Have you ever been to Orlando, Florida and visiting Walt Disney World? I have been there twice, once when it was just, almost-completed around 1972 and another time about 15 years later. One of my favorite rides is the Haunted Mansion. At the entrance, a host ghost (voiced by Paul Frees, a veteran announcer who also did TV commercials in the 1960s – he was the voice of the Little Green Sprout in the Jolly Green Giant commercials, for example), boomed out “Welcome, foolish mortals, to the Haunted Mansion.” This was followed by a ride through many rooms filled with ghastly ghostly humor and special effects. In one room, a male and female pair of opera singers join in singing the theme song of the mansion, “Grim Grinning Ghosts,” with the female voice wailing at high soprano and ad-libbing on the third verse.
I recently learned at a gathering of Birmingham trivia experts that this particular soprano enjoyed a long career in Hollywood as a coloratura – one who specializes in music that is distinguished by agile runs and leaps in the highest register. Her name was Loulie Jean Norman. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama and graduated from Phillips High School in 1931 as a classmate and eventual lifelong friend of Hugh Martin, the composer most famous for writing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” In fact, Martin once became part of a quartet formed by Miss Norman and performed with her in the musical “Of Thee I Sing” at the Birmingham Little Theatre.
But unless you have been to the Haunted Mansion or are in your nineties and remember attending that performance long ago, you probably think you have never heard her remarkable voice. You are probably wrong. Loulie Jean Norman’s voice may be one of the most recognized in movie and television history. She began her career performing with Mel Torme in the 1940’s, singing back up on his hit recording of “California Suite.” She then found regular work dubbing singing voices for a whole list of movie stars, including Dihann Carroll (Poggy and Bess), Juliet Prowse (G.I. Blues) and Stella Stevens (Too Late Blues).
She sang the role of Princess for the recording of the Jerry Lewis film, Cinderfella, in 1960, sang backup vocal on the Elvis Presley song “Moonlight Swim” in the movie Blue Hawaii and on the soundtrack for the movie Easter Parade, featuring Judy Garland. She also dubbed in for Jane Powell in the 1954 movie Athena (music by her friend Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane). She was one of the original Ray Coniff Singers, a popular chorus in the 1960s and made regular appearances on the Dean Martin, Carol Burnett and Dinah Shore shows. She sang with all of the great vocalists and composers of the 1940s – 1970s, including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Ray Charles, Spike Jones, Frankie Laine and Henry Mancini.
Ironically, she is probably most recognized for two songs in which she does not sing a word. In 1961, a young unknown group called the Tokens decided to cover Soloman Linda’s song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” for RCA records. They needed an experienced soprano to sing the impossibly high top melody, with the extended phrase “oh.” Loulie Jean Norman was chosen for the part. The song reached number #1 on the Hot Billboard 100 and stayed there for three weeks. Take a listen here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_LBmUwi6mEo.
However, learning of the second song from my trivia friends blew me away. In 1964, westerns dominated the television screen – Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Rawhide, etc. A middle-aged script writer named Gene Roddenberry came up with a concept of doing a western style show in outer space. He called it Star Trek, eventually selling the idea to NBC. He hired Alexander Courage to write a theme song for the show. Roddenberry had the option of writing lyrics for the song, which he did.
“Beyond the rim of the star-light, my love is wand’ring in star-flight, I know he’ll find in star-clustered reaches love, Strange love a star woman teaches. I know his journey ends never, His star trek will go on forever. But tell him while he wanders his starry sea, remember me, remember me.”
Courage was so repulsed by the lyrics that he hired Loulie Jean Norman to sing an extended phrase to his melody, listen here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nHhePr0TKfc. Thus, the famous “Oo-OOOH-oo- oo-oo-oo-oo-ooohh…” that every Star Trek fan knows and loves. Loulie Jean Norman died in her Studio City home in California in 2005, one of the least famous, most recognized voices in 20th century America.