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Next Role For Jaye P. Morgan: A Jazz Singer

<i> Leonard Feather is The Times' jazz critic. </i>

It is not easy to define Jaye P. Morgan’s place in show business. Is she a singer who also acts, or an actress who toys at singing? Despite her many histrionic credits, “when I get up in the morning, I get up as a singer,” she says. That’s what she will be in a rare local appearance tonight at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City.

“Jaye P. seems insecure about her singing,” says singer Ruth Price, who books the talent at the Bakery. “But actually she is one of the better ballad singers around today; plus she has such a wonderful, kooky stage personality.”

Though her blond good looks belie her age, the evidence is still on hand: Some late night on TV you may see her in “Stars Over Hollywood.” “Pat O’Brien was in it,” Morgan recalls, “and I did it with my family--we were all musicians. This was when I was 3 or 4 years old, in 1935.”

Morgan was born in a log cabin (“Just like Abe”) in Mancus, Colo. “We were just beginning to come out of the Depression, and my father owned some land there and the log cabin. We left there because we had started performing. My father played guitar and drums; he taught me to sing.”

Morgan (later known as a TV comedian and a zany judge on the “Gong Show”) went on the road at 3 with her father, five brothers and a sister. “We moved to California and worked on the radio every winter, then went on tour during the summer.”

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Though her stage work eventually would take her into very different musical areas, Morgan shared the whole family’s interest in jazz. “My first influences, I guess, were Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday--at least, they were the ones I listened to. Also Nat King Cole, both for his singing and his piano playing. I was learning how to accompany myself at the piano, so naturally I found him fascinating.”

After her father’s death in 1945, the family act broke up. Morgan settled down in school in Sunland. “That’s how I got my name. I was born Mary Margaret Morgan, but when I was appointed class treasurer at high school, the students kiddingly started calling me J. P. When I left school at 17 and began working with Frank DeVol, he liked it, so it stuck.”

Her recording career got under way via “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” with DeVol on a small label, Derby Records. Later came sessions for RCA that yielded “The Longest Walk” and “That’s All I Want From You,” both best-sellers for her in ’54 and ’55, and a little later “The Song Is You,” for which Marion Evans wrote the arrangement.

Meanwhile, her stage activities had begun. “ ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ was first; I was around 25. Then I did ‘Guys and Dolls.’ I did ‘The Tender Trap,’ a great comedy, with Gene Saks. I was on tour with ‘Nunsense,’ starring Kaye Ballard, and co-starred with Eddie Bracken in the national tour of ‘Sugar Babies.’ ”

Working in musicals was a mixed blessing. “If it was ‘Annie Get Your Gun,’ with wonderful songs by Irving Berlin, that was fine; but if it wasn’t good music, it was torture. I just hated the music in ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown.’ ”

Television provided Morgan’s best showcase for many years. “Johnny Carson had a show out here in L. A. called ‘Carson’s Cellar,’ and that was my first network appearance. I was 18. Much later I must have done ‘The Tonight Show’ with him at least 150 times--when the show was in New York he would fly me in, and when it moved out here, I was on as often as four times a month. No, I haven’t done the show with Jay Leno yet, but I’d love to.”

There were also many guest shots with Merv Griffin, appearances on “Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island,” and of course her celebrated four years hamming it up on Chuck Barris’ “The Gong Show” starting in 1975. She observes: “It paid good money, and it was great exposure. I really enjoyed it.”

Along the way Morgan found time for three marriages. “That’s enough,” she declares. “I had wonderful husbands, but I guess I just don’t enjoy being married. I have a grown son, Paul Steven Kane, by my ex-husband Artie Kane. Paul is a musician and has his own band.”

Jaye P. will also have her own band, on a modest scale, for the Jazz Bakery gig: Matt Harris at the piano, Armando Compean on bass, and David Hunt on drums.

Her acting career has never completely stopped: She has a role in the newly released “Home Alone 2,” with Macaulay Culkin. But she feels the time has come to resume her recording career.

“That’s something I would rather do than anything else in the world. I just love that feeling of being in the studio; you track everything and then go in and work precisely. Much as I like to work in front of an audience, that is truly my first love.”

Jaye P. Morgan will perform at 7 tonight at the Jazz Bakery, 3221 Hutchison Ave., Los Angeles. Admission is $20. Call (310) 271-9039.


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