You may not have heard of the irrepressible Corky Hale, but you almost certainly have heard her play.
A vocalist, jazz pianist and harpist — the jazz harpist, some say — Hale has accompanied, well, just about everybody: Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Barbra Streisand, Liberace, Anita O’Day, June Christy, Ella Fitzgerald, George Michael, Bjork.
“You is my little girl,” Holiday told Hale after hearing her play.
As you might imagine of someone whose entertainment career has spanned decades, she has a million great stories, many contained in a book she commissioned last year, “Corky Hale Uncorked.”
Open it to any page and find a nugget:
Cecil B. DeMille asked her to play the harp on “The Ten Commandments” soundtrack every time Anne Baxter (Nefertiti) was on screen.
In 1969, she accompanied Tony Bennett when he sang “For Once in My Life” on “The Tonight Show,” then was invited by a shamelessly wolfish Johnny Carson to join him at his desk, whereupon she insisted he try out the harp. He was predictably awful. You can watch the video on YouTube.
When she was married to her first husband, a Los Angeles knitwear manufacturer who did a lot of business in Italy, she got a gig on TV in Rome with jazz pianist Romano Mussolini, son of the Italian dictator. On one show, jazz trumpeter Chet Baker sat in. “What a drag about your old man,” Baker told Mussolini, whose father had been executed, his body hung upside down in a Milan town square. (I have seen reports calling this story apocryphal, but Hale was there.)
When Hale was 19, and dating the legendary guitarist Howard Roberts, she discovered she was pregnant.
This was long before Roe vs. Wade, but this was also Hollywood, where pregnancy could end a performer’s career. Many young women — including Hale — made their way to an illegal abortion clinic in a small plaza on Sunset Boulevard.
“It was nothing,” she told me last week as we sat in her living room high above the Sunset Strip. “I had it at 10:30 in the morning and was onstage by 7 that night.” She was intensely relieved and grateful, and would later devote herself to helping others.
In the ’60s, Hale and her mother ran a popular dress boutique on Sunset Boulevard. “Corky Hale” (now a dry cleaner) was across the street from Schwab’s drugstore (now a mall with a Trader Joe’s). Through the grapevine, it got out that the shop was a place where women with unwanted pregnancies could get help.
Women would come into the store, ask for “a green dress” and be taken to the back of the store, where they would receive the names of two Los Angeles doctors willing to perform safe, illegal abortions.
“The word was out,” Hale told me as we sat in her living room, its floor-to-ceiling glass windows offering a cinematic view of the city. “It was an underground railroad for abortion.” She wore a white cotton shirt, orange capris and a “Dump Trump” button.
In time, she would become one of the country’s staunchest and most generous supporters of abortion rights.
I met Hale in the spring of 2017 at a fundraiser in Beverly Hills for the Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project, a group that funds abortions for women who can’t afford them. She was there with her husband, Mike, who seemed kind of shy. I walked up to him and said, “Hi, Mr. Hale. Are you in the music business too?”
He stared at me for a minute.
I had just introduced myself to Mike Stoller, the surviving half of one of the most famous songwriting duos in U.S. history, Leiber and Stoller.
Last week, when I visited the couple at their home to chat about Hale’s book, she told me that the song “Stand by Me,” by Jerry Leiber and Stoller (and Ben E. King), is the fourth-most performed song in the world. “Meghan Markle asked for it at her wedding,” Hale said. “I’m dying to meet her.”
Hale and Stoller, who have been married 48 years, live high in the hills above the Sunset Strip, in a neighborhood that is home to many celebrities. The narrow, winding streets, hard enough already to navigate, are often jammed with little buses showing tourists the “homes of the stars.” Lionel Richie once lived across the street. So did the late Stan Lee. An A-lister lives at the end of the block.
After President Trump was elected, Hale and Stoller hung a large portrait of President Obama outside their home, partly because they were in mourning and partly for the benefit of all the tourists.
The couple are major donors to the arts, to progressive causes and to Democrats.
They have given at least $3 million to help fund three Planned Parenthood clinics in Los Angeles, including the Dorothy Hecht Planned Parenthood Health Center in South Los Angeles, named for Hale’s mother.
In 2010, their million-dollar matching gift helped revive the moribund Pasadena Playhouse.
In 2013, long before its current management woes, the Southern Poverty Law Center named its Civil Rights Memorial Theater after Hale and Stoller to honor their 30 years of support. They are very close with the SPLC’s ousted founder, Morris Dees, and reluctantly had to cancel a dinner for him they were planning at their home in April.
In 2017, Hale and Stoller, who are friends with Homeboy Industries founder Father Greg Boyle, created Music Heals, a program that teaches instruments, singing and songwriting to former gang members.
Not surprisingly, Hale and Stoller, who are in their 80s, are inundated with invitations to political fundraisers and music industry events.
“I’ve gotten three invitations for March 31 alone,” Hale told me. “I just want to run away to Alaska sometimes.”
Alaska can wait.
On April 4, she plans to sign books at Vroman’s in Pasadena. On April 6, she is scheduled to perform the music of Billie Holiday at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood in honor of Holiday’s birthday. On April 10, she’ll be at the Glendale Library.
And in June, she’s playing her harp at the wedding of singer Kori Withers, daughter of Bill Withers. She’s not sure what selections. She’s waiting for the bride to call.