I fell in love with Ella Fitzgerald the first time I heard her sing. It’s as simple as that. I didn’t want to marry her or anything like that, and I was also far too young at the time to consider anything of the kind, but when I heard her sing “Honeysuckle Rose” on Ella and Basie decades ago, I knew that her voice would be accompanying much of my life. And it has.
Of the great singers, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Anita O’Day, June Christy and the many others, Ella Fitzgerald always held a special place in my heart. Throughout my entire life, I always made sure to catch as many of her appearances as possible, both on stage and on television, and although it seems impossible, I at least tried to track down just about every one of her recordings.
It was only long after I had fallen in love with that voice that I actually took drum lessons from her drummer of many years, Ed Thigpen, and to be quite honest, I don’t think we ever spoke about his work with her, but having always considered Ed Thigpen to be the most brilliant small group drummer on the planet, also helped draw me deeper into the load of material Fitzgerald recorded.
When it comes down to it, there’s one thing that fascinated me about her: The lady had fire, incredible amounts of it. Yes, she could sing those ballads with as much emotion and musical sensitivity as the rest of the greats, but, in my eyes, nobody could swing like Ella Fitzgerald. It all seemed to come so effortlessly to her. There are a ton of live videos and DVDs out there to be had that show how she would walk up to Count Basie’s, Duke Ellington’s or Tommy Flanagan’s piano, wink at them, say a few lines and joke around with them, and then launch into the most astonishing scat vocals ever recorded. She would fight improvisational battles with the band’s trombonist or trumpeter, she would make the audience laugh by cracking a joke or tormenting her musical partners with outrageous scales, and, most importantly, she managed to get the best from each and every musician she sang with.
She was astonishingly versatile. If you sample her ouevre, there’s hardly anything she hadn’t tried and she could effortlessly switch from a ballad to a hot swing number to a top-ten pop song. In that respect, she had chameleon-like qualities. But if you ask me what you should check out to get an idea what Ella was all about, I’d tell you to sample her recordings with Basie, with Louis Armstrong and, of course, the Verve Songbook series that forever cemented her reputation.
You want to hear Ella kick some serious ass? Listen to “Honeysuckle Rose” or “I’m Beginning to See the Light” off Ella and Basie from 1963 (get the Verve Master Edition which kicks ass sonically). On a good stereo system, Basie and Ella will simply blow you out of your seat.
You want to hear Ella’s versatility? Check out Verve’s Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book or the timeless classic, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book, accompanied by Nelson Riddle.
You want to hear intimacy, blind musical understanding and pure joy? Check out Verve’s The Complete Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, a three-disc collection pulling together Ella and Louis, Ella and Louis Again and Porgy and Bess. Most of this material is pure brilliance, not only because of the musical but also because of the remastered sonic quality – sonically, this stuff is better than 99% of the material recorded today.
You want to hear Ella smoke audiences? Check out her Concert Years from Pablo (now Concord), a four-disc collection of Norman Granz era live recordings ranging from 1953-1983, with the Basie and Ellington big bands and various small groups, still widely available.
You want to hear Ella in her early days? Check out her recordings with Chick Webb’s Orchestra (which she later took over after his death) and you’ll get the first recording of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”, a true classic and one of her signature tunes.
Then max out your credit card and go for just about everything inbetween.
Ella Fitzgerald also had dedication. In fact, she had so much of it that I always wondered where in the name of God she got it all from. I remember her entering from stage left at one of the concerts I saw, already severely marked by her health problems (both of her legs were amputated and she went partially blind because of diabetes) and the incredibly warm welcome she received paired with the sheer dedication to her art simply tore the roof off a hall known to be populated with highly critical jazz fans. She had won their hearts long ago and delivered a performance that would have put any young and healthy singer to shame. Memories are a tricky thing, but there was a moment when she was in the spotlight, nothing else visible but her, singing, as far as I recall, “Summertime” with such intensity that you could have heard a pin drop in that notoriously noisy venue. Nobody moved and, for a few minutes, nobody breathed, left the hall or shuffled about. All silence and that wonderful voice.
Yes, for a while, Ella Fitzgerald recorded and performed some real clunkers that made my hair curl, trying to break into a new audience with recordings of popular tunes of the day, but everything was always forgiven when she launched into her swing numbers, pulled out the Gershwin tunes or simply fired some hilarious lines at the audience. Her recording success was given a tremendous boost again when Norman Granz established his new label, Pablo, and gave her the chance to return to recording material like she had recorded for Verve previously.
When on tour, she ensured that her manager fought for equal rights for all of her musicians, no matter how deep down south they ventured, and she gave credit where credit was due:
I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt. It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.
Seen from the outside, Ella Fitzgerald had a tragic life. She sang about the most romantic moments with such passion and, apparently, she did not really have much of that in her own life. Diabetes attacked her in the most vicious ways and killed her in the end, but when on stage or recording, she never let on. At the end of the day, it was her positive attitude, her good-natured being and her joy of life that oozed from the material that she recorded and performed, and her voice brightened-up many people’s lives.
Ella Fitzgerald always considered herself to be someone far from being a glamorous person, often afraid of standing and singing in front of an audience, but staying in character, she kicked herself out there and just did it. And we all loved her for it. She herself delivered the best quote, to put all of this and the above into the proverbial nutshell:
I guess what everyone wants more than anything else is to be loved. And to know that you loved me for my singing is too much for me. Forgive me if I don’t have all the words. Maybe I can sing it and you’ll understand.
I listened to some of her best recordings for a few hours today and I realized how much I miss her voice. And how much I still love her, more than 30 years of my own life later.