Fifty years ago Chicago’s smart set could hardly avoid saloon singer Audrey Morris. Only in her 20s, she was a fixture at many of the city’s premier venues: the Copa, the Sands, the Streamline, the Churchill, Mr. Kelly’s. Providing her own spare, sophisticated piano accompaniment, she sang wry, world-weary ballads into the wee hours, bucking the current taste for bawdy chanteuses and cultivating a repertoire of obscure, understated material.

It was the heyday of the supper club, and Morris lured many of music’s biggest names to her show: Billy Strayhorn, Lucy Reed, Chris Connor, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday. Duke Ellington stopped in to catch a set one night and told her, “You sure make my songs sound pretty.” By 1956 she had two albums under her belt, Bistro Ballads and The Voice of Audrey Morris, the latter arranged by the legendary Marty Paich. Given Morris’s movie-star looks and the popularity of cool jazz–which had already taken Chicago’s Jeri Southern to the top of the charts–Morris seemed poised to become the next big thing. There was only one problem: she wanted no part of it.

“The people I knew who hit it big, they had to wear a yoke,” says Morris. “Sing what people wanted them to sing. Play clubs you don’t want to play. On the road all the time. Marriages breaking up left and right.” She turned down Warner Brothers’ offer of an exclusive contract recording film themes. “Fame and fortune, what’s that? Doing what you want to do, that’s everything.”

Born on the south side, Morris began piano lessons at the age of nine. When she wasn’t behind the keyboard she was spinning Peggy Lee or Nat “King” Cole records in her bedroom, and by the time she finished grade school she was heading downtown for lessons at the American Conservatory of Music. But the family didn’t have much money, and when Morris’s younger brother was born and her piano lessons became an untenable expense, the 15-year-old landed a job as a rehearsal pianist at a local tap dance school.

Morris also played for the dance school’s annual concert, and the year after she graduated from Hirsch High School a booking agent was in the audience. He came up to her after the show and offered her a spot in his touring all-girl band, the Chordettes. Morris bid farewell to Wilson Junior College, stuffed herself into one of the band’s two cars, and hit the road.

It was 1947 and she was 18 and on her own for the first time. “I don’t think I would do that now, but back then it was very exciting,” she says. “The freedom was wonderful, being a so-called adult.” The seven-piece band toured theaters, nightclubs, and Moose lodges all over the east coast. “A lot of towns had blue laws,” says Morris, “but at Moose lodges you could do anything. So we played there.”

Six months into her tenure as a Chordette, Morris got a visit from the band’s arranger, Gene Gifford. He’d put together a version of Peggy Lee’s “What More Can a Woman Do?” “He knew I was a Peggy Lee fan,” she says, “so he said, ‘You’re going to sing this.’ I said, ‘I don’t sing.’ And he said, ‘You do now.’ He believed that all pianists should sing.” That night in Watertown, New York, Morris made her debut. “I was pretty terrible,” she says.

After about a year with the Chordettes, Morris returned to Chicago, married tenor sax player Stu Genovese, and started singing around town. One of her first regular gigs was at the Dome in the Sherman House hotel. Like most of her colleagues Morris was singing the hits, but the Dome’s largely gay clientele quickly intervened.

“These guys knew all the stuff from the shows in New York. They would bring me all kinds of songs, opened up a whole new world for me. They got me started on the search for the overlooked gems. I owe a huge debt to the gay community for the kind of material that I do.”

For nearly two decades Morris gigged all over town, but as rock and roll began to dominate the airwaves in the mid-1960s, the clubs began to disappear. After the birth of her son in 1968, she scaled back her work schedule to the occasional off night, and has accepted only a handful of full-time bookings since.

But in her semiretirement her recording career has blossomed. Between 1985 and 1998 she released four CDs–Afterthoughts, Film Noir, Look at Me Now, and Round About–revealing her masterful command of a lyric and her seemingly endless collection of rarely recorded wonders. “People write songs every day, and they’re languishing out there. I want to be a part of bringing them to someone else.”

This month Morris kicked off an open-ended series of appearances Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at the Big House, 2354 N. Clybourn. Shows start at 6:30 and there’s no cover; call 773-435-0130 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.