Jill Corey, 85, Coal Miner’s Daughter Turned Singing Sensation, Dies

Jill Corey, a torch singer who soared to fame as a teenage television star in the early 1950s, at one point becoming one of Columbia Records’ top vocalists, died on April 3 at a hospital in Pittsburgh. She was 85.

The cause was septic shock, her daughter, Clare Hoak, said.

Ms. Corey was irresistible to the mythmakers of the time. A stirring contralto with a pixie haircut, wide expressive mouth and enormous eyes, she drew comparisons to Judy Garland and had quite an origin story.

The youngest daughter of a widowed coal miner, she was born Norma Jean Speranza in Avonmore, Pa. When she was 17, a local DJ helped her record a tape singing unaccompanied, except for the sound of a train rattling as it passed by the studio. They then sent the tape to Mitch Miller, the bandleader turned hitmaker for Columbia Records in New York City. He invited her to audition in person and sent a plane ticket.

By the end of the day, she had a record deal, auditions with television show hosts and the attention of Life magazine, which decided to make her a cover girl next to the headline “Small Town Girl Gets New Name and a New Career.” A seven page spread with photographs by Gordon Parks, the article recorded (or re-enacted in some cases) her auditions, her leave-taking from Avonmore and her first night on television. She had just turned 18.

She earned a spot on “The Dave Garroway Show,” a Friday night variety series hosted by a low-key former radio host otherwise known as the Communicator. Mr. Garroway was a television omnipresence at the time, part of the team that hosted the “Today” show when it began in the early 1950s. He was the one who renamed her Jill Corey — a name plucked from the phone book. On that first Friday night, Life magazine reported, she sang the classic jazz standard “I’ve Got the World on a String.”

“An upturned face that’s cuter than a French poodle,” wrote Jack O’Brian, a television columnist for The New York Journal-American. “She sings like a warmhearted little angel.”

Silver Screen magazine said she had a “voice as lovely as a glass slipper, and a personality to match.”

Before the end of the decade, Ms. Corey had a spot on the “Johnny Carson Show” (a variety show precursor to his late-night talk show) and the NBC series “Your Hit Parade,” in which a regular cast of vocalists sang the top-rated songs of the week.

For a time Ms. Corey even had her own show, 15 minutes of song that followed the news once a week, a programming format that placed many popular singers in similar slots across the networks.

She recorded many records and performed at Manhattan nightclubs like the Copacabana and the Blue Angel. (Mr. Miller, in tight control of her career, turned down Broadway roles for her because her nightclub work was more lucrative.) And she was courted by heartthrobs like Eddie Fisher and Frank Sinatra (as he and Ava Gardner were divorcing).

She also made a “terrible movie,” in her words, called “Senior Prom” (1958).

Ms. Corey was engaged to a Brazilian diplomat when Don Hoak, the third baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, began a campaign to woo her. She had sung the national anthem at one Pirates game, and he had become smitten. He haunted her live performances — once sitting in as a trumpet player, at the invitation of her band, who colluded with him, and once walking onstage with a magnum of Champagne and two glasses. Finally she relented.

They married in 1961, and she gave up her career. Their daughter, Clare, was born in 1965. Mr. Hoak died of a heart attack at the wheel of his car in 1969 while chasing his brother-in-law’s stolen automobile.

Ms. Corey returned to performing a few years later — “Jill Corey Returns With Voice Intact,” The New York Times declared in 1972 — and continued to work steadily at small nightclubs and in musicals around the country. But she never recaptured her early fame.

“Her voice has darkened and ripened,” Stephen Holden wrote in The Times in 1988, reviewing a performance at Danny’s Skylight Lounge on West 46th Street, “acquiring a vulnerable maturity that evokes an interesting mixture of Judy Garland and Rosemary Clooney.”

“I’d arrived a star and done it all,” Ms. Corey told a reviewer in 1972, “so I didn’t know how to knock on doors, but what else could I do? Since I was 4, all I’ve ever done is sing. When you have talent, and they won’t let you do your thing, it’s very crushing; especially when you’re used to the red carpet.”

Norma Jean Speranza was born on Sept. 30, 1935, the youngest of five children. Her father, Bernard Speranza, worked in a coal mine in Kiski Township, Pa.; when Norma Jean became Jill, she bought it for him, renamed the Corey Mine. Her mother, Clara (Grant) Speranza, died when she was 4.

Her first performances, at school amateur hours, were not memorable: typically, enthusiastic Carmen Miranda imitations for which she earned last place. At 13, however, she won a talent contest sponsored by the Lion’s Club, the prize for which was a spot singing on local radio. The next year, she was hired by a local orchestra to sing standards, $5 a night, 7 days a week. For the demo she sent Mr. Miller, she sang a Tony Bennett song, “Since My Love Has Gone.”

She sang often at home, said Ms. Hoak, her only immediate survivor. Ms. Corey would sing her daughter to sleep — Judy Garland and Billie Holiday, mostly, and to such an extent that her daughter complained, “Don’t you know any happy songs?”

Ms. Corey’s voice remained distinctive, and she kept her flair. A few years ago, she fell in her home and called 911. When the fire department emergency team arrived, she received them with typical aplomb, a Scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

The firefighters balked at the cigarette.

As Ms. Hoak recalled: “Mom told them, ‘Oh come on! You boys know how to put out a fire, don’t you?’ ”

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