When Annette Warren was born almost 96 years ago, hospital nuns surrounded her mother with lit candles during a power outage, leading one nun to proclaim that she would receive a gift from God.
“I guess the gift was music,” Warren, whose birthday is Wednesday, said to a crowd of nearly 100 people during a birthday concert in her Rancho Palos Verdes home on Sunday, July 8.
Indeed, it was.
Decades ago, Warren’s vocal skills were in high demand during Hollywood’s Golden Age, though she remained unseen to viewers.
As a ghost singer, she dubbed singing voices for such stars as stars Ava Gardner in the landmark 1951 musical “Show Boat,” and Lucille Ball in “Sorrowful Jones” and “Fancy Pants.” She also provided the female voices for Rooty Toot Toot, a 1951 short animated film.
She headlined shows at the St. Regis Hotel and popular cabaret clubs in New York. Her talent for sight-reading music led to more work, where she earned $4 per song – and she could record up to 20 songs per hour.
On Sunday, in what Warren called her “retirement” concert inside her 1,000-square-foot home studio where she keeps two grand pianos, she performed in front of friends, family and former and current music students.
“I’ve done that before and then I come out of retirement,” Warren said before the show. “I think after 96 years I’m going to hang it up.”
She performed not far from where she keeps thousands of pages of sheet music and pictures and album covers spanning her career – and that of her deceased jazz-pianist husband, Paul Smith.
Warren covered such hits as Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” and “Remember,” composed by Irving Berlin.
Between songs, Warren recalled periods of her life from her childhood in Cleveland, Ohio.
She shared frustration over her recent memory loss.
And she shared moments from her 55-year marriage to Smith, who played with the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby and Doris Day – but is perhaps best remembered for his long association with Ella Fitzgerald.
Bob Remstein, who received lessons under Smith during his senior year at Palos Verdes High School in the 1970s, performed an original song in tribute to Warren.
“Annette, like no one else that you’ve met,” part of the song goes. “If she were a pet, she’d be the sort who could teach a thing or two to the vet. At an age where most have retired, and hung their dancing shoes upon a shelf, she’s still motivated and inspired because the magic comes from deep inside herself. Annette, you’ll always know what you’ll get.”
Once married, Warren largely stepped away from the spotlight and began teaching music.
One of her students was Jeralyn Glass, who has performed on Broadway and opera stages around the world and has sung tributes for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant and former German and French presidents Horst Kohler and Valerie Giscard d’ Estaing, respectively.
Warren’s knowledge of breath-support technique was instrumental in Glass’s career, she said.
“I came to her when I was 11… she really taught me exactly how I sing today, how I teach today and I learned everything here,” Glass said after the concert. “I could sing her praises for hours.”
Niya Dolatshai, 10, has worked with Warren for the past two years and sang “On A Clear Day” to the crowd’s delight. The Torrance resident came to Warren’s attention during an impromptu meeting where she sang “You Are My Sunshine.”
“She looked happy and I gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek,” Dolatshai said of the meeting. “She’s helped me sing louder and more clear.”
For Warren, music is a artform, but it’s just as much about keeping memories alive.
“I don’t want anybody in my universe,” she said, “to die with their song unsung.”