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Ruth Olay (1924–2021), jazz singer of the 1950s and ‘60s

by Linnea Crowther

Ruth Olay was a jazz singer who worked with notable musicians including Duke Ellington (1899–1974) and Benny Carter (1907–2003).

Musical career

Though she learned piano as a child and became a piano prodigy, Olay turned to singing as a young woman, and it was with her voice that she made a name for herself in the jazz world. She began singing under the name Rachel Davis and became a popular fixture of Los Angeles jazz clubs, with fans who attended her shows including Judy Garland (1922–1969), Frank Sinatra (1915–1998), and Barbra Streisand. Olay was of Hungarian ancestry, though fans and promoters generally assumed she was Black because of her dark complexion and curly hair, and because she performed with Black ensembles at a time when integration was rare. She began recording in the mid-1950s and released more than a dozen albums, continuing to record into the early 1980s. Olay was featured on TV shows including “The Tonight Show” and “The Merv Griffin Show.”

Olay on her first public performance

“I was working at Twentieth Century-Fox as a secretary during those years. I was still a teenager. Just hanging out. [Farther north in Hollywood proper] they had these clubs along Hollywood Boulevard: The Streets of Paris, the Zanzibar and all these other places. On Sunday afternoon they had jam sessions and every wonderful… Erroll Garner, Red Callendar, Doc West, all these wonderful, great musicians would play at these jam sessions. It was only Sunday afternoon that I could go because I was under age. That was when I was sixteen, seventeen. Just out of school. And [Duke Ellington vocalist] Ivie Anderson was appearing at the Streets of Paris. I adored her. That contralto! I had met her at a party. ‘C’mon down, honey.’   And I did and she got me up there to sing. Well, I’m telling ya. Talk about nerves!” —from a 2000 interview with Bill Reed

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Tributes to Ruth Olay

Full obituary: Desert Sun

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