We gave it a C+
Was there really a time when Ella Fitzgerald didn’t sing? Staggeringly, she has been performing professionally for 59 years now — since she was 16 years old — and continues to do it at 75, an age she reached just last week to much music industry hoopla. And why not? She’s not only a revered icon, she’s still selling, with as many albums in print as any female singer of any generation in any genre. Beloved by the boomers as well as their pre-rock parents (and grandparents), she may also be the only jazz singer from her era who’s embraced by X’ers, too.
She’s some kind of musical miracle, all right. The question is: Why Ella? Why all the fuss over this particular jazz vocalist while equally acclaimed peers like Kay Starr, Sylvia Syms, Lee Wiley, and Barbara Lea are all but forgotten? Two new CD collections released in honor of her birthday, Ella Fitzgerald: 75th Birthday Celebration and Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song offer the answer.
The 75th Birthday Celebration is a representative compilation of material from Ella’s 20-year stint at Decca (1936- 55), where she began her career as the ”girl singer” in drummer Chick Webb’s swing orchestra. And what it reveals will shock younger fans: Here’s a vocalist with obvious talent, but virtually no musical identity. It’s hard to believe that it’s really the Ella we’ve come to treasure, plugging aimlessly through mush like ”My Happiness” and hokey junk like ”Cow Cow Boogie,” often drowning under sappy arrangements with Ray Conniff-style ooh-aah choruses.
Granted, her singing has changed extraordinarily little from the ’30s to today: Supple as an alto sax with just as broad a range, her voice has always been a magnificent instrument used with disciplined abandon. What has changed radically is just about everything other than how she sings.
Somehow, this girl singer became Ella, no last name necessary. And the somehow is Norman Granz, the impresario, personal manager, and founder of Verve Records, who took over Fitzgerald’s career in 1956 and transformed it. Truth to tell, Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song is as much a tribute to Granz — and the overlooked role of marketing in the careers of aesthetic icons like Fitzgerald — as it is to the work of Granz’s client. Just listen to the music in this Verve box and consider how it molded Ella’s image.
The very first cut, a live version of ”Perdido” from one of Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic jams, showcases Ella in new company — scatting with bop-masters Charlie Parker and Roy Eldridge, instead of crooning with popmeisters like the Ink Spots and the Delta Rhythm Boys as she did at Decca (where she was only erratically paired with top jazz artists like Benny Carter). At Verve, she suddenly — and then consistently over the course of a decade — sang in only the most elegant settings, devised by arrangers like Nelson Riddle and Quincy Jones. (Not incidentally, Granz also got Ella the Memorex gig and the American Express deals in the ’80s, reintroducing her to new generations as the very image of both musical perfection and coolness.)
Most significantly, perhaps, Granz created the Songbook series of LPs dedicated to the work of individual Tin Pan Alley composers (including Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and the Gershwins). Liberally represented in this set, the Songbooks succeeded, in one grand gesture of packaging, at establishing Ella Fitzgerald as the definitive voice of the standard repertoire: the First Lady of American Song.
Which, when you think about it, is really a terrible misnomer: As the dedicated adviser, it’s Granz who’s the First Person. If Ella is the anything of American Song, she has to be the President. 75th Birthday Celebration: C+