Susannah McCorkle, the sultry-voiced chanteuse who was considered one of the finest lyrical interpreters in the world of jazz, was found dead outside her New York City apartment on May 19. Suicide was suspected. She was 55.
A student of languages and a prolific writer herself, she was known for bringing literary refinement to popular standards like Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” the razzle-dazzle anthem in which she found an underlying sadness. She also had a special love for Brazilian pop, devoting her album “Sabia” to the music and translating lyrics from Portuguese.
With 17 albums to her credit on Concord Records and other smaller labels, McCorkle received much critical praise, including three Album of the Year awards from Stereo Review, but achieved only modest commercial success.
A fixture at New York’s leading cabarets, especially the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, her cabaret shows were lauded as witty, intimate accounts of 20th century pop history with songs by Cole Porter and George Gershwin alongside those of Paul Simon and Rupert Holmes.
Born in Berkeley, Calif., McCorkle spent her childhood following her anthropologist father to various teaching positions. She returned to UC Berkeley in the 1960s to study Italian literature, but disillusioned with American politics, she dropped out of college and traveled to Europe to study languages and begin a literary career.
Her fiction was published in Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan and “The O. Henry Book of Prize Short Stories,” and her nonfiction found homes in the New York Times Magazine and American Heritage. But she turned her attention to singing in her mid-20s while living in Paris after a friend played her Billie Holiday’s recording of “I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues.”
In 1972, she moved to London where she began singing with a band led by trumpeter John Chilton and recorded two albums that were later re-released Stateside. Returning to the United States in the late 1970s, McCorkle had her American breakthrough with a seven-month engagement at the Cookery in Greenwich Village.
Over the years she built a substantial career in jazz clubs and cabarets, with a repertoire of more than 3,000 songs, which shifted from standards to blues to Brazilian pop to songs in French and Italian. Her most recent album, “Hearts and Minds,” was released on Concord last year.
In recent years, McCorkle developed interactive music workshops for children ages 5 to 18, which she gave at Lincoln Center, bookstores and public schools in New York, New Jersey and Florida.
She is survived by her mother and two sisters.