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Singer Jill Corey Dies at 85

At her peak, she was one of Columbia Records' top vocalists, releasing more than 60 singles and two albums.

Singer Jill Corey Dies at 85

Singer Jill Corey, an overnight sensation in 1953, when she landed on the cover of Life Magazine, passed away from natural causes on April 3 at UPMC Sunnyside in Sunnyside, PA. She was 85. At her peak, she was one of Columbia Records' top vocalists, releasing more than 60 singles and two albums, including the hit "Love Me to Pieces". Dave Garroway selected her to be a regular on his TV show, and picked her new name out of a phone book. She was also a regular on Johnny Carson's early CBS show and most-famously on NBC's "Your Hit Parade."

Corey was born Norma Jean Speranza on Sept. 30, 1935 to an Italian-American family in Avonmore, PA, a coal mining town 40 miles east of Pittsburgh. Her father was a coal miner and she was the youngest of five children. At 13, she won first prize at a talent contest sponsored by the Lions Club, which led to having her own radio program on WAVL. By the age of 14, she was working seven nights a week with the Johnny Murphy orchestra, earning $5. a night.

At the home of a friend who owned the only tape recorder in town, she made an acapella demo with trains going by in the background. A local DJ heard it and sent it to Mitch Miller, A&R head of Columbia Records. He received hundreds of demos a week, but somehow this one by a 17-year-old girl with its train background, got his attention, and she flew to New York to be heard in a more proper setting. Miller contacted Life Magazine and had them cover her auditioning for Arthur Godfrey and Dave Garroway, and reenacted her signing her seven-year Columbia contract. Miller also took over managing her career.

Both Godfrey and Garroway wanted her, but she chose Garroway, who picked Jill and then Corey out of a phone book as her new name. Within six weeks of the Life article coming out, she became the youngest star ever at the Copacabana. She soon had her own syndicated TV and radio shows on CBS. In addition to Garroway, she appeared regularly on Robert Q. Lewis' "Matinee" and flew to California to be a regular on Johnny Carson's CBS show. In 1958, producers of "Your Hit Parade," decided to replace the cast with younger talent, and Jill was chosen as one of the new stars. She made guest appearances on all of the major variety shows, including Ed Sullivan, and starred in the Columbia Pictures film "Senior Prom." She also toured in such shows as "Gigi," "Wish You Were Here," "High Button Shoes," "Sabrina," "The Moon is Blue," "Sunday in New York," and "Meet Me in St. Louis," in which she had top billing over Robert Goulet. She was offered the role of Lucille Ball's sister in "Wildcat" on Broadway, but was disappointed when Miller turned it down because he felt she could make more money in clubs and concerts.

Frank Sinatra proposed marriage to her in the midst of his divorce from Ava Gardner and she dated Eddie Fisher just prior to Debbie Reynolds. Rumors also linked her romantically with John F. Kennedy. In 1961 she fell in love with Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Don Hoak and married him. Hoak had been in the majors for 11 years, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Phillies, and was part of both the 1955 and 1960 World Series. Unhappy with Miller's handling of her career, she gave it up to travel with her husband. They had a daughter, Clare, but Hoak suddenly died eight years later at the age of 41.

Jill eventually returned to her career, and though she never regained the superstardom of her youth, she nevertheless had success in cabaret, where she could sing more mature songs with a new depth of feeling, at such venues as the Algonquin in New York, the Hollywood Roosevelt Cinegrill, and Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. She received strong reviews for her Harold Arlen salute and her one-woman show "Excerpts From a Life." In a 1973 interview with the Associated Press, she pointed out the difficulties in attempting a comeback, saying "Today, I don't know how to audition, how to get people interested in booking me. Somehow, I'm going to find a way to tell people I'm back and that I want to sing."

In 2013, she donated all of her memorabilia to the University of Arizona. Her albums "Sometimes I'm Happy" and "European Holiday" were reissued on CD and in 2015 Jasmine Records released a two-CD compilation of her complete singles.

She is survived by her daughter Clare Hoak and was preceded in death by her husband, three brothers and a sister. Arrangements were entrusted to the Kelly L. Corridoni Funeral Home in Avonmore, PA. A celebration of life will be held at a later date.

Donations in Jill Corey's memory may be made to the Humane Society, www.humanesociety.org.


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