Monday, January 28, 2008

Ella Fitzgerald - The Best Singer On The Planet

Mel Torme said, "She was the best singer on the planet." I’m certainly not going to disagree. I was letting iTunes play in the background as I was writing something tonight and on came Ella singing ‘I’ve Got a Right To sing The Blues’ – it is sublime.. When iTunes is set to shuffle the songs in the main library there’s a one in 115 chance of an Ella song coming along as I’ve got 391 Ella songs on my Mac. I now know this having just collected all of them together in one folder. It’s a rich a body of work as anyone could ask for.

If Ella had the looks to go with the voice then she would have unquestionably been the most talked about, admired, revered and loved female singer of the 20th century. As it was she was simply the best, as well as being for many the most admired, revered and loved. Born in Newport Mews Virginia on April 25 1918, and orphaned at an early age, she was ‘discovered’ after performing at the Harlem Amateur Hour aged just sixteen.

She was hired by Chick Webb to sing with his Orchestra and had her first hit in 1936 with ‘Sing Me A Swing Song (And Let me Dance)’. Besides singing with Chick Webb she performed on records with The Mills Brothers in 1937. Her big break came singing with Chick in June 1938 when ‘A-Tisket A-Tasket’ spent ten weeks at No.1. In a sign of the times Ella and Chick had a hit a few months later with ‘Wacky Dust’ an unabashed opus to cocaine. Webb died aged just 30 the following year and for a while Ella continued to front his Orchestra, as well as recording solo. She formed a successful short-term partnership with the Ink Spots and they had two No.1 records in 1944. She also recorded successfully with Louis Armstrong and Louis Jordan in 1946. Her recording of ‘I Love You For Sentimental Reasons’ with the Delta Rhythm Boys was another big hit in 1947, while ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ with Louis Jordan in 1949 from the Esther William’s film Neptune’s Daughter was her last top ten hit.

As the 1950s rolled around Ella’s appearances on the Billboard charts became infrequent, but this was by no means a reflection on her talent and the quality of her recordings; Ella had risen above the charts. Her last U.S. chart success of any note was ‘Mack The Knife’ which managed to make No.27 in 1960. Ella had graduated from being a pop singer to a jazz singer in the late 1940s. She became associated with Norman’ Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic which led to her becoming an international name. By 1956 she was recording for Granz’s Verve label and it is her recordings with this premier jazz company that have become the basis for her continuing popularity.

Ella recorded a series of albums of the best of the greatest American songwriters. These ‘Songbooks’ had arrangements by the likes of Nelson Riddle, Buddy Bregman, Billy May, Duke Ellington and Paul Weston. The first of the songbooks was a double album of Cole Porter, which quickly sold 100,000 copies in 1956.

"I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them."

Ira Gershwin.

If Ella had a secret it was her diversity. She had started out a swing singer, moved to bebop, she sang perfect scat, was an extraordinary jazz vocalist and had no fear of modern material as the 60s and 70s came along. From the Blues to bossa nova and calypsos to carols she imbued all with her unique voice, sounding forever young. She was blessed with a three-octave range and diction and enunciation that was like Frank Sinatra’s……as good as it gets.

Ella Fitzgerald had both legs amputated below the knees in 1992 as a result of complications arising from diabetes. In 1991 Ella, having famously once said, “the only thing better than singing is more singing”, gave her final concert at New York's Carnegie Hall. Five year later on June 15 1996 she died.

"The best way to start any musical evening is with this girl. It don’t get better than this."
Frank Sinatra

Biggest Hits
A-Ticket A-Tasket (1938) No.1 with Chick Webb & His Orchestra
Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall (1944) No.1 (with the Ink Spots)
I’m Making Believe (1944) No.1 (with the Ink Spots)
My Happiness (1948)
But Not for Me (1959) Awarded a Grammy

For Ella, like many quality singers, it was no so much a matter of what were her biggest hits. It was by far the more subjective criteria of what were her best performances. ‘How Long Has This Been Going On’, Manhattan, and ‘Isn’t it Romantic’ are pure Ella, and pure magic.


jams o donnell said...

Mel Torme was spot on. I really should listen to her songs more often

Tuscan Tony said...

Nice piece.

Thanks for the link, by the way.

r morris said...

Great story on Ella. She was wonderful.