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Thursday, February 24, 2005

Ella Fitzgerald: America's First Lady of Song

The first thing that jumps out at me when I look at Ella's first LP (Decca DL 5084) from 1949 is that this is one of few pictures I have seen of Ella where she looks relatively young (and keep in mind I'm no Ella expert/fanatic). Now my personal taste has always been more for Billie Holiday- then again I believe Billie to be the greatest American singer ever- but I give Ella big props and I'm willing to be big about it and admit that Ella makes for much better listening around the holidays! Actually I'm willing to admit much more...


I would classify this record as being early Ella. Her first sides with the Chick Webb Orchestra in the late 1930s were immediately followed by these Decca recordings as a solo artist. Decca, for this "Souvenir Album", selected some very early Ella sides from 1940-1941 originally released as 78 rpm discs. Billie Holiday had recorded two of these only two-three years prior to Ella: "Can't help loving dat man" (1937), and "Can't Believe that You're in love with me" (1938). The repertoire on this Ella LP is pretty conventional but then again we are talking 1940!


The liner notes inform us that Ella was born in Newport News, Virginia and her parents were extremely poor. Ella was sent to a New York orphanage which she left at 16. The great swing band leader Chick Webb saw her singing shortly after, took her in and together with his wife adopted her, and taught her how to sing and the ropes of the business. For two years Ella toured with the Chick Webb Orchestra and did not sing one note in public. Eventually however Chick Webb felt she'd learned and she began to sing with the band and record and even write songs. The rest is history.


When I think of Ella I think of her ability to transmit joy. This may relate to the fact that I can hear/visualize her happiness in singing. Also, I think of her incredible scat-laced improvised live version of "Mack the Knife" on the classic LP "Ella in Berlin." Basically she forgets the words to the song and improvises on the spot without losing a beat. Here are the lyrics to this unique performance that never fails to make me smile:


{spoken} thank you. we’d like to do something for you now.
We haven’t heard a girl sing it. and since it’s so popular,
We’d like to try and do it for you.
We hope we remember all the words.{}

Oh, the shark has pearly teeth, dear
And he shows them, pearly white
Just a jack knife has macheath, dear
And he keeps it out of sight

Oh, the shark bites with his teeth, dear
Scarlet billows start to spread
Fancy gloves though, wears macheath dear
So there’s not, not a trace of red

On a sunday, sunday morning
Lies a body, oozin’ life
Someone’s sneaking ’round the corner
Tell me could it be, could it be, could it be
Mack the knife?

Oh, what’s the next chorus?
To this song, now
This is the one, now
I don’t know
But it was a swinging tune
And it’s a hit tune
So we tried to do mack the knife

Ah, louis miller
Oh, something about cash
Yeah, miller, he was spending that trash
And macheath dear, he spends like a sailor
Tell me, tell me, tell me
Could that boy do, something rash

Oh bobby darin, and louis armstrong
They made a record, oh but they did
And now ella, ella, and her fellas
We’re making a wreck, what a wreck
Of mack the knife

{louis armstrong imitation}
Oh snookie taudry, bah bah bah nop do bo de do
Bah bah bah nop do bo de do
Just a jack knife has macheath, dear
And do bo bo bah bah bah nop do bo de do {}

So, you’ve heard it
Yes, we’ve swung it
And we tried to
Yes, we sung it

You won’t recognize it
It’s a surprise hit
This tune, called mack the knife

And so we leave you, in berlin town
Yes, we’ve swung old mack
We’ve swung old mack in town
For the darin fans,
And for the louis armstrong fans, too
We told you look out, look out, look out
Old macheath’s back in town



After her Decca period in the 40s/early 50s she would move to Norman Granz's record labels (Clef/Verve) and he would fashion her into a singer of songbooks by the great American tin pan alley tunesmiths (Arlen, Gerswin, Cole Porter, Ellington, etc.)


One thing I particularly enjoy about having an original LP when it is from 1949-1950 is picturing the artists pleasure in seeing their own first LP. I know Billie Holiday is said to have taken great pride when her first LPs came out. If one compares the sound quality difference between a 78 and an LP I think its safe to say the difference in fidelity is greater than that between an LP and a CD.


Although I prefer Billie Holiday's material part of me thinks that it is Ella who is a more representative first lady for american song. To me Ella is all business and no nonesense; a consummate professional. There is no baggage of bad men, drugs, booze, jail.. its just her delight in performing the wonderful canon of american song... there is no early fade out.. no terrible sad stories..no lurid diana ross movie... in fact most people know little about her other than her great performances and that ain't so bad in my book!

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