She is a harpist, pianist, flautist and theatre producer born Merrilyn Hecht in Freeport, Illinois, to a family who owned Hecht’s clothing store. Her nickname of Corky came about when she attended summer camp as a child.
She began playing the piano when she was three years old and was noticed when she was just seven and playing around on the piano while on holiday in Florida. This led to her attending the Chicago Conservatory from the time she was seven. While at the Conservatory the harp caught her attention but not just sticking to classical music, she diverted some of her attention to jazz and music from shows.
She was enrolled in Stephens College when she was sixteen and was unbelievably failed in harp, possibly because her teacher wasn’t enamoured with her playing jazz with boys from the nearby university. Her father then signed her up at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which was against her wishes as she had set her heart on becoming a musician in Hollywood.
She made it to Hollywood though after having lasted at the university a year and meeting her dad halfway and agreeing to be enrolled in UCLA. Of course this didn’t last and within a short while she was a harpist on the Freddie Martin Show.
Before long she got noticed and was signed up to appear on the new show Liberace. This working association carried on for the next three years when she toured with Liberace and appeared in his movie Sincerely Yours. During all these years since moving to California her parents still thought she was still attending UCLA until the night they saw her performing on TV. They found out when her mother flew to Los Angeles that she had actually put herself together a nice wee career.
Staying within television she became a performer on The Red Skelton Show among many others and then was asked to play on the movie soundtrack of The Ten Commandments by Cecil B. DeMille. She then worked at the Coconut Grove club as a pianist and singer, and starting to use Corky Hale as her stage name. She worked with countless artists there, which later resulted in her being dated by Frank Sinatra.
She went to Las Vegas to perform for Jerry Grey, which resulted in her accompanying Billie Holiday, but she turned down a chance to perform in the Philippines with her. Around the same time her parents opened up the clothing store called Corky Hale for her and moved down to Los Angeles to keep an eye on her. She stopped working as a musician to work in the store and then got married to a man she had met in the clothing industry. She wasn’t settled though and the marriage lasted just four years with much of her time spent living in Italy, which was one of the good side of things for her. She remained in Rome for a few years after getting divorced and appeared in a few movies and on the TV show Tempo de Jazz.
Returning to the States in 1966 she moved around a bit until settling in New York where she played for Tony Martin and Tony Bennett. Towards the end of the 1960s she met her husband Mike Stoller, of Leiber & Stoller songwriting fame, while recording some demos for him. They have been married since 1970 and often split their time between New York and Los Angeles during the earlier years. Unbelievably she somehow even found time to open the New York restaurant Corky’s.
She has worked with literally a who’s-who of artists over the years either on television, in the recording studio or on stage and just a few of these not mentioned above have included Elkie Brooks, James Brown, Nat “King” Cole, Judy Collins, Roberta Flack, Dean Friedman, Boy George, Harry James, Elton John, Yusef Lateef, Peggy Lee, Melissa Manchester, Herbie Mann, the New York Pops Orchestra, Anita O’Day, Stealers Wheel, Barbra Streisand, Mel Torme and too many more to mention.
As you can imagine, her album output is extensive and includes her own Corky, Harp Beat, Have Yourself a Jazzy Little Christmas, I’m Glad There Is You and Plays George Gershwin & Vernon Duke and also Debut by Bjork, Boy Meets Girl by Sammy Davis Jr. & Carmen McRae, Sings the Cole Porter Songbook by Ella Fitzgerald, Chapter Two by Roberta Flack, Ultimate Collection by Billy Holiday, Songs of the Century by George Michael, Against the Grain by Phoebe Snow and the soundtracks of Godspell, Kissing Jessica Stein and SpongeBob Square Pants.
She now owns the Hollywood jazz club Corky’s in Los Angeles and outside of her musical career she is also an American Film Institute associate and a theatre producer who has worked on Lullaby of Broadway and Give ‘Em Hell Harry among others. She has also founded the charitable Angel Harvest, which aids people going hungry in the Los Angeles vicinity, and has been a birth control teacher in New York’s Planned Parenthood organisation.