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SUSANNAH McCORKLE HAS HER OWN WAY WITH WORDS

August 24, 1986|LEONARD FEATHER

Susannah McCorkle has two problems.

When she was earning recognition as a writer--one of her short stories won a college fiction contest held by Mademoiselle magazine; another appeared in an O. Henry collection of prize short stories--her literary agent, hearing about her latest singing engagement, cried out: "Singing? Why are you going off on a tangent?"

On the other hand, when she was busy performing at clubs and concerts but would devote her spare time to a new work of fiction or nonfiction, her musical adviser would comment: "Writing? That's just a schoolgirl hobby--why don't you concentrate on your music?"

Everyone should have such problems.

A tall blonde with a delicate, indefinable speaking voice--her mid-Atlantic accent was acquired during a decade spent in Europe--McCorkle is an intimidatingly bright lady who believes in being a well-rounded individual: "Why shouldn't people develop their minds in various ways?"

Back in the United States for the last eight years, she has six albums to her credit, an encyclopedic knowledge of the world of popular songs (she knows the lyrics and music to 2,000 songs) and a far better than nodding acquaintance with five languages. Tonight, and Tuesday through Thursday, she will sing (mainly in English, one assumes) at the Vine St. Bar & Grill. This is her first Los Angeles appearance.

Born in Berkeley on New Year's Day in a year she won't reveal ("Women can't do that!"), she graduated from UC Berkeley in 1968. "My mother also graduated from Berkeley. My father, who's retired now, was an anthropologist, and we moved around to a lot of college towns. My parents used to speak Spanish to keep secrets from my sisters and me, so I became intrigued by languages from a very early age. We were in Iowa when I was a junior in high school; they had a great language program there and I loved the grammar, the conjugating of verbs--everything about every language."

McCorkle was not your everyday college student. She graduated from UCB with a degree in Italian, for somewhat circuitous reasons. "It was expediency, in a way. Before college I had wanted to become a writer, and had some things published, but somehow I felt threatened by the English literature department there, which destroyed any visceral enjoyment of all books for me for several years. In fact, I lost confidence in myself as a writer, and kept dropping out and going to foreign countries--Mexico, and then Europe.

"I loved Europe so much that I found excuses to stay there. I picked up Italian very fast, because I'd learned other Romance languages and studied at the University of Padua. But it was important to my parents for me to graduate, so I went back home and chose the subject I could get through fastest. The Italian department used to call me la signorina scontenta, the discontented lady, because I was always complaining about their pedantic teaching."

Nevertheless, studying at Berkeley during the turmoil of the late 1960s was an exciting experience: "This was before drugs and terrorism--just reading and talking, and we really thought we could change the world. We're not on the barricades anymore, but I feel a lot of us have retained our idealistic values."

Because of the attendant frustrations, McCorkle, disenchanted with America, left for Paris and spent a year there. "That's where I discovered Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, on cheap records from a French drug store. I had always been fascinated by my mother's musical comedy records, and I'm still intrigued by the idea of how much information and drama you can put across in a 3-minute song. But I had no desire to become a singer until I heard Billie Holiday. The first time I heard her on a record, it was a revelation. She sounded like a woman singing about herself, instead of someone playing a role in a show. No sentimentality, no theatricality--just feeling. I felt I'd like to take that approach, that directness, and apply it to all kinds of songs."

At first, though, her concept was limited to old Billie Holiday material. Moving from Paris to Rome, she went around to nightclubs looking for a job, but was refused. "I really was laughed out of it; people would say, 'Oh, you're such a well-brought-up young lady. You should have a real job with a car and an office.' So I gave up for a while and went back to writing my short stories." Because of her fluency in Italian, French, German and Spanish, she was also able to work as an interpreter and translator. But an Italian musician friend played Duke Ellington records for her and tried to expand her musical tastes. She sang a few times with small jazz groups, but soon, determined to give music her full attention, she moved to London.

"At that point I only wanted to sing Billie Holiday songs, but several musicians encouraged me to develop my own repertoire and style, saying 'You don't have to be a museum piece. Try to grow. Be creative.' So I stopped doing almost anything Billie Holiday had ever recorded."

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