She was born as Annabelle Allan Short, in Mitcham, London, the daughter of Scottish vaudevillians John "Jack" Short and Mary Dalziel Short (nee Allan). Her brother was entertainer Jimmy Logan.At the age of four, she traveled to New York by ship with her family; she later recalled that they "got the cheapest ticket, which was right in the bowels of the ship".
Shortly after arriving in the city, she won a token contract with MGM through a children's radio contest run by Paul Whiteman. She subsequently moved with her aunt Ella Logan to Los Angeles, and her mother, father and brother returned to Scotland. At the age of seven, she sang "The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond" in Our Gang Follies of 1938, and played Judy Garland's character's sister in Presenting Lily Mars (1943). At the age of 14, she wrote the song "Let's Fly", which won a songwriting contest and was recorded by Johnny Mercer and The Pied Pipers.
At the end of tenth grade, she left school, changed her name to Annie Ross, and went to Europe, where she quickly established her singing career. She decided to change her surname to Ross on the plane trip to Prestwick; in a 2011 interview, she said, "My aunt was very fanciful and she said I had an Irish grandmother called Ross, so that's where that surname came from".
In 1952, Ross met Prestige Records owner Bob Weinstock, who asked her to write lyrics to a jazz solo, in a similar way to King Pleasure, a practice that would later be known as vocalese. The next day, she presented him with "Twisted", a treatment of saxophonist Wardell Gray's 1949 composition of the same name, a classic example of the genre. The song, first released on the 1952 album King Pleasure Sings/Annie Ross Sings, was an underground hit, and resulted in her winning Down Beat's New Star award. Her first solo album, Singin' and Swingin' (1952), was recorded in New York with members of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Other albums include Annie by Candlelight (1956), Sings a Song with Mulligan (1958) with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker on trumpet, A Gasser! (1959) with Zoot Sims, In Hoagland (1981) with Georgie Fame and Hoagy Carmichael, and Music Is Forever (1995) featuring Tommy Flanagan on piano.
In February 1956, the British music magazine NME reported that Ross's song "I Want You to Be My Baby" was banned by the BBC, due to the lyric "Come upstairs and have some loving".
She recorded seven albums with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross between 1957 and 1962. Their first, Sing a Song of Basie (1957), was to have been performed by a group of singers hired by Jon Hendricks and Dave Lambert with Ross brought in only as vocal consultant. It was decided that the trio should attempt to record the material and overdub all the additional vocals themselves, but the first two tracks were recorded and deemed unsatisfactory so they ditched the dubbing idea. The resulting album was a success, and the trio became an international hit. Over the next five years, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross toured all over the world and recorded such albums as Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross! (aka The Hottest New Group in Jazz, 1959), Sing Ellington (1960), High Flying (1962), and The Real Ambassadors (1962), written by Dave Brubeck and featuring Louis Armstrong and Carmen McRae.
Ross left the group in 1962 and, in 1964, opened her own nightclub in London. Annie's Room featured performances by Joe Williams, Nina Simone, Stuff Smith, Blossom Dearie, Anita O'Day, Jon Hendricks, Erroll Garner, and Ross herself. A compilation album of Ross's 1965 performances from Annie's Room was released on CD in 2006.
Her film roles include Liza in the Hammer film Straight On till Morning (1972), Claire in Alfie Darling (1976), Vera Webster in Superman III (1983), Mrs. Hazeltine in Throw Momma from the Train (1987), Loretta Cresswood in Pump Up the Volume (1990), Lydia in Blue Sky (1994), and Tess Trainer in Robert Altman's Short Cuts (1993).
She provided the speaking voice for Britt Ekland in The Wicker Man (1973), and Ingrid Thulin's singing voice in Salon Kitty (1976). On stage, she appeared in Cranks (1955; London and New York City), The Threepenny Opera (1972), The Seven Deadly Sins (1973) at the Royal Opera House, Kennedy's Children (1975) at Arts Theatre, London, Side by Side by Sondheim, and in the Joe Papp production of The Pirates of Penzance (1982). In the early 1990s, Ross starred in the horror films Basket Case 2 and Basket Case 3: The Progeny.
In 1949, Ross had a brief affair with drummer Kenny Clarke. This affair produced a son, Kenny Clarke Jr, who was brought up by Clarke's family. During her time with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, she became addicted to heroin, and in the late 1950s had an affair with the comedian Lenny Bruce, who was also having drug problems. By 1960, Carol Sloane was regularly substituting for her on tour. After a performance by the trio in London in May 1962, she stayed there to kick the habit.
In 1963, she married actor Sean Lynch; they divorced in 1975, and he died in a car crash soon afterwards. By that time, she had also lost her home and declared bankruptcy.
She became a United States citizen in 2001.
Ross has received numerous awards and honours, including the ASCAP Jazz Wall of Fame (2009), the prestigious NEA Jazz Masters' Award (2010), and the MAC Award for Lifetime Achievement (2011).
In July 2006 a one-woman play entitled TWISTED: The Annie Ross Story by Brian McGeachan premiered at The Space Theatre in London, starring Verity Quade. It focused on her stormy relationship with her aunt, Broadway legend Ella Logan, her brief affair with the comedian Lenny Bruce and her addiction to heroin. The play transferred to The Brockley Jack Theatre in London that same year, with Ross being played by Betsy Pennington.
A documentary about Ross's life, entitled No One But Me, premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival in 2012.
The original recording of her song "Twisted" was used in the introduction to the 1997 Woody Allen film Deconstructing Harry.Singin' and Swingin' (with Dorothy Dunn and Shelby Davis) (1952)
King Pleasure Sings / Annie Ross Sings (1952)
Tony Crombie and His Orchestra (1954) (Decca DFE6247)
Annie by Candlelight (1956)
Nocturne for Vocalist (EP) (1956)
Sings a Song with Mulligan! (1958)
A Gasser! (with Zoot Sims) (1959)
Sings a Handful of Songs (1963)
You and Me Baby (Live at Hampstead Theatre) (1970)
In Hoagland (with Hoagy Carmichael and Georgie Fame) (1981)
Music Is Forever (1995)
Cool for Kids (2001)
Let Me Sing (2005)
Sing a Song of Basie (1957)
Sing Along with Basie (Roulette, 1958)
The Swingers! (1958)
Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross! (aka The Hottest New Group in Jazz) (1959)
Sing Ellington (1960)
The Real Ambassadors (with Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Carmen McRae) (1962)
High Flying (aka The Way-Out Voices of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross) (1962)
Annie Ross & Pony Poindexter (1967)
You and Me Baby (1971)
Annie Ross in Poland,1965 (2002)
Live in London,1965 (2006)
Cranks (Original London Cast Recording) (1955)
Short Cuts (Soundtrack) (1993)
Everybody's Boppin' (1990)
Twisted - The Best of Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross (1992)
Skylark (combines Annie by Candlelight and Nocturne for Vocalist) (1996)
The Hottest New Group in Jazz (combines Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross, Sing Ellington, and High Flying) (1996)
A Handfull [sic] of Songs...and More (combines Sings a Handful of Songs and four previously unreleased tracks recorded live in Tel Aviv in 1956) (2000)
Improvisations for the Human Voice (2009)
Zoot Sims Meets Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross. Los Angeles 1959 (2010)
Four Classic Albums (combines Annie by Candlelight, Sings a Song with Mulligan, A Gasser, and Gypsy) (2011)