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Marion Montgomery: 1934-2002
Marion Montgomery

Born: November 17, 1934 in Natchez, Mississippi
Died: July 22, 2002 in Bray, England

Jazz singer with broad appeal

Copyright © 2002 

The Scotsman


Marion Montgomery was an elegant, sophisticated, lightly swinging jazz vocalist who was equally at home on the musical stage and in cabaret. She began her career in her native America, but moved to London in 1965 when she married the English pianist and arranger Laurie Holloway, and lived in the UK for the rest of her life.

She reached a wide audience as the resident vocalist on Michael Parkinson’s popular television chat show in the 1970s, and worked extensively with pianist and classical composer Richard Rodney Bennett in a partnership which combined jazz with cabaret and light classical influences.

She was born Maud Runnells in Mississippi, in a house which betrayed her family’s partly Scottish origins in its name, "Elgin" (she and Holloway later used that name for their home in Bray as well). She always retained something of a languid southern air in her singing. She had no formal training as a singer, and was once sent packing by a singing teacher in college, who told her there was nothing she could do for her, and showed her the door.

A fellow student dared her to audition for a singing job at a television station in Atlanta. She took up the dare – a bottle of whisky was at stake – and the station liked what they heard. As a result, she never finished college (something she later regretted), but moved to Atlanta, where she found a job in the advertising department of a national mail order chain.

She began to play in the jazz clubs in the city, working with musicians from the city and a nearby army base she met on the television show, in contravention of union rules. Unusually at that time in the south, she also recalled singing with a black band led by pianist Duke Pearson in an Italian restaurant, where she said that "everybody just turned a blind eye. It must have been strange, though, because I was pretty preppy back then."

She combined day jobs as a secretary with singing in clubs on evenings and weekends for a time, then moved north to Chicago. Her breakthrough arrived when she recorded a demo tape of a song she had written, which found its way to Capitol Records. Peggy Lee was asked to listen to the tape to see if she might be interested in the song, but she told the company to forget the song and sign the singer.

Montgomery began to record for the label, and steadily built her reputation. She graduated to prestigious venues like Basin Street in New York and the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, but her career took another turn when she came to London in 1965 to play a summer season with John Dankworth, and met and married Laurie Holloway.

She established herself as a popular figure on the British scene, working regularly at Ronnie Scott’s in London in a jazz setting, but also carving out a reputation in musical theatre and on television, where she appeared in popular prime time shows like Parkinson and The Morecambe and Wise Show.

She appeared in musicals like Anything Goes and Lionel, and collaborated with her husband on A Dream of Alice for television in 1979. She developed and toured a one-woman show which was also televised by the BBC.

Her long working association with Richard Rodney Bennett began in the early 1980s. Bennett was a featured composer at a festival of classical music in Worcester, but was also required to perform a late night entertainment. He knew a huge number of standard tunes, but at that time he did not sing himself, and called Montgomery to see if she might help out. They worked together for 15 years, and made a series of recordings.

I once asked the singer in an interview if she regarded herself as a jazz singer. She replied: "I think of myself purely as a singer. I don’t mind what people want to call me, or how they want to pigeon-hole me, but I can’t do that to myself. I will never deny that I am jazz-influenced or jazz-oriented, but I get to do a lot of different kinds of things. I prefer to sing the standard tunes because I feel they speak to my condition, but I also like to do good pop tunes or good country tunes or whatever". That openness is reflected in the breadth of her work across her career.

She had been suffering from cancer for a decade, and believed that she had originally contracted the disease in her lungs from "passive smoking" in night clubs (she was a non-smoker herself). Nonetheless, she continued to perform until shortly before her death, including an three-week engagement at London’s Pizza in the Park in April.

She is survived by her husband and two daughters, Abigail and Karon.

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