‘Sometimes I'm Happy’ – The Life of Singer Jill Corey
Born in a tiny Westmoreland County town, Jill Corey became a star for Columbia Records in the 1950s. But after a series of hits, a love affair with Frank Sinatra and marriage to famed Pirate third baseman Don Hoak, her life took an unexpected twist.
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archival photos courtesy Albert J. Kopec (left). current photos by Becky Thurner Braddock
Whether by fate or chance, some singers come to be identified with a song that can serve as a near-perfect title for a book, movie or play about their lives.
Frank Sinatra had “My Way.” Billie Holiday had “Lady Sings the Blues.” John Lennon had “Imagine.” Jill Corey has “Sometimes I’m Happy.”
On Nov. 9, 1953, when she was just 17, Norma Jean Speranza of Avonmore, Westmoreland County, was featured in a Life Magazine cover story called “Small Town Girl Gets New Name And a New Career.” For the next seven years, Jill Corey recorded hundreds of songs for Columbia Records, such as “Love Me to Pieces,” “I Love My Baby,” “Let It Be Me” (which later became a hit for the Everly Brothers) and, of course, “Sometimes I’m Happy,” the featured single on her career-defining album, “Sometimes I’m Happy, Sometimes I’m Blue.”
In addition to near-constant recording, she was a regular on NBC’s popular weekly musical revue, “The Garroway Show”; appeared on dozens of other TV programs, including “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “Your Hit Parade”; played the Copacabana, the Blue Angel and most of the other big nightclubs; and had a whirlwind social life that included several famous paramours.
But just 16 years after that extraordinary article in Life, Jill was a widow with a young daughter facing a steep uphill climb to get back into a career she been absent from for almost a decade.
Born to a coal miner and his wife in 1935, Jill was the youngest of five Speranza children. She stood out from the pack because of her natural vocal assets, which became evident early on. She couldn’t help singing, and people couldn’t help noticing. At 13, Norma Jean won first place in a local talent contest; the prize was a year-long singing engagement on a local radio station. That was followed from ages 14 to 17 as vocalist for the Johnny Murphy Orchestra, where she made $5 a night.
At 17, she made a demo tape and sent it to Mitch Miller, one of Columbia Records’ most active and innovative producers (and later a star in his own right). Why did Miller, one of the busiest producers in New York City, decide to pick Norma Jean’s tape out of a massive pile of submissions and listen to it?
“I had a lot of miracles in my life,” Jill modestly and earnestly asserts from her apartment in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Norma Jean crooned seamlessly from soprano sweetness to a sultry contralto — arguably a cross between Debbie Reynolds and Judy Garland — but she put her own affable pureness and dramatic sophistication into every lyric. Almost before she had time to wonder what, if anything, would happen to that demo tape, Miller asked her to fly to New York, where in the span of a single day he signed her to a recording contract, contacted Life, called Dave Garroway, and primed himself to see an Avonmore girl turn into a star.
At 5 foot 3, with sparkling brown eyes, brown hair that seemed stylish no matter what the style and a personality of infectious good cheer, Norma Jean seemed ready to take off into the entertainment stratosphere.
But, like many singers at the time, she had to change her name.
“On the Garroway show, there was a Corey coffeemaker in the dressing room, and the head of the publicity department was dating a girl named Jill,” she recalls with an affectionate chuckle. That’s how Norma Jean Speranza became Jill Corey, the singer whose life after Life sounds too sensational to be true. How sensational? Well, for one example, there was her love affair with Frank Sinatra.
In the summer of 1954, Jill Corey met Frank Sinatra at the Copacabana in New York City.
The two met in 1954, while Sinatra was married to Ava Gardner. A tryst with the superstar could have derailed the former born-again Christian, but she stood by her principles.
“Frank wanted to know if I’d go to Las Vegas with him,” Jill recalls. “I said I’d have to check with my father. I was 18. I called my dad, and he said that Frank and I would have to have chaperones. So Milton Berle and his wife and Peter Lawford and Ethel Kennedy were our chaperones.”
Her relationship with Sinatra lasted a year. She keeps the details to herself. “He did ask me to marry him,” she allows, going no further. She does recall how, when she met Sinatra again years later, he said to her, “Jill, can you tell me why we never got married?” “I don’t know,” Jill remembers saying to him. “I don’t know.”
But in Jill’s view, whatever happened was supposed to happen. After all, had she married Sinatra, she may never have met the true love of her life. Don Hoak, third baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, came into her life five years after she stopped dating Sinatra. Hoak was smitten and pursued her like a man obsessed.
Jill Corey and Don Hoak were married in Pittsburgh on Dec. 27, 1961.
“Don was very possessive of me, and we loved each other very much,” Jill says. That, in essence, is her no-apology rationale for giving up her career to be a spouse. Don seemed to prefer it, and Jill didn’t seem to mind. When Clare Hoak was born in 1965, the decision appeared even more sound. Why shouldn’t her daughter have the kind of solid family upbringing she had had in Avonmore in the 1940s?
Hoak played in the majors for 11 years, including with the Pirates during their 1960 World Series win. After his playing days ended, he managed in the minor leagues, did some on-air announcing and worked for a time in public relations.