a kind of variant of herself, a blowsy jazz singer, and to sing in a short season at the Green Room of the Cafe Royal, Ross admits to feelings of cultural dislocation. 'I feel very Scottish, very black American, very American and very European,' she says. She often thinks about her alternate fate, had she not been transported across the Atlantic at the age of four. 'But I think it was probably the best thing that could have happened, because if I hadn't been left in America, I would never have got to know the people I did and never developed a jazz style that was different. Although it was a lonely childhood.' She didn't meet up with her family again until she was in her late teens. 'I looked upon them as complete strangers but Jim (Logan) and I always had a closeness from the time we re-met.'

Although her careers as an actress and as a singer have been intertwined for many years - 'I made my first film when I was six, singing a jazz version of 'Loch Lomond' ' - it was as a jazz singer that Ross first found fame, with the wonderful 'Twisted' in 1952. One of a series of songs based on popular jazz-instrumental solos, Ross wrote the lyric to a theme by saxophonist Wardell Gray at the behest of the Prestige jazz-label owner Bob Weinstock. 'I was working as a waitress in New York and spending my evenings at Birdland when I met Weinstock and he asked me could I write. I said, of course - if he had asked me if I could fly I'd have said yes. He gave me a bunch of records, told me to listen to them and then come back with a lyric. Hunger being the mother of invention, I was back the next day. The title suggested a whole story to me and it just seemed to flow.'

Covered by Joni Mitchell much later, 'Twisted' is a bitter little masterpiece, the lyric taking the twists and turns of the melody for a witty ride along then-topical lines. 'My analyst told me,' it begins, 'that I was right out of my head. The way he described it, I'd be better off dead than alive. I didn't listen to his jive.' The day after recording it, Ross went to Paris. 'Someone called me one day and told me I'd won the New Star award in Downbeat magazine.' She went on to form the classic vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, and began a long association with Count Basie, translating further instrumental lines into witty vocalese.

In the mid-Sixties, Ross came back to Britain with Basie and stayed. She hung out with comedian Lenny Bruce, married the actor Sean Lynch - with whom she opened Annie's Room, though neither owned it - and became a jazz hostess. The experience of running a club did not live up to her expectations. 'It's like someone who says, 'You're a great cook, why don't you open a restaurant?' It's a dream - never do it] The idea is great but the reality is a lot of hard work.'

After the failure of the club and her marriage, Ross began to act more, doing television and appearing on stage in Kennedy's Children. She also continued to flit between England and America. 'I paid my dues in Hollywood,' she says, 'doing little things for Danny DeVito, Superman 3 with Dick Lester and stuff like that. It didn't happen overnight.'

She met Altman through his wife, Kathryn: 'She wanted to become a singer and we're like soul sisters; she said you have to meet Bob. He said he had a project and the money, and there was a part for me, but first he had to do The Player, so he gave me a few lines in that.' Of her part in Short Cuts and how far it corresponds to her own persona, Ross says: 'The singing part is me certainly. The cynical, bitter, secular, selfish kind of attitude I don't think of as me at all, but I'm very happy that people think it might be me because it means I've acted the part well.' At the Green Room, her repertoire will be, she says, 'a mixed bag: things from Short Cuts, things I'm known for like 'Twisted' and things I haven't tried before'. She'll be back here in June too, for a run in a new musical, the follow-up to Five Guys Named Moe. Louis Jordan, it seems, is one of the few jazz musicians she didn't get to meet. She can look back wistfully now to that other life she didn't get to live: 'I guess I could have been a little Scottish housewife, though I doubt it.'

Annie Ross: Green Room, Cafe Royal, W1 (071-437 9090) to Thurs. The 'Short Cuts' soundtrack is available on Imago.