Rose Marie McCoy was one of the most prolific and versatile songwriters in the history of American music. A true pioneer, she broke into the white male-dominated music business in the early 1950s, not only writing songs, but also producing records and forming her own publishing firm.
“She knew how to hang in there with the big boys,” remembers singer Maxine Brown. “Everyone was scrapping to get there, but it was always men. Women didn’t have a place, so she made a place for herself.”
Rose Marie McCoy was born April 19, 1922 in Oneida, Arkansas and lived in a tin-top shack on a 40-acre farm her parents were renting. Though she lived in the Mississippi Delta, often referred to as the birthplace of the blues, the blues was not heard in Oneida, for many there considered it “the devil’s music.” But plenty of blues was heard 18 miles away in Helena, Arkansas, and since Helena was where the closest high school for blacks was located, McCoy was sent there to live with her grandparents.
Many famous bluesmen came through Helena, and she loved standing outside the clubs listening to them perform. Famous black jazz bands also traveled through Helena. Often they would put on performances for the students of Eliza Miller High School. It was at one of these performances that McCoy realized she wanted to become a professional singer.
There was no place in Arkansas for a woman to make it as a singer, so she moved to New York in 1942. There she found a room in Harlem for $3 a week, a job in a laundry, and clubs to sing in. Soon booking agents found her jobs outside of the city, opening up for top Chitlin’ Circuit performers Moms Mabley and Pigmeat Markham.
In 1946, McCoy’s “After All” was recorded. Receiving such a small amount of royalties, she decided to stop showing her songs around and concentrate on a singing career. Then in 1952, 10 years after coming to New York, she auditioned for Wheeler Records, a small, short lived company formed to capitalize on the growing popularity of black music. The label asked her to write two blues songs to record. As soon as her record was released, music publishers began seeking her out, not as a singer as she had hoped, but as a songwriter. “Gabbin’ Blues," one of the first songs she was asked to write reached #3 on Billboard’s Rhythm & Blues chart in 1953.
“I wrote it like an argument,” explained McCoy. “Big Maybelle did the singing and I did the talking. I said, ‘Here come old evil chick tellin’ everybody she come from Chicago. Got Mississippi written’ all over.’ And Big Maybelle sang, ‘You better stop tryin’ to run my business.’ Then I said, ‘Look who’s got business.’ Back and forth like that.”
Though “Gabbin’ Blues” was a hit, it never broke into the pop charts. Like most records by black artists it was classified as rhythm & blues, a marketing term used to indicate the record was made by black artists and would be marketed to a black audience. R&B records were not played on major radio stations or sold in most record stores.
McCoy wrote a second hit for Big Maybelle and followed it up with hits for Ruth Brown, Nappy Brown, Faye Adams, Big Joe Turner, Little Willie John, The Du Droppers, and other R&B artists. Their careers got a boost when disc jockey Alan Freed began promoting their records on a major New York radio station, renaming their style of music rock ’n’ roll.
The success of Elvis Presley also helped popularize R&B. Nearly half the songs on his first album were written by black songwriters, including “Trying to Get to You” written by Rose Marie McCoy and Charles Singleton. (Presley later recorded McCoy’s “I Beg of You,” which reached #8 on the pop charts.)
During her six decades long songwriting career, except for two short periods in the 1960s that lasted less than a year each, McCoy operated as an independent songwriter. Even without the backing of a music publisher or record company to promote her work, she became one of the most successful of songwriters of the 1950s and 60s’. But the recording business was changing. New recording technology often made the production more important than the song, and many artists began writing their own songs. Still, the hits kept coming, including Ike & Tina Turner’s Grammy nominated recording of “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” Maxine Brown’s “We’ll Cry Together,” and Jerry Butler’s “Got to See if I Can’t Get Mommy to Come Back Home.”
Though she is most often associated with blues/rhythm & blues, many jazz artists have recorded multiple Rose Marie McCoy songs. Nat “King” Cole recorded three, Sarah Vaughan six, and Jimmy Scott eleven. Top artists in the field of country and gospel have also recorded her music too. RoseMarieMcCoyMusic.com lists over 360 artists who have recorded her songs, and the list keeps growing as new artists discover songs that were recorded, sometimes decades ago.
"I don’t know of any other songwriter with the kind of track record Rose Marie McCoy has,” said Al Bell, former owner of Stax Records and past president of Motown Records Group. “Her songs have been recorded by so many legendary artists in such a diversity of styles. It’s mind boggling what she has done.”
Her dream was to make it big as a singer. Instead, she became a highly sought-after songwriter. Rose Marie McCoy passed away on January 20, 2015, at the age of 92, but her music and lyrics live on. The story of this incredible woman is found in her recently released biography, Thought We Were Writing the Blues: But They Called It Rock ’n’ Roll.
For over 12 years, Arlene Corsano has worked on projects designed to bring recognition to the legendary, but mostly forgotten, Rose Marie McCoy. Corsano began with writing newspaper articles about McCoy, went on to writing the book for a musical, and finally completed Thought We Were Writing the Blues: But They Called It Rock 'n' Roll, the songwriter’s biography. Arlene is happy that her efforts succeeded in getting Rose Marie McCoy inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, and has also gotten the Smithsonian Institute and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture interested in collecting audio for a Rose Marie McCoy exhibit. Arlene says it was a pleasure working with the warm and witty songwriter and hopes her efforts to get her into the Songwriters Hall of Fame will one day bear fruit.