Jill Corey began her life as Norma Jean Esperanza, youngest of five children in the tiny coal-mining town of Avonmore, Pennsylvania, the youngest of five children. She was always singing and became something of a local celebrity in her teens, but only earning five dollars a night performing in regional shows, at the Lion’s Club outings or on local radio where by age 14 she had been given her own show.
A friend encouraged her to make a tape of a song and she chose Tony Bennett’s little known song Since My Love Has Gone, adapted from the opera La Traviata, made by him for Columbia Records. The friend sent off the tape, which was made without musical accompaniment and was marred by the sound of local trains passing by, to Columbia Records guru Mitch Miller who immediately paid for Jill and her sister and mother to come to New York City to audition. The amazed Norma Jean left Avonmore as a $5 a night local band singer. She returned with a seven year contract with Columbia Records and her own CBS-tv television show. She was 17! Life Magazine followed up on Miller’s new singing discovery by bumping Winston Churchill off their proposed cover and replacing him with Norma Jean. Their cover story was “Small-Town Girl Gets New Name and New Career”. She appeared on the Today Show then hosted by Dave Garroway who was enormously popular in America at the time, celebrated for his homey, down to earth approach to starting the day and bringing viewers the news. Just as Life Magazine had stated, Garroway opened a phone book and picked out a name for the rising star: Jill Corey. She stayed on Garroway’s show for nine months as a regular and singer.
During this period beginning October of 1953 she was the toast of the town everywhere, singing on Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” television show and on other popular programs of the time while at the same time studying at the American School of Dramatic Arts in preparation for TV and film acting work and taking dancing lessons.
For quite a time in the mid 1950s she was a major A-list celebrity, among the youngest to be featured at the Copacabana night club in New York, making records and generally following the guidance of Columbia Records guru Mitch Miller who had selected ballads and odd novelty songs that promoted the careers of such luminaries as Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Rosemary Clooney and Johnny Ray. Miller had become an instant fan of Jill’s although he himself was a classically trained oboist. Jill let him take total control of her career management because he had tremendous power in the industry and without him she had had only a local rural Pennsylvania career.
During this time Frank Sinatra became enamored of Jill and even proposed marriage to her. He had recently been through a major career slump at Columbia records, exacerbated by terrible relations with impresario Mitch Miller who didn’t care for his attitude and his discontentment with Miller’s musical choices for him. Sinatra was also coming off of a tumultuous marriage and pending divorce from actress Ava Gardner and for a time he set his sights on Jill. But Jill had eyes for another superstar singer on whom she had a tremendous crush and when they began dating he was the bigger star: Eddie Fisher. The Fisher relationship started soon after Jill had gone out to California but ended all too soon as far as Jill was concerned and soon he began dating Debbie Reynolds whom he would marry and with whom he would soon have a child: the late Carrie Fisher of Star Wars fame. And Jill would begin to date a professional baseball all-star named Don Hoak whom she would marry.
Jill had a few hit songs but her failure to get more consistently into the top ten with Miller’s choices for songs for her started to become a problem. 1957 was her peak year in the recording industry. Love Me to Pieces, destined to be her biggest hit, got to number 18 on the charts, Let It Be Me, later to become a monster hit for the Everly Brothers, got to number 57 and the typical Mitch Miller selection, the novelty tune Make Like a Bunny Honey (Hop Up to My Front Door) squeaked into the top 100 at number 95, with Jill sounding amazingly like Doris Day doing one of her typical Columbia tunes of the period. 1958 saw just one tune make the top 100, a spirited and sexy version of Big Daddy, clocking in at number 96.
There was a problem with being guided by Mitch Miller – his penchant for giving his proteges either traditional popular songs to sing or odd novelty tunes that were quirky and often beneath the talents of the artists recording for him. Having Tony Bennett sing songs such as “My Pretty Shoogah, Every Pound that Makes You Round I Idolize” or Rosemary Clooney doing duets with Marlene Dietrich of country and western songs was standard fare with Mitch Miller who also enjoyed staging singalongs with bouncing balls as had been done in movie theaters in silent film days. Frank Sinatra couldn’t stand him and young people of the time thought he was really square. In short, Miller’s taste was sometimes on and sometimes off, but generally very profitable with the mass audience.
At this time, 1958, Jill was doing well on tv as one of the new cast members of Your Hit Parade and guest appearances on other programs, even including acting stints. Your Hit Parade was a weekly show that had been on radio and tv for years and which featured a repertory company of singers such as Dorothy Collins, Snooky Lanson and others (including now Jill) doing their versions of the top hit songs of the time. But by 1958 the entertainment business was changing and the rock songs were not suitable for doing on that tv show. Jill was still very young, barely into her twenties, but she was singing traditional popular music while her contemporaries were moving over to rock and roll.
In 1958 she was called to Hollywood to star in her first movie, Senior Prom, this time for Columbia Pictures, not the record division. Jill gave a wonderful performance but the movie, despite having a youthful title and seeming to be a rock and roll movie like so many of the others being made at the time, particularly by Sam Katzman, it was a more traditional movie, featuring a score more suited to a Broadway musical (it was written by a Broadway theatrical writer named Hal Hackady) and highlighting older stars such as Connee Boswell, Mitch Miller himself, big band leader Freddie Martin, Bing Crosby’s brother Bob and Louis Prima, the night club entertainer. The film also featured a staggeringly inept male lead named Paul Hampton who achieved more recognition as a songwriter. The film teetered between rock (it claimed you’d hear “today’s top hit tunes” but you didn’t!) and, mostly, Broadway show tunes and ended up quickly as third feature at the drive-in. Lost within it was Jill’s beautiful singing (her minor hit Big Daddy came from the finale of the film) and sensitive dramatic performance. The failure of the film harmed her chances to further what could have and should have been a wonderful dramatic career.
By 1961, romantically linked to Don Hoak, she married him and decided to devote herself to her marriage, traveling with her husband and devoting herself to his career and suddenly Jill was gone from the entertainment scene. Unfortunately and unexpectedly Don died of a heart attack in 1969 at just 45 years of age, not that long after the end of his baseball career and only eight years into their marriage. Eventually, Jill returned to her career, part two and although never again achieving the superstar status of her youth, she nonetheless had a prolonged and significant “second season” in musical productions and television guest appearances.
In 2013 Jill decided to give all of her memorabilia to the University of Arizona but she continues to live in California and if you are lucky enough to be able to check in with her by phone from time to time, you may be greeted with a few choruses of Love Me To Pieces. And the more you talk with her the more you can understand why Mitch Miller was so captivated with this charming individual! Both of the authors of this piece are charmed and privileged to know her!
The School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection has this sheet music of Jill Corey:
First Love 1956 – by Ray Stanley. Cover JILL COREY on Columbia Records.
I Love My Baby (My Baby Loves Me) 1956 – Bud Green, Harry Warren. Cover photo JILL COREY
Big Daddy 1958 – by Peter Udell, Lee Pockriss. Recorded by JILL COREY on Columbia Records.
Watch below as Jill Corey sings Big Daddy in the 1958 Columbia Pictures musical Senior Prom:
Here’s Jill singing in her starring role in the 1958 film Senior Prom: