Issue #3 August 2017
In this issue: The Ella Fitzgerald Centennial celebration
Reviews: Regina Carter, new Ella reissues
Beginning on April 25th, 2017, the jazz world embarked on a year-long celebration of the Centennial birth of the greatest jazz singer (living or dead) of ALL time, Ella Fitzgerald; around the country, events have been taking place to commemorate the 100th birthday of the First Lady of Song. In my mind, she is incomparable, a naturally gifted vocalist, one with near perfect tune, tone, and diction, and there will never be another like her. How I came to love Ella. It happened quite by accident, actually. In the early 90’s, I would set my alarm clock to a radio station I didn’t ordinarily listen to, but did so because I wanted to avoid some loud, shouting morning jock jarring me from my slumber; instead, I set my alarm to so-called smooth jazz 95.5 WNUA Chicago. The disc jockey at 6:30 in the morning was current Chicago media personality Dean Richards, and he had a tendency to play some Ella around the time my alarm went off; I was often treated to soothing Ella songs like “Azure” or “In a Sentimental Mood” from the Duke Ellington Songbook. These tracks eased me into the transition from sleep to preparation to fight Lake Shore Drive traffic and endure another day of managing reps talking to people about their satellite dish service. The morning experiences soon prompted me to purchase my first Ella album, “Swings Gently with Nelson”, one of a couple of collaborations she did with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, somewhere around 1991. The rest, as they say, is history, as I own almost EVERY studio and live recording she ever did over the course of a career that spanned six decades (I thought I had everything, but more on that later). My studio album collection was incomplete until May of this year, when I was able to secure the last one of hers I didn’t own – the “Misty Blue” album, which is a collection of covers of Country songs she did for Capitol in the late 60’s; thanks to Scratch ‘n Spin Records in West Columbia, SC for my copy of that one.
My favorite Ella by period.
Decca Years (1934-55) Ella was just 17 years old when she began recording, and the stuff she was given to sing during her early years was a lot of vapid, novelty songs- and that includes her signature song “A Tisket a Tasket”; while the songs themselves were nothing more than fluff, they were sufficient for Ella to showcase her extraordinary talent. She was the featured vocalist of the Chick Webb Orchestra, until the bandleader passed in 1939; Ella took over bandleader duties until she dissolved the group and embarked on a solo career in 1942. From there, she collaborated with a variety of orchestras and groups, including the Benny Carter Orchestra, the Ink Spots, Louis Jordan, Ellis Larkin, and Dizzy Gillespie. It was also during these years that the Swing Era gave way to Bebop, and here is where Ella began growing in the area of jazz improvisation. Her first proper album, “Ella Sings Gershwin”, was released in 1950, while subsequent albums “Lullabies of Birdland” and “For Sentimental Reasons” compiled prior singles that were released on 78 rpm vinyl during the late 40’s to early 50’s. These two albums compiled sides cut with various orchestras – the material was stronger, and her skills really began to blossom during this time. Overall, nine albums were released during this period; all of this is from the Post-Swing and Bebop periods- I count all of this material as her finest of the Decca years. The Swing stuff , all of which was released on 78’s, would eventually be released on CD as part of various Decca reissues. Here is a track recorded by a 19 ear old Ella with the Chick Webb Orchestra in 1936- remember, there was no television yet, so you get to see a 78 rpm record spinning…
Verve Years (1956-1966) When Ella hooked up with producer Norman Granz, her career took off. He created for her the Songbook series, where she interpreted the songs of the top composers of the time, such as The Gershwins, Cole Porter, and Rodgers & Hart. To my ears, the standout Songbook she interpreted was the book of Duke Ellington- released in 1957, the triple album produced many wonderful tracks, and showed all sides of Ella, from the plaintive, reflective side, to the scatting, voice as an instrument side. Also released in ’57 was her third collaboration with Louis Armstrong, the sublime “Porgy & Bess”; on paper, her silky smooth delivery paired with his sandpaper, gravelly vocals shouldn’t have seemed to work, but it was an incredible combination when put together. In 1960, one of her live albums produced one of her signature tracks – her rendition of “Mack the Knife”; also in ’60, she released arguably two of her most romantic albums, “Hello Love” and “The Intimate Ella” (this one was originally known as “Let No Man Write My Epitaph”, from the movie in which she appeared). In 1963, she paired with the legendary Count Basie for “Ella & Basie”, and in ’65, paired again with Ellington for “Ella at Duke’s Place”. Overall, Ella released 34 studio and live albums in this period. Of course, the mid 1960’s witnessed the British Invasion, rock ‘n roll was gaining a strong foothold in popular music, and Ella began trying to interpret (in her style), current pop hits from the likes of the Beatles; as the so-called ‘Now Sound’ began replacing Jazz as popular music, her popularity began to wane a bit, and ultimately, she and Granz parted company, and her contract with Verve was not renewed. Here is a live clip of Ella in 1957 doing one of her signature songs, backed by a stellar band…
Capitol Years (1967-68) This was, for the most part, a forgettable period in her career. This era produced four albums: “Brighten the Corner” was a collection of traditional Christian hymns; “Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas” was a collection of Christmas hymns; the aforementioned “Misty Blue” was a collection of covers of current Country hits; the best of the bunch was “30 by Ella”, a unique and satisfying collection of six five-song jazz medleys. This period was the beginning of Ella experiencing health problems that would ultimately plague her for the rest of her life. These issues began to affect her voice, as it became slightly huskier- “30 by Ella” is perhaps the only album where I can say that Ella sounded kinda sexy. Here is a live clip of Ella from 1968 in Europe with the Tee Carson Trio performing an absolutely spine-tingling version of “Summertime”…
Reprise Years (1969-70) An interesting, albeit forgettable period as well, this era produced just two albums, “Ella” and the ominously titled “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”. Ella dove headfirst into the Now Sound, as both albums covered current pop hits. Interesting only in her interpretations of well-known pop songs, but otherwise, only a musical completist like me would find these albums essential to their collection. Here is Ella performing a track from the “Things…” album in a duet with Tom Jones in 1970…
Pablo Years (1972-89) Ella reunited with Norman Granz for the launching of his new label, which brought Ella back to traditional Jazz. She found new collaborators, and reunited with old ones; she also found herself in more intimate settings, often with just her and a lone instrumentalist. As the years continued to tick away, this sometimes worked for her and against her – Ella continued a health decline that sometimes literally knocked her off her feet, and definitely began to rob her of vocal prowess- she would spend these 18 years basically adjusting and adapting to the effects of her health issues, making do with whatever she had left. Early on, these settings allowed her to expand the sonic spectrum beyond her and the accompanying instrument, but in later years, it simply exposed what was left of a voice in serious decline. Of her new collaborators, the most prominent was guitarist Joe Pass, with whom she did four albums- the first three, 1973’s “Take Love Easy”, 1976’s “Fitzgerald and Pass… Again”, and 1983’s “Speak Love” were among the best of her 22 albums released in this period. She collaborated with Count Basie two more times, on 1979’s “A Perfect Match” and “A Classy Pair”. Ella won six of her 10 Grammys during these years; her last album, 1989’s “All That Jazz” brought her the last award. By this time, the vocal tank was virtually empty, but she could still interpret and perform a song in satisfactory fashion – enough to fetch a Grammy! Here is a live clip of her with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1979 doing one of my favorite tracks…
Ella’s fight with diabetes cost her both legs in 1993; she passed on June 15, 1996. She left behind a treasure trove of great music for us to enjoy forever. It’s said that she could sing a nursery rhyme, and I’d buy it… remember, she began her career with a nursery rhyme… and yes, if she sang “Old McDonald Had a Farm”, I’d buy it… in fact, she did actually perform that song on her “Ella in Hamburg” album in the 60’s… and I bought it… and here’s a clip of her doing it…
If there is one regret regarding Ella’s recorded output, is that she never recorded with one of her favorite duet partners- Frank Sinatra. He absolutely adored Ella, she adored him, and they performed together often on television, but contractual issues kept them from recording together. Here is a clip of them at the height of their collective powers performing a classic Sinatra tune…
Finally, Ella didn’t write songs, she interpreted them. And I don’t recall her ever singing anything that was politically charged. But she did write one song,.. a song in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr…. here’s the audio clip of it…
For information on events commemorating her, you can check out her official website:
or this link on Facebook:
Regina Carter “Ella- Accentuate the Positive”
Newest album from jazz violinist extraordinaire Carter was released to coincide with the centennial birthdate. For the Detroit native’s 10th solo album, she throws a bit of a curve with the song selection. One would think a tribute album to Ella would contain all of the familiar stuff we know from her- she has covered Ella in the past, doing “A Tisket a Tasket” on her splendid 2006 album “I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey“; instead of taking the well-worn path, she decided to do a bit of a deep dive into her vast catalog, and unearth some gems that even I didn’t know about – meaning: she (un)covered some stuff I don’t currently own. Let’s do a song-by-song inventory of the album tracks and their Ella origins….
“Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” Track from Ella’s 1961 album “Ella Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook”, vocals provided on this track by Miche Braden.
“Crying In the Chapel” Track she performed with the Ray Charles Singers; released in 1953 as the B-side to “When the Clock Pray at Midnight”. Released as a 78 rpm single.
“I’ll Never Be Free” Track she performed with Louis Jordan; released in 1950 as the B-side to “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”. Released as a 78 rpm single.
“All My Life” An early Ella track, recorded with the Chick Webb Orchestra in 1936 and released as a 78 rpm single.
“Dedicated to You” Track she recorded with the Mills Brothers; released as a 78 rpm single in 1937.
“Reach for Tomorrow” Track from the soundtrack to “Let No Man Write My Epitaph”, these tracks were later released as “The Intimate Ella” on Verve Records in 1960.
“Undecided” Probably the most well-known of all the tracks on this album, this is a 1939 78 rpm Brunswick single Ella performed with the Chick Webb Orchestra. Vocals on this track were provided by veteran jazz vocalist Carla Cook.
“Judy” A Hoagy Carmichael song that Ella never recorded; however, it is perhaps the song that launched her singing career, as she performed it at Amateur Night at the Apollo in 1934, winning the $25 top prize that night.
“I’ll Chase the Blues Away” One of Ella’s earliest recorded tracks, this is a 1935 single she performed with the Chick Webb Orchestra. Released as a 78 rpm single.
The album is up to Regina’s usual standard of quality, and is presented with the reverence and attention to detail that anything pertaining to the legacy of Ella would rightfully command. And I have to give her a nod of thanks for unearthing some tracks I didn’t know about.. Thank you, Regina, for the deep dive. Here is the audio for “Undecided“…
Ella Fitzgerald: 100 Songs for a Centennial
This 4-CD compilation covers the Decca and Verve years, somehow managing to decide on 100 tracks from her vast catalog to include for this collection. Anyone interested in this set will probably find some songs they would eschew in favor of others, so the track listing is highly subjective… but on the other hand, you can’t go wrong- it’s Ella.
The Complete Decca Singles, Vols. 1-4
These sets compile all the singles and B-sides recorded for the Decca label between 1935-55; they include numerous tracks seeing the light of day for the first time since they originally appeared on 78 rpm records. It is an outstanding collection that has one MAJOR flaw: they are available only as streaming albums! The good folks at Verve have made a grave mistake by not offering these collections on CD -most of the people who would want this collection would want to BUY AND OWN a copy of the music (didn’t we have this discussion in the last issue of Now Hear This! ???). Verve wants to get a new generation interested in this great music, and that’s a good move by offering it on Apple Music, Spotify, and others, but most Millennials will forego the opportunity, opting instead for the current thing, whatever it is. The crowd for Ella is accustomed to albums, tapes and compact discs, and will buy it if made available. Verve MUST change their way of thinking about this decision, and offer these collections on CD.