It’s Another Song of Arkansas: Rose Marie McCoy
May 13-19, 2019
By Stephen Koch
Arkansas-born songwriter Rose Marie McCoy would have turned 97 last month. She was born Marie Hinton on April 19, 1922, in Oneida in Phillips County, where her parents farmed. She attended Eliza Miller High School in nearby Helena, where she lived with her grandparents. By the way, the Eliza Miller High School was begun by the businesswoman and educator Eliza Miller, who was an Arkadelphia native. Opening in 1926, it was the first high school for black students in Phillips County, and it later hosted musical acts such as B.B. King. Being in Helena, home to so many performers, McCoy learned to love the blues herself.
By the time she was out of her teens, Hinton had moved to New York City to make it as a singer – and legally added “Rose” to her name. She married her childhood sweetheart James McCoy on a trip back home to Arkansas in 1943 before James was transferred overseas for World War II (They had no children, and he died in 2000). Based out of New York, she opened up for the likes of ground-breaking black comedians Pigmeat Markham and Moms Mabley, as well as singers Dinah Washington and Ruth Brown.
In 1946, gospel vocal quartet, the Dixieaires was the first to record a McCoy song, but it was the early 1950s before McCoy saw her first real chart success: “Gabbin’ Blues” by Big Maybelle, which reached number three on the R&B chart in 1953. Songwriting and not singing would prove to be Rose Marie McCoy’s greatest gift to American popular music.
From there, McCoy wrote songs recorded by Big Joe Turner, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughn, the Drifters, and such fellow Arkansas artists as Al Hibbler, Louis Jordan and Little Willie John – all giants in R&B and jazz music. McCoy wrote several songs with Willie John’s producer, Hot Springs native Henry Glover. This includes Little Willie John’s “Uh Uh Baby,” and “If I Thought You Needed Me.”
Elvis Presley’s version of the McCoy song “Tryin’ to Get To You” was released on Presley’s 1956 debut album. It was subsequently recorded by Roy Orbison, Ricky Nelson, and later by Eric Burdon, Johnny Rivers and Faith Hill, among others.
“Thank God for Elvis,” McCoy would later say although she wasn’t a big fan of his version of her song. In 1958, Presley recorded McCoy’s song “I Beg of You,” which hit the top ten as the B-side of Presley’s single, “Don’t.”
Brinkley native and R&B pioneer Louis Jordan recorded McCoy’s aching blues “If I Had Any Sense, I’d Go Back Home” in the mid-1950s when his career was faltering after a decade of wild success, singing: “I realized fortune and fame is not for me, and all those pretty stories ain’t what they’re cooked up to be …” And while the song may have seemed autobiographical to Jordan, McCoy was having the same self-doubt when she wrote it.
But the Arkansawyer needn’t have worried about her musical legacy, even as it has only recently gained more widespread attention. McCoy was just getting started then. She continued to have hit songs through the years, primarily in R&B and jazz, but also in rock, pop, gospel, and even country music. Literally hundreds of artists have recorded Rose Marie McCoy songs.
“I don’t know of any other songwriter with the kind of track record Rose Marie McCoy has,” Brinkley native and legendary record producer Al Bell said of her work. “Her songs have been recorded by so many legendary artists in such a diversity of styles.”
Over the years, McCoy won seven BMI songwriting awards. Ike and Tina Turner’s 1961 version of McCoy’s song “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” was nominated for a Grammy. McCoy was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2008 and, in June 2018, she was inducted into the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame. Arlene Corsano of New Jersey wrote a biography of McCoy called “Thought We Were Writing the Blues, But They Called It Rock ‘N’ Roll,” which was published in 2014.
“It’s mind-boggling what she has done,” Bell said. A giant in songwriting across the genres, Arkansawyer Rose Marie McCoy died in Jan. 20, 2015, at the age of 92.
“Gabbin’ Blues”- Big Maybelle
“Uh-Uh Baby”- Little Willie John
“If I Had Any Sense, I’d Go Back Home”- Louis Jordan
“It’s Gonna Work Out Fine”- Ike & Tina Turner
“I Beg Of You”- Elvis Presley
(Stephen Koch’s award-winning “Arkansongs” program is syndicated on public radio stations across Arkansas, Louisiana and east Texas. Visit the “Arkansongs” Facebook page for weekly show details.)