From mere mortals to the top of the musical hierarchy, everyone’s a fan of Ella Fitzgerald. Get re-acquainted with her honeyed vocals.
Cry Me a River was made famous by sultry songstress Julie London in 1955. Many renditions have since been made, by Dinah Washington, Barbra Streisand, Diana Krall, Michael Bublé, even Joe Cocker and Björk.
For me, the definitive version came from Ella Fitzgerald, for whom the song was actually written. Arthur Hamilton composed it for the 1955 film Pete Kelly’s Blues and although it was dropped from the movie, Ella performed it many times over her long career. Her voice is silky smooth, voluptuous, soulful, bluesy – it simply can’t be beaten. Okay, that’s a pretty subjective comment, but listen to her.
Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996) has been called the greatest singer of popular music ever. Other singers were in awe of her prodigious talent, with the likes of Bing Crosby, Mel Torme and Johnny Mathis saying she was the best of the best.
She was orphaned as a young teenager and lived rough for a while, until the fateful day she won a talent quest at the age of 16.
That marked the beginning of a career spanning almost 60 years. She made over 200 records, recorded around 2,000 songs, sold more than 40 million albums and remember, this was a time when people bought actual physical albums (no downloads back then). She also won 13 Grammy awards.
This is one hot singer. What was it about this girl that dazzled audiences, musicians and other vocalists?
Ella’s voice was rich, lush, pure, flexible, rhapsodic, delicious, ageless. She had a wide vocal range, was a genius at improvisation, possessed beautiful diction and her phrasing was always impeccable. There’s a seeming effortlessness about the way she sings. Her tone and technique have become the stuff of legend.
The film director Vincente Minnelli (father of Liza) once said, “If you want to learn how to sing, listen to Ella Fitzgerald.”
Ella worked with all the big names in American music, among them Chick Webb (her first employer), Teddy Wilson, Frank Sinatra, the Ink Spots, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nelson Riddle, Joe Pass, Benny Goodman, Ray Brown (to whom she was married for a time), Nat King Cole, Oscar Peterson and Ellis Larkins, to list just a few.
Ella’s style originally suited swing music, but when the swing era gave way to bebop, she was right there on the money. Dizzy Gillespie convinced her to do some scat singing – improvised vocalising using nonsense words – where her phrasing complemented chords played by the instrumentalists. She nailed that pretty quickly and scat singing became part of her regular act. In this rendition of Oh Lady Be Good, she struts her stuff with style and grace.
Now listen to how she scats with Louis Armstrong in the classic song Dream a Little Dream of Me (1950). Armstrong was one of the first scat singers, popularising the form in the 1920s and the pair complement each other to perfection. Ella’s voice is like chocolate. I don’t care if I sound like an old fogey, seriously, they don’t make music like this anymore.
Ella could sing it all – slow, rapturous torch songs, swinging jazz, the blues. She famously recorded a series of eight albums, the Songbook series, showcasing the music of America’s most illustrious contemporary composers and songwriters – Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer.
Ira Gershwin once said, “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” Here she is in 1959 with Love is Here to Stay:
The 1960 album Live in Berlin is a corker, especially the title track Mack the Knife.
It’s a hoot because she forgot the words and made them up as she Went along, coming up with “making a wreck of Mack the Knife.” She references other popular interpreters of the song, Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong, even mimicking Armstrong’s growly guttural singing style. It’s inspired. Ella is exuberant and playful, but always the ultimate professional at her improvisational best. She was a class act.
Ella also did a little acting, appearing in Ride ’Em Cowboy (1942), St Louis Blues (1958), Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1958), and of course 1955’s Pete Kelly’s Blues, in a small but memorable role.
By all accounts, Ella Fitzgerald was hard-working, down-to-earth and dedicated to her craft. She was rewarded with a number of Lifetime Achievement Awards, memberships of Halls of Fame, honorary doctorates and invitations to the White House, yet possibly her greatest rewards were the respect she earned from her peers and the enormous popularity she enjoyed from an appreciative public.
Her honeyed voice continues to enchant listeners. She can still thrill us with her intonations, the gorgeousness of her voice and her lifetime commitment to great music. In the words of Frank Sinatra, “It don’t get better than this.”