Actress, singer, and dancer Ann-Margret excelled in two areas of entertainment during a career that was still going strong in its fifth decade: as a movie star, she appeared in more than 50 feature films and as a stage entertainer she performed as a headlining act in showrooms and theaters around the world. To a lesser extent, she found time periodically for television and recordings. Early in her career, emphasis was placed on her attractiveness and sexual appeal; she was marketed as a kind of red-haired American version of Brigitte Bardot. But her talent allowed her to outlive that image, and eventually, while working regularly, she earned Academy, Emmy, and Grammy Award nominations, as well as several Golden Globes in recognition of her film and TV roles.
Swedish-born Ann-Margret Olsson was the only child of Gustav Olsson and Anna (Aronsson) Olsson. Her father, an electrician, had lived in the U.S. for many years, and when she was a year old he moved back to America where he found work in the suburbs of Chicago and saved up to bring his wife and child over. Meanwhile, Ann-Margret began displaying an interest in singing and dancing from the age of three. She and her mother finally arrived in the U.S. in 1946, settling in Fox Lake, Illinois. There, Ann-Margret took singing, dancing, and piano lessons as a child; she became a naturalized American citizen in 1949. In the summer of 1957, while competing in a TV talent contest in Chicago, she was seen by Ted Mack, host of the national series The Original Amateur Hour, who put her on the show. Later that summer, she spent a month singing with the Danny Ferguson band at the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City. Her first recording came in January 1959. It was an amateur effort, an album made of a show put on by the Tri-Ship Club at New Trier High School and released on a limited basis, Lagniappe '59 Presents "Be My Guest"; she was heard singing Irving Berlin's "Heat Wave."
Ann-Margret graduated from high school in the spring of 1959 and entered Northwestern University that fall, majoring in speech with a minor in drama. She and two classmates joined with a Northwestern graduate to form a group called the Suttletones that appeared in clubs around Chicago on the weekends. The second recording with which she was associated was another amateur school effort, Among Friends -- Waa-Mu Show of 1960, a collector's item even though she only appeared as a dancer in the production and was not featured. After finishing her freshman year in June 1960, she and the Suttletones went to Las Vegas for a club engagement that fell through, then continued to Los Angeles, where they found bookings. At the end of the summer, she dropped out of college to pursue her career, while her fellow students returned to school. She earned her first recording contract with Warner Bros. Records, which released two singles and an album, It's the Most Happy Sound, billed to Ann-Margret & the Ja-Da Quartet. But the records didn't sell. She was appearing in a lounge at the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas when she auditioned for comedian George Burns, who added her to his Christmas show at the Sahara. The attention she received led to a record contract with RCA Victor and a film contract with 20th Century-Fox, which promptly loaned her out to Paramount for her first movie, Pocketful of Miracles, director Frank Capra's remake of his 1934 movie Lady for a Day, starring Bette Davis.
Ann-Margret's first RCA single, "Lost Love," did not chart. She followed with "I Just Don't Understand," a bluesy, rocking number co-produced by Chet Atkins and featuring Elvis Presley's backup singers, the Jordanaires, that entered the Billboard Hot 100 in July 1961 and rose into the Top 20. Her first RCA album, And Here She Is...Ann-Margret, was released in October. A third single, "It Do Me So Good," barely reached the charts in November. The same month, Pocketful of Miracles opened, earning her good notices, and she won the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year -- Female. RCA had her record a variety of pop, country, and rock for her next LP, On the Way Up. The set, released in March 1962, included her versions of such differing material as the pop song "Moon River" and Presley's blues-rock standard "Heartbreak Hotel," as well as the lush ballad "What Am I Supposed to Do," which spent five weeks near the bottom of the Hot 100 and made the easy listening charts. Also in March 1962 came her second film, a remake of the musical version of State Fair, also featuring Pat Boone and Bobby Darin. Here, she got to put on film for the first time her singing and dancing abilities as well as sexy appeal, performing a revved-up version of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Isn't It Kinda Fun?" and a duet with Boone on the newly written Rodgers ballad "Willing and Eager." The soundtrack album reached the Top 20.
On April 9, 1962, Ann-Margret appeared on the Academy Awards telecast to sing one of the year's nominated songs, the title theme from Bachelor in Paradise. Her torrid song-and-dance routine stopped the show and increased her stardom exponentially. RCA tried to take advantage of that notoriety by sending her back to the studio and titling the resulting album The Vivacious One, but the record was not successful. She had more luck on the silver screen, where she was cast in the film adaptation of the stage musical Bye Bye Birdie, a send-up of Elvis Presley, in which she played a Midwestern teenager who wins the chance to bestow "one last kiss" on a Presley-like teen idol before he goes into the Army. Her part was built up considerably from what it had been on Broadway, as she opened and closed the film singing a newly written title song, had another solo on "How Lovely to Be a Woman," and joined other cast members on half a dozen other songs. "Ann-Margret...is a wow," wrote Variety, and when Bye Bye Birdie opened in April 1963, it was a hit, its soundtrack album peaking at number two and remaining in the charts over a year. She earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress -- Musical or Comedy.
Despite her success in movie musicals, Ann-Margret was not able to translate that popularity into her solo records. In the fall of 1963, RCA released Bachelors' Paradise, belatedly trying to take advantage of her Academy Awards moment a year and a half earlier, but the album failed to chart. Meanwhile, she was achieving a kind of immortality by voicing the character of Ann-Margrock on the popular prime-time animated TV series The Flintstones. In January 1964, RCA managed to get her back into the Top 100 on the LP charts by pairing her with trumpeter Al Hirt on the LP Beauty and the Beard. Having worked with an Elvis Presley imitator in Bye Bye Birdie, she next teamed up with the real thing, co-starring in the Presley film Viva Las Vegas, which opened in May 1964. She also sang several songs, soloing on Leiber & Stoller's "Appreciation" and "My Rival" and performing a duet with Presley on "C'mon Everybody," "The Lady Loves Me," and the title song, written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. Another duet with Presley, "You're the Boss," was cut from the finished film. She had recorded studio versions of it, "The Lady Loves Me," and "Today, Tomorrow and Forever" (a Presley solo in the film) as duets with Presley, but those recordings were not issued at the time, and there was no soundtrack album, only an EP of Presley solo tracks. Thus, record buyers were denied the chance to buy copies of some of her most memorable musical performances.
RCA (which, of course, also had Elvis Presley under contract) seemed interested in promoting a very different Ann-Margret. The label paired her with middle-of-the-road singer John Gary on the duet album David Merrick Presents Hits from His Broadway Shows, released in October 1964 and in the charts for four weeks. And after three straight movie musicals, her film career took a false step with the poorly reviewed melodrama Kitten with a Whip, which also appeared in October 1964. Two months later, she was back in the theaters and the record stores with The Pleasure Seekers, a musical remake of Three Coins in the Fountain with a soundtrack album on which she also appeared.
As the release of three films within the calendar year of 1964 indicated, Ann-Margret was concentrating more on her film career than anything else, although she was willing to sing in her movies and fulfill the terms of her record contract. RCA didn't bother to have her make an album in 1965, restricting itself to one single, while she released three more non-musical movies, Bus Riley's Back in Town in March, Once a Thief in August, and The Cincinnati Kid in October. The next year brought four film releases. She starred in the comedy Made in Paris in February 1966 and had a featured role in the all-star remake of Stagecoach, released in May. She got to sing in The Swinger in November, leading to the release of her final RCA LP, Songs from "The Swinger" (And Other Swingin' Songs), and played opposite Dean Martin in his second Matt Helm spy spoof, Murderers' Row, in December.
By the end of 1966, Ann-Margret's career was in decline. Like some other performers, she was caught in the cultural changes of the 1960s. Still only 25 years old, she was the same age as Bob Dylan, but she had trained herself for a style of show business that seemed to be passing away. Movie studios were not much interested in making the kind of musicals at which she excelled, and she had made too many non-musicals in too short a time, too many of them failures. Meanwhile, rock had taken over popular music, dooming her recording career. And her sexy, show-business image did not appeal to a new, hip, long-haired generation. RCA released one more single in 1967 before allowing her contract to lapse. Her Hollywood film offers dried up. So, she took steps to retool her career. On May 8, 1967, she married television actor Roger Smith (77 Sunset Strip), who retired from performing to become her manager. In June 1967, she debuted as a Las Vegas headliner at the Riviera Hotel. And in December 1968, she starred in her first television special, The Ann-Margret Show. Meanwhile, film offers had continued to come in from overseas, and her next several movies were made in Europe, South America, and the Middle East. (In one, Rebus, she sang a couple of songs; a soundtrack album belatedly came out in Italy in 2001.)
Ann-Margret returned to recording in 1969 when she made The Cowboy & the Lady, a duo album with Lee Hazlewood, for LHI Records. (The album, which developed a cult following, was reissued in 2017.) A second television special, From Hollywood with Love, aired in December. Her first American movie role in years came with R.P.M., released in September 1970, and the following month she appeared in C.C. and Company, written and produced by her husband. (A soundtrack album was released featuring her recording of "Today," written by score composer Lenny Stack, which was also released as a single.) But the role that brought her back to prominence and brought her legitimacy as a serious actress was her featured part in director Mike Nichols' Carnal Knowledge, starring Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel, which opened in June 1971. It earned Ann-Margret her first Academy Award nomination for supporting actress and won her another Golden Globe. On November 15, 1971, she appeared in a television production of the musical Dames at Sea, resulting in a soundtrack album.
Meanwhile, Ann-Margret was continuing to perform her stage show in the Nevada showrooms. On September 10, 1972, she was severely injured when she fell from a faulty platform during her act at the Sahara Hotel in Lake Tahoe. Surgery and rehabilitation followed, but she was back to performing ten weeks later. That setback aside, she had successfully rebuilt her career by the mid-'70s, alternating film roles (in 1973, the Western The Train Robbers with John Wayne and the French crime thriller The Outside Man) with television specials and stage work. In March 1975, she returned to movie musicals in a big, and surprising, way in director Ken Russell's outrageous film treatment of the Who's concept album Tommy, playing the part of Tommy's mother. She was 33 years old; Who lead singer Roger Daltrey, who played Tommy, turned 31 just before the movie opened. She sang on more than a dozen songs in the all-singing film, including two duets with Daltrey, "Champagne" and "Mother and Son," newly written for the movie. The double-LP soundtrack album hit number two and went gold. She was nominated for her second Academy Award, this time for Best Actress, and won her third Golden Globe, for Best Actress -- Musical or Comedy.
In the second half of the 1970s, Ann-Margret continued to appear regularly on film, earning another Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress for 1977's Joseph Andrews, while also making TV specials and performing her act on-stage in Nevada and elsewhere. The rise of disco offered her another chance at the music business, however, and on October 27, 1979, her single "Love Rush," released on Ocean Records and later picked up by MCA, entered Billboard's disco/dance charts heading for a peak at number eight. MCA financed a five-track EP, released in 1980 as Ann-Margret, and from it came "Midnight Message," which entered the dance charts in March and peaked at number 12. Disco was petering out by 1980, but she managed one more chart placing, starting in October 1981 with "Everybody Needs Somebody Sometimes" on First American Records; it got to number 22.
Ann-Margret suffered a personal setback in 1980 when her husband was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a muscle-weakening nerve disease. She devoted more time to her family, helping to care for her husband and three stepchildren, but as the breadwinner in the family, she still had to work. She took more film roles in the early '80s, but cut down on performing her stage act, stopping completely by the end of 1983. Heretofore, she had avoided television movies, but her first one, a tearjerker called Who Will Love My Children? (about a mother of ten who contracts a fatal illness), was broadcast February 14, 1983; it earned her an Emmy nomination. In 1984, she had a more prestigious television appearance in an adaptation of Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire, playing the part of Blanche DuBois. The performance won her her fourth Golden Globe for Best Actress -- Mini-Series or Television Movie.
She was able to return to performing on-stage in October 1988 when she began her first run at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas in five years. She toured extensively over the next three years, culminating in her first appearance at New York's Radio City Music Hall in October 1991. In the spring of 1992, she appeared in Newsies, a movie musical for children produced by Walt Disney that didn't do much business but did have a soundtrack album that spent a week in the charts. For the rest of the 1990s, she worked steadily in feature films (e.g., Grumpy Old Men  and Grumpier Old Men ) and TV movies (e.g., the mini-series Scarlett, a sequel to Gone with the Wind , and Life of the Party: The Pamela Harriman Story , which earned her an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Actress in a Miniseries or TV Movie), while continuing to perform her stage act. She published a best-selling autobiography, Ann-Margret: My Story (written with Todd Gold) in 1994.
Ann-Margret continued to work steadily in the 21st century. For the 2000 film The Flintstones in Rock Vegas, she recalled her 1963 appearance on the TV version by singing "Viva Rock Vegas" on the soundtrack (and the soundtrack album, of course). In February 2001, she turned to musical theater for the first time (and returned to the stage for the first time in seven years), starring in a national touring company of the Broadway hit The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and recording a cast album. Somewhat incongruously, in 2001, she released her first gospel album, God Is Love: The Gospel Sessions, accompanied by the Jordanaires (who had been on her first recordings 40 years earlier) and the Light Crust Doughboys with James Blackwood. The album earned her her first Grammy nomination for Best Southern, Country, or Bluegrass Gospel Album. After 18 months, she came off the road with The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, but by early 2003 she had put together a new stage act and launched her first solo tour in a decade. In July 2016, RCA/Legacy assembled a digital collection of favorites and rarities from Ann-Margret's years recording for RCA Victor under the title The Essential Ann-Margret. In March 2017, the same set was given a physical release by Real Gone Music under the title The Definitive Collection. ~ William Ruhlmann