By Phillip D. Atteberry
This material is copyrighted and was originally published in The Mississippi Rag, April, 1996.
Some years ago, a group of baseball writers voted Dizzy Dean the greatest pitcher of all time. When a sportscaster questioned that, Diz said, "Son, I may not have been the best, but I was among 'em."
When it comes to jazz singers, the same can be said of Ella Fitzgerald. She probably was the best. At the very least, she was "among 'em." Not only did she sing longer than virtually anybody, but her range, pitch, imagination and repertoire have never been matched.
Ella's career can be loosely divided into three categories: Her years with Decca (1935-55), her Verve Years (1956-66), and her Pablo Years (1971-1991). Most regard the Verve Years as her "golden age," the Decca Years as an apprenticeship, and the Pablo Years as an increasingly labored encore. Like most generalizations, this one is only partly true.
The Decca Years
From 1935 to 1941, Ella was indeed an apprentice. She joined Chick Webb as a dynamic but undeveloped talent. Touring with Webb, however, seasoned her. She learned tunes, chord changes and began to understand improvising. But finding her own niche wasn't easy.
In truth, Chick Webb didn't quite know what to do with Ella. Decca's compilation, Ella Fitzgerald, the Early Years--Part I: With Chick Webb and the Orchestra (1935-1938), reveals how raw Ella's talent was--and how misunderstood was her potential. The early cuts reek with silly novelties like "McPherson is Rehearsin'" and "Vote for Mr. Rhythm," indicating that Webb initially looked upon Ella as an appendage to the band--a source of novelties--rather than an integral part of it. (And why shouldn't he, after all, because that's what band singers were in the 1930's.)
The recordings made within a year of Webb's death, however, reveal better material but also "whiter" sounding arrangements. In the last year two years of his life, Chick Webb faced a quandary: whether to pursue commercial success on the strength of Ella's popularity or his own musical identity. In the end, Webb subordinated his orchestra to Ella and perhaps lessened his place in jazz history. But his actions are understandable. Sixty years after the fact, we can speak in high-sounding phrases about "musical identities," but at the time, band leaders equated success with money. In Ella, Chick Webb had a commercial asset that no other band had. He deserves credit rather than criticism for his decision to subordinate his own musical identity to hers. Volume two of Decca's "Early Years" series, Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra (1939-1941) defines how far Ella's talent has come by the end of the Webb years. Her voice has matured some, but is still girlish; her imagination has grown, but is still limited. She has become a good singer, but not a great one. For those interested in this period of Ella's career, an inexpensive compilation that covers much of the same territory is Laserlight's Sing Song Swing, taken mostly from early forties transcriptions when Ella headed the remnants of Webb's band.
In 1942, three events prompted the first crisis of Ella's career. First, the American Federation of Musicians struck, disrupting commercial recordings for over a year. Second, Frank Sinatra rose to enormous popularity, giving rise to a generation of romantic, photogenic vocalists, the mould for which Ella (the "plump chanteuse") did not fit. Third, Milt Gabler joined Decca Records as producer and chief executive in charge of Artists and Repertoire.
Milt Gabler has been criticized for not recognizing Ella's ability and maximizing her potential. Such criticism is unfair. In a world teeming with pretty-faced songbirds, it would have been easy for Gabler to dismiss Ella altogether, especially since Ella had always been a band singer and the bands couldn't record. But Gabler experimented with her, not always with good material or in favorable environments, but he recognized that she had something worth finding and developing. Gabler's probing for Ella's magic is best chronicled in GRP's two volume Ella Fitzgerald: 75th Birthday Celebration. These cuts from 1938 to 1955 (when Ella left Decca for Verve), chronicle Ella's growing talent and Gabler's growing knowledge of how that talent should be used. (It is well to remember that Decca handled Ella largely in the pre-LP years, so Gabler did not have as many recording options as Norman Granz did later.) The 75th Birthday Celebration contains some unfortunate efforts, but also some interesting cuts that heretofore have long remained in the Decca vaults (a 1946 teaming with Louis Armstrong and the Bob Haggart Orchestra on "You Won't be Satisfied"; a collaboration from the same year with a Billy Kyle quartet, "I Didn't Mean a Word I Said," and several romps with Sy Oliver from the late 40's and very early 50's.) The 75th Birthday Celebration as a whole is uneven. But it does illustrate that the Decca years became more than an apprenticeship for the later Verve years.
Interestingly, the late Decca years provided two 10" albums that anticipate, and are as good as, anything Ella produced for Verve--duo sessions with pianist Ellis Larkins that were released in 1994 as Pure Ella (originally released as Ella Sings Gershwin  and Songs in a Mellow Mood .) These recordings reveal Ella at her best. Her voice has fully matured, though it retains a girlish suppleness. Like Nat Cole, her voice defies racial stereotype. Her pitch, timing, lyrical inflections are not only perfect, but perfectly showcased by Ellis Larkins' accompaniment, which supplements but never competes. If I were stranded on the proverbial desert island with only one Ella album, I would want this one.
The Verve Years
Through a complex series of circumstances (which we will discuss in a moment), Norman Granz, who had been managing Ella's career for several years, wrested her from Decca in 1955 and launched her on the most prolific and successful recording decade any singer has ever had. Ella's accomplishments are so rich and varied during these years that we should discuss them by categories.
The Songbook Cycle
The most ambitious of Ella's Verve recordings are the "songbooks" that eventually grew to seventeen volumes. Norman Granz got the songbook idea from Decca. Ella Sings Gershwin sold well in 1950 and demonstrated the value of thematic unity. By 1956, 33 1/3 LP's had taken over the market and given Granz the opportunity to develop the "songbook" idea more elaborately. In February of 1956, therefore, only a few months after gaining the rights to record Ella, Granz began preparing for The Cole Porter Songbook, the success of which astonished even the aggressive Verve promoters. It became the eleventh biggest LP of 1956 and the top selling jazz album.
In retrospect, we can see that sales were helped by Cole Porter's newly resurgent reputation. Porter's career had suffered a decade-long decline until the blockbuster successes of Kiss Me, Kate, which ran on Broadway until 1952, and Can-Can which ran from '53 to '56. By 1956, therefore, the American imagination had newly enshrined Cole Porter as one of the country's greatest songwriters. This perception was skillfully reinforced by David Stone Martin's surrealistic songbook album cover, which evoked slightly classical overtones, beckoning lovers of serious, as well popular, music.
And indeed The Cole Porter Songbook is an artistic success, though it would not turn out to be the best of the cycle. Nelson Riddle was Norman Granz's first choice as arranger because of his recent successes with Frank Sinatra's Swing Easy and Songs for Young Lovers. But Riddle was under exclusive contract to Capitol, so Granz chose Jule Styne's younger brother, Buddy Bregman, who, though less well known, had recently orchestrated NBC's Emmy nominated production of Anything Goes. Bregman's arrangements have come under recent criticism because they are so ornate, at times sounding more like an MGM soundtrack than a jazz vocal album. But Bregman had matured in the NBC and CBS studios, and his orchestrating style reflected not only his background but the musical Zeitgeist of the 1950's. As such, Bregman's orchestrations are more timely than timeless.
Ella, herself, sings well, but the longer one listens, the more one questions her affinity for Cole Porter. Porter's lyrics are full of ironies, sarcasms, and double entendres, but Ella's lyric interpretations have always been straightforward. So even though her voice is in top form, the ironic edges of most lyrics are diminished, making the Cole Porter Songbook a good album, but not a great one.
Because the Cole Porter project was a huge critical and financial triumph, Norman Granz created a twin with The Rodgers and Hart Songbook. He once again hired Bregman to do the arrangements, and this time they are even more ornate, so that even though Ella's singing is again beyond criticism, the proliferation of strings makes the songs sound more similar than they are. Richard Rodgers' greatest attribute as a composer is versatility, but in The Rodgers and Hart Songbook, tunes like "The Lady is a Tramp" sound too much like "A Ship Without a Sail."
And again, Ella handles the music better than the lyrics. As a lyricist, Lorenz Hart is nearly as saucy as Cole Porter, especially with tunes like "Give It Back to the Indians" and "To Keep My Love Alive." But Ella is no more successful in underscoring Hart's lyric ironies than she was Porter's, resulting in yet another double album that, though good, did not reach its potential.
And yet The Rodgers and Hart Songbook received glowing reviews and went to number eleven on the Billboard chart, representing another huge financial success for Norman Granz and prompting him to plan an even bigger project--The Duke Ellington Songbook. This time Granz had in mind not two albums but four. He envisioned Ella paying tribute to the Duke's music with new arrangements by Ellington himself. But problems plagued the project from the start. Ellington was under exclusive contract to Columbia, and Columbia was not about to loan him out. So Granz signed Johnny Hodges to a Verve contract and threatened to forbid Hodges from recording with Ellington (though it seems that Hodges did not understand the contract's ramifications when he signed it.) In any case, the following compromise resulted: Ellington and his orchestra would be allowed to record two albums on Verve if Hodges could continue recording with Ellington. It wasn't the deal Granz wanted, for he still envisioned a massive four album project, but it was the best he could do. So he lined up a Paul Smith-led sextet featuring Ben Webster to back Ella on fourteen Ellington standards. This, he hoped, would provide enough material to complete the four albums. But his problems were just beginning.
Ellington arrived with his orchestra on June 24, 1957 with only one new arrangement, "Caravan," and a four part instrumental suite, which he conveniently called Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald. (Ellington was never one to work on somebody else's schedule, and it might even be doubted whether he wanted to take second billing on anybody's album, even Ella's.) The session had all the makings of a disaster.
And yet it wasn't. The session oozes with informality. The band swings vigorously with the old charts, and Ella jumps in where she can. She scats freely, occasionally trades four and eights with Ellington's all-star lineup of soloists, and otherwise makes herself at home, giving the recordings less precision but worlds more vitality than the Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hart efforts.
And yet Granz was still short on material. Even with the sixteen minute instrumental, Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, he was a partial album shy, so he turned to an Oscar Peterson-Ben Webster quintet to back up Ella on five more tunes. In short, The Duke Ellington Songbook turned out to be a compilation of recordings made over thirteen months with a variety of personnel pulled together at the last moment. And yet it works. The small group recordings give Ella a melodic freedom and rhythmic flexibility she never had in the earlier songbooks, and she makes splendid use of both. The Duke Ellington Songbook, like the Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart projects, not only garnered enthusiastic reviews but sold spectacularly, which, given the hefty $20.00 price tag, was remarkable.
Norman Granz was, by this time, committed to riding the wave as far as it would take him and began planning a still bigger project, The George and Ira Gershwin Songbook, a massive, five volume enterprise. But Granz had learned some lessons from the Duke Ellington project. Most importantly, he learned patience. To do a five volume recording, he needed time, and he set aside nearly two years to prepare. Secondly, he needed discipline. Duke Ellington, for all his brilliance, could never work with someone else's deadline. Granz needed an efficient professional, and Nelson Riddle became the answer to his prayers.
Granz had wanted Riddle for some time, but until mid-1957, Riddle remained under exclusive contract to Capitol. When he became available in 1957, Granz hired him to arrange and conduct the Gershwin albums--and gave him well over a year to prepare.
In the meantime, he conscripted Paul Weston to arrange and conduct what by now seemed a small project--the two volume Irving Berlin Songbook. It seems odd, from the perspective of 1996, to devote five volumes to Gershwin and only two to Irving Berlin, especially since the simplicity of Berlin's music and lyrics fit Ella's musical personality so well. But in 1958 Irving Berlin was in danger of becoming an old hat. No one questioned his stature, but he had been around seemingly forever; his talents were waning, and, in short, he was respected but not fashionable. George Gershwin, on the other hand, had been dead nearly twenty years and his work was benefiting--with the assistance of his brother Ira--from the first of many revivalist movements, making Gershwin the hotter of the two composers in the public mind.
But however unfashionable Irving Berlin might have been in 1958, the Irving Berlin Songbook is one of Ella's finest accomplishments. First, Paul Weston's arrangements are much simpler than Bregman's. Weston's strings are kept more in the background and the rhythm section is allowed to "cook" more freely, giving the tunes more life and giving Ella more freedom to maneuver, as her scat-filled opening cut, "Blue Skies," reveals. Second, Ella does better with Berlin's lyrics than she did with Cole Porter's or Lorenz Hart's. Irving Berlin's lyrics have an everyman and woman quality about them. They are sometimes witty, but seldom sophisticated. One can imagine them being sung by the ice man making his rounds or the department store clerk walking home, and the purity of Ella's voice together with the simplicity of her delivery enhance those lyric virtues.
The Irving Berlin Songbook was recorded in March of 1958 and the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook over a seven month period from January to July 1959. Granz's deliberate preparations for the Gershwin project paid off in what may be Ella's greatest songbook achievement. Nelson Riddle's arrangements are among the best he ever did. The central strength of his work was always consistency and the central weakness predictability, largely because he churned out so many orchestrations so quickly. But because Granz gave him time to prepare for the Gershwin albums, the arrangements are more varied and subtle than his previous work, from the Middle Eastern flavored oboe in the background of "Sampson and Delilah" to the barroom piano sequences of "The Real American Folksong," to the lush strings and surprising ballad treatment of Ella's long time scat romp, "Oh, Lady Be Good." Even though Riddle's charts don't swing as well as Paul Weston's in The Irving Berlin Songbook, they are endlessly interesting in ways that complement rather than compete with Ella's vocals. Had Ella recorded nothing other than The George and Ira Gershwin Songbook, she would deserve to be remembered as one of America's fine singers.
After Ella won Grammys in 1958 for Best Vocalist (The Irving Berlin Songbook) and Best Jazz Performance (The Duke Ellington Songbook) and after The George and Ira Gershwin Songbook, despite it's size and expense, hit both the Billboard and jazz charts in late 1959, Granz decided to pursue the songbook cycle even further. He hired Billy May, another of Sinatra's arrangers newly released from Capitol, to orchestrate the two-volume Harold Arlen Songbook. The albums were recorded in August of 1960 and January of 1961 and released in the spring. The results were, once again, hugely successful. Few composers have written with stronger jazz influences than Harold Arlen, and thus his songs, like Duke Ellington's, bring out Ella's strengths. As an arranger, Billy May does not have Nelson Riddle's polish, but he swings better, uses more brass, fewer strings and more instrumental solos, making the Harold Arlen Songbook, along with the Duke Ellington Songbook, by the far the jazziest of the cycle.
The Jerome Kern Songbook, recorded in October of 1962, features more Nelson Riddle orchestrations. Kern wrote some jazz standards--one immediately thinks of "All the Things You Are"--but his music is not jazz influenced like Harold Arlen's. Kern was one of Broadway's patriarchs, and he was influenced as much by Victor Herbert and Sigmund Romberg as by Tin Pan Alley. Nelson Riddle understood that and orchestrated accordingly, accentuating the subtle tones and colors of Kern's melodies rather than their jazz possibilities. That Ella is able to perform exquisitely in this context is a testament to her remarkable diversity.
The last of the cycle, The Johnny Mercer Songbook, recorded in October of 1964, is the least successful. It is the only songbook to feature lyrics rather than songs by a single composer and thus lacks the musical coherence of the previous volumes. Nelson Riddle's arrangements, moreover, though they are professional as always, do not sparkle with the originality of the Gershwin Songbook arrangements. Most troubling, however, is that Ella's voice reveals, for the first time, a trace of wear. One doesn't hear it initially, but if one listens long enough, one begins to notice her reaching just a little at the top and bottom of her range.
Other Studio Recordings
With the songbooks alone, Ella achieved a volume and quality of recorded material that few singers have approached. It is amazing to consider, therefore, that the songbooks constitute less than half of her Verve studio output. In 1956, as Norman Granz began preparations for The Cole Porter Songbook, he also began lining up Louis Armstrong for a series of recordings with Ella, yet another idea he got from Decca. Louis and Ella had recorded successfully as early as 1946, and had performed together numerous times with Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic. Though world's apart technically and stylistically, Ella and Louis generated a uniquely pleasant chemistry, in part because they genuinely liked one another, but mostly because they both possessed deep and thoroughly matured jazz imaginations.
And yet for all their chemistry, Ella and Louis (1956) and Ella and Louis Again (1957) are not as successful as one would have imagined. Part of this had to do with Louis' schedule. Every time Granz managed a few hours of studio time with Louis, he had worked the night before. His lip, which had been giving him increasing difficulty over the years, was fatigued, resulting in numerous retakes and final cuts which often sound cautious. Interestingly, Laserlight's Ella and Louis Together consists of out-takes from these albums and is not only less expensive but more fun. Both Ella and Louis foul up lyrics occasionally, and Louis muffs a note here and there on the trumpet, but overall the cuts contain an exuberance and humor that the "clean" takes don't have. One almost gets the impression that the musicians knew they were dealing with out-takes, so they relaxed and approached the music with more abandon.
Ella and Louis' best, though least jazz oriented collaboration, is Porgy and Bess (1957). Russ Garcia's arrangements, including a ten and half minute overture, are beautifully done. But his greatest skill is condensing the score into one album without losing thematic coherence. Louis makes an endearing, though eccentric Porgy. His range is stretched by Gershwin's songs, and his staccatoed, labored trumpet doesn't always fit Garcia's smooth charts, but one can't help chuckling at his idiosyncratic lyric inflections and admiring his unparalleled ability to make a song his own. As Bess, Ella simply soars, capturing with equal magnificence Bess's musical range and the range of her emotions.
Since 1952, Granz had been watching Frank Sinatra's career with admiration. Granz was impressed with Sinatra's material, his arrangers, his album concepts, and of course their commercial success. Immediately after signing Ella, therefore--even as he prepared for the Cole Porter Songbook and the Louis Armstrong collaborations--Granz lined up Frank DeVol to arrange four albums in the Sinatra mould. They would turn out to be Like Someone in Love, Hello Love, Ella Sings Sweet Songs for Lovers, and Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas. Though recording began in 1957, none were completed or released before 1959.
Ella's collaborations with Frank DeVol have never received the attention they deserve because they are less distinctive than her other recordings. DeVol's arrangements, though good, sound like Nelson Riddle's. The tunes, though good, sound like Sinatra selections. In short these albums suffer from a faint scent of imitation. When they were released, moreover, Ella was dominating the jazz vocal scene with songbook albums, Louis Armstrong albums, and live recordings (which we will discuss in a moment.) In other words, she had saturated the market so thoroughly that there wasn't room for albums whose concepts had been done repeatedly and successfully by someone else. No other vocalist, not even Sinatra, has suffered from having more good material than the market could handle, but that was Verve's dilemma. Had Ella done only the Frank DeVol albums during this period, they would have been more successful and more admired, for they are filled with good songs and good music. But they aren't as good as The Duke Ellington Songbook, The Irving Berlin Songbook, The George and Ira Gershwin Songbook, Ella and Louis Again, nor Porgy and Bess and those albums still dominated the market when the DeVol collaborations were released. After twenty-five years, however, we can revisit these DeVol collaborations and appreciate their value. If nothing else, these albums are valuable because in them Ella records for the only time several memorable tunes (i.e. "You're Blase," "Lost in a Fog," "Then I'll be Tired of You").
By 1958, Norman Granz had another of his favorites under contract, Marty Paich. Granz admired Paich's swinging charts, especially his work with Mel Torme (and in fact he would re-unite the two in 1960 for their finest collaboration, Mel Torme Swings Shubert Alley.) But Granz first teamed Paich with Ella for one of her most swing-drenched albums, Ella Swings Lightly (1958). The Paich "dec-tette " is an effective novelty. It can achieve big band results when desired, but also simpler, small-group effects. Paich's charts for Ella Swings Lightly strike a balance between the two while the song selections emphasize underworked gems--"Little White Lies," "720 in the Books," and "Moonlight on Ganges." Ella Swings Lightly is an album only a jazz singer could make. Her interplay with the musicians and her sparing but effective scat lines underscore how fully developed Ella's jazz imagination had become.
Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960) [released on CD in 1991 as The Intimate Ella] is the antithesis of Ella Swings Lightly. By 1960, Granz had done everything except record Ella with simple piano accompaniment, so he set up a recording date for Ella to do a dozen standards with Paul Smith. Though Ella's regular accompanist, Smith was noted for his flashy style (which one hears on Ella in Berlin), but he could also be unassuming, as he demonstrates on this album. In a 1992 interview, Smith discussed this recording. "I suggested that we do all ballads. No up-tempo stuff. Most singers couldn't pull off such an album because a singer's technical weaknesses surface more on a ballad than on a swinger. But in 1960 Ella had better chops than any singer I've ever heard. She had no weaknesses. I figured an album of ballads with quiet piano background would showcase her technique better than anything else we could do. . . . When we got to the studio, I told Ella I would give her a brief introduction and follow her home. And that's what we did. I think it's one of her best albums, and I was glad to see Verve release it on CD. It never did receive wide distribution as an LP. I don't know why."
A few months later, Ella also completed a rare studio date with her trio, Clap Hands! Here Comes Charlie. As good as Ella was in front of a studio orchestra, she was often better with a rhythm section, and Clap Hands! Here Comes Charlie demonstrates that. Lou Levy's arrangements make for light, dexterous performances that emphasize Ella's jazz qualities more clearly than her fully orchestrated albums.
We need to keep reminding ourselves how hard it is to write accurately about Ella's career. Many things were happening at once, and a written narrative inevitably implies more sequencing than existed. For example, The Intimate Ella was recorded two months after Ella in Berlin, between recording dates with Frank DeVol for the Christmas album, and just as The George and Ira Gershwin Songbook was hitting the market. The Gershwin albums sold fabulously, and Norman Granz, ever the entrepreneur, decided he had to follow up the success with more Nelson Riddle albums. Even though the Harold Arlen Songbook had recently been completed and was being prepared for release, Granz had Riddle put together two albums of standards, which were released in the spring of 1962 as Ella Swings Brightly with Nelson and Ella Swings Gently with Nelson. Riddle had much less time to prepare orchestrations than he had for the Gershwin project; thus, his work is not as memorable. But given the rushed circumstances, his charts were amazingly good. His achievements on these albums are so solid, in fact, that Ella Swings Brightly won a Grammy for the Best Female Vocal of 1962.
In January of 1962, as Nelson Riddle scribbled away at his charts between recording sessions, Ella recorded--in only two days--an album with the Bill Doggett orchestra called Rhythm is My Business. Inexplicably, this has not been released on CD even though it contains some top notch versions of top notch tunes (i.e. "Broadway," "Hallelujah, I Love Him So," "Show Me the Way to Get Out of This World.") The orchestra is also populated with such notables as Ernie Royal, Joe Wilder, Phil Woods, Hank Jones, Mundell Lowe, and George Duvivier. Had this album been recorded by anyone but Ella, it would certainly be available on CD, but Ella's ouevre is so large that even a massive conglomerate like Polygram can't keep it all available at once.
In 1963, Ella recorded one of her best Verve albums and one of her worst. Ella and Basie: On the Sunny Side of the Street, with the Count and his orchestra, is one of her best. Though Ella had not recorded with Basie up to this time, she had appeared with him on numerous occasions. Not only did they genuinely like one another, but Basie's swing style fit Ella's. Quincy Jones' arrangements match the vocalist to the band more thoroughly and smoothly than ever occurs in The Duke Ellington Songbook. It is not fair to say that Ella and Basie is a better album than The Duke Ellington Songbook, but it is certainly more polished.
Perhaps Ella's least effective studio recording for Verve is These Are the Blues. The only pure blues album that Ella ever recorded, this features Roy Eldridge on trumpet, Wild Bill Davis on organ, and a rhythm section of Ray Brown, Herb Ellis, and Gus Johnson. Not only is the quality of musicianship high, but the album was well received and given a four star review in Down Beat. It doesn't wear as well as Ella's other work, however, because Ella simply wasn't a blues singer. Her singing often had blues inflections, but she wasn't a blues singer in the way that Bessie Smith was, and These Are the Blues contains Bessie Smith songs. Ella's touch was too delicate and her approach too sophisticated, making These Are the Blues a mismatch of artist and material.
Ella's studio output, amazing as it is, still does not account for some of her finest achievements. Ella was a successful live performer througout her career. After fronting the remnants of the Chick Webb orchestra, she toured successfully with Dizzy Gillespie's band in 1947. But she was even more successful with her own trio, which included Hank Jones on piano and Ray Brown (to whom she was to married from 1947 to 1951) on bass, and Charlie Smith on drums.
Admittedly, however, Ella's career jumped to another level when Norman Granz took it over and, in 1949, she became a regular feature of Jazz at the Philharmonic. By 1952, Granz was booking Ella into a string of exclusive night spots where she was enthusiastically received. But Granz was unable to record her until 1955. As with The Duke Ellington Songbook, Granz got his way--or part of his way--through contractual blackmail. In 1955, Decca planned to issue a two volume soundtrack of The Benny Goodman Story, but Granz controlled some of the musicians who appeared in the film and would not allow the soundtrack to be released unless he was given complete control of Ella's career. Once this occurred, Granz began capitalizing on Ella's live performances as well as her studio output.
The first of Ella's live albums, At the Opera House (1957), reveals a different dimension to her talent. Though writers quibble over definitions, most of Ella's studio work for Verve reveals a top drawer pop singer with strong jazz overtones. Her live recordings, however, reveal the unadulterated "jazz" singing for which she was so distinctive. At the Opera House (as re-released on CD in 1986) contains two concerts, one recorded at the Chicago Opera House on September 29, 1957 and one at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on October 7. The album is notable for its high energy and consistency. The program is virtually the same, and Ella's song performances sometimes vary no more than a second. For the first time, record buying audiences got to hear the explosive Ella romping through "Goody Goody" and scat marathons on "Stompin' at the Savoy."
Ella finished her 1957 JATP tour late in the year and began a European tour the following spring, which included a Rome concert on her birthday, April 28. Even though the concert was recorded, it was inexplicably lost until 1987, when discographer Phil Schaap (who was doing research on Oscar Peterson) discovered it unlabeled in the Polygram vaults. When it was released in 1988 as Ella in Rome: The Birthday Concert, it quickly went to the top of the jazz charts and stayed there all summer.
No one knows how or why a recording of this quality was misplaced. A reasonable conjecture is that it was made at a time when Jazz at the Opera House had just hit the record stores. Another live album would have been too much for the market at that time, so the recording was stored. Undoubtedly, carelessness accounts for its not being labeled, but it may well have been a carelessness bred by the plethora of Ella recordings at the time and the difficulty in imagining that one day they would not be so easily obtained.
The positive reception of Jazz at the Opera House (good sales and five stars in Down Beat) set the stage for Ella's best known live album, Ella in Berlin (1960). Paul Smith, who accompanies Ella on that album, regards it as one of her finest: "In some ways," Smith told me, "it's a shame people remember that album only for 'Mack the Knife.' It's got some other fine things on it. 'Too Darn Hot' and 'Gone With the Wind' are nice swingers, and the Gershwin ballads, 'The Man I Love' and 'Summertime' are perfectly done."
Smith maintains that in her prime, Ella was as close to perfection as any singer has ever been. "She had a great sense of timing and great pitch. All of her impulses were very musical. Thus, she was easy to accompany. In those days, she was right on the money night after night."
Clearly, however, Ella's biggest hit from the album, and one of the biggest hits she ever had, was 'Mack the Knife,' which became legendary. She forgot the words, so the story goes, made up her own, and fashioned from them a hit. Wilfred Middlebrooks, who was her bassist at the time, corroborates the story.
"When we went out on tour, we had a show, and she usually didn't change it. We might vary the encores, but that was about all. Usually. Once in a while, when Ella was bored with the routine or feeling especially loose, she'd mix things up. She didn't do it often, but every three or four weeks, on a whim, she'd call for something out of the blue.
"That night in Berlin, we were in front of twelve thousand people and at the end of a midnight concert. We had played Brussels earlier, flown to Berlin and been up for twenty-two hours. We were all so tired we couldn't hold our heads up, when Ella turns around and says, 'Let's do "Mack the Knife."
"My heart sank. I was too tired. We were in front of too many people to try something crazy, and I knew Ella didn't know the tune. I said, 'Well, golly Ella. . .' but before I could say anymore she had turned around and was announcing it. I looked at Paul and he just grinned. Of course he could play anything, but I was still a young dude and needed to run things down once. Paul said, 'I'll start us with the "Here Comes Charlie" vamp in G.' I could handle that, so we commenced. And just about the time I started feeling good (after a couple of choruses), Ella gave Paul a hand signal and switched to A-flat. She had great pitch, and I could hear just where she was going, but staying with her was something else. Paul just looked up at me and grinned.
"I thought, 'Well, I know she doesn't know this tune, so surely she'll stay put,' but I'll be damned if she didn't change keys again at the end of the next chorus, and the next and the next. We ended that thing in D-flat. It was all Paul could do to keep from laughing at me, for I was hanging on by the fingernails, as they say. I remember thinking at the end of the fourth or fifth chorus, 'Well, she's about as lost as she can get, Louis Armstrong will show up any minute,' because when Ella got lost in a swing number, she usually fell back on her Louis imitation, which was a sure fire a crowd pleaser. And sure enough, about that time, here came Louis.
"I was so tired and bothered that night, that I didn't really hear the tune. It was only later, after the record came out, that I realized what a great performance it was. And it was absolutely spontaneous. Fortunately, when we did the tune the following year on the Ella Returns to Berlin album, we had rehearsed it and used only one key change--though Ella still didn't get the lyrics quite right."
Ella in Berlin, which was released in the summer of 1960, went, as so many others had, to the top of the jazz charts and won two more Grammys for Ella. Norman Granz, consequently, had her back in Berlin a year later. This concert, which was also recorded but not released until 1991, has a less dramatic history than Ella in Rome. Two copies of Berlin concert existed in the Polygram vaults; both were labeled, but neither was the original. Because the sound quality of each was uneven, Phil Schaap used the best of both to restore the concert for release. Norman Granz's introduction suggests that he intended to release the album earlier, but again, one can only speculate as to why it got laid aside for thirty years. MGM had just taken over Verve. Norman Granz's priorities were no longer the company's, and amid such circumstances, the recording was probably forgotten.
Ella Returns to Berlin turns out to be as good as, if not better than, the first Berlin album because it contains more, and more varied, material. Lou Levy replaces Paul Smith on piano, giving the trio a different feel, though both Smith and Levy were adept at making the most of Ella's swinging style.
The second Berlin album was recorded in February, 1961. By April, Ella had toured Europe, Greece, Turkey, Israel and Iran before coming home to Basin Street East. Not until the end of April did Ella or the trio get some rest. Wilfred Middlebrooks remembers the fatigue of that tour as much as the music. "Ella simply wore people out. That's why Paul and Lou kept swapping jobs, neither one of them could keep up with Ella's schedules. Me, I was a young cat and not married, so I hung in there longer than most, but Ella even wore me out in the end. When we finished that Basin Street East gig, I wanted to crawl in bed and never get out. That's how tired I was. And we took two or three weeks off before we opened up in Hollywood at the Crescendo."
During this gig, Granz again recorded Ella and released the album as Ella in Hollywood, phrasing which suggested an extension of Ella in Berlin. Wilfred Middlebrooks asserts that Ella in Hollywood is the best of Ella's live albums. "We were well rested when we made that album, and we were loose. We were playing in front of 200 people instead of 20,000 and the atmosphere was more relaxed. You can tell from the record."
Indeed, the album contains some of Ella's best ballad work ("Baby Won't You Please Come Home") and her best scatting ("Take the 'A' Train"). Wilfred Middlebrooks told me that "Take the 'A' Train" had been a staple of the international tour earlier that year (and in fact it is on Ella Returns to Berlin) but that it had been a three or four minute number. The tune runs ten minutes on Ella in Hollywood with most that being Ella's scatting.
"It was another one of those unrehearsed things," Middlebrooks said, "we started that tune just like always, then Ella takes off on us. First thing I know she's into Ray Nance's solo--you know the one he did with Ellington--then I'm hearing licks Dizzy used to play--then I'm hearing Clark Terry--Ella went through them all. It was quite a performance. She did that sometimes. You just never knew when the inspiration would strike her." Unfortunately, Ella in Hollywood has not been re-released on CD, though a Verve spokesman told me some months ago that it was "tentatively" scheduled for release in 1996.
Ella's last live album for Verve is Ella at Juan-les-Pins, recorded in France in 1964. By this time, Ella had a new backing--Tommy Flanagan, Bill Yancey, Gus Johnson, and Roy Eldridge. The album is, once again, of high quality, but it doesn't possess the exuberance of Ella's previous live work. A surface polish has replaced the spontaneity that makes the previous albums so exciting. The presence of Roy Eldridge also has a muddying effect. He solos well, but infrequently, and is an unnecessary addendum to the rhythm section.
The Pablo Years
In 1966, Ella's contract with Verve/MGM came to an end, and the corporate executives (whose interests were no longer primarily jazz) declined to renew her option, bringing to an end the most productive and celebrated decade any singer has ever enjoyed.
From 1966 to 1971, Ella's recording career languished, even though she continued to be hot concert property. She recorded briefly for Capitol, Columbia and Reprise, but those albums suffer from not having been produced by Granz. Opinions of Norman Granz vary, but whatever his faults, he took extraordinary measures to protect his performers by surrounding them with good people and making sure they did suitable material. These elements, for the most part, are lacking in Ella's post-Verve/pre-Pablo albums.
Granz, however, never did get completely out of the record industry. In 1966, Ella and Duke toured Europe and were recorded in Sweden. Granz later obtained the tapes and released them in 1984 on Pablo as The Stockholm Concert, 1966. Ellington's orchestra was never known for precision, and this album has some ragged spots, but it also possesses energy and some swinging vocals. For me, this album has sentimental value because it is the last time Ella was recorded with her vocal powers almost totally in tact.
Even though Ella was apparently in the prime of her career in 1966 (she was approaching fifty), her health was not as robust as it appeared. Not only was she chronically overweight, but she had diabetes, a disease that was difficult to control with her schedule.
"Ella fought a constant battle with her diet," Paul Smith told me. "She tried to watch what she ate, but we kept crazy hours, we were in all kinds of time zones, we worked hard and under a lot of stress. Ella felt the strain especially because she suffered from stage fright--always. Until she walked onto the stage, she was a nervous wreck. After a concert, she felt relieved and hungry, and sooner or late she would eat--and eat lots. We stayed in the best places wherever we were, so the food was always good, but not necessarily good for you."
Ella began having trouble with her eyes in the mid-sixties, and additional health problems plagued her in1969-70. Ella in Nice (which was recorded in 1971 and released on Pablo in 1973) is disconcerting if one juxtaposes it against her live recordings from the early sixties. Her tone has darkened and developed an edge to it. Notes that used to soar effortlessly are now sustained by a hard working diaphragm. In other words, Ella's mechanics have become audible. And yet for all that, Ella in Nice contains more positives than negatives, including a memorable "They Can't Take That Away From Me."
Ella's stay in Nice was cut short, however, by further problems with her eyesight. Before the end of 1971, she had surgery to stop a hemorrhage in her left eye and a cataract removed from her right, placing her career in jeopardy. But it was reinvigorated in 1973 when Norman Granz established Pablo. One of Granz's first moves was re-sign many of the artists he had recorded so successfully on Verve--Ella, Oscar Peterson and Duke Ellington, among others. Then, as was his custom, he began recording them as frequently as possible.
Ella's Pablo recordings have always existed in the shadow of her Verve material, and with some reason. Ella's Verve material is clearly better. But Ella's Pablo work has not been fairly assessed because it has been judged against impossibly high standards. When compared to her Verve material, Ella's Pablo work reveals significant decline, but when compared to jazz singing more generally, Ella's Pablo work sounds much better. If Ella's Verve material had never existed--if she were known only for her Pablo work--she would still be considered a major jazz singer because her 70's output is more impressive than virtually anybody else's.
And yet it is true that as the years passed, Ella's skills gradually declined. Paul Smith, who returned as Ella's musical director in 1980 (after a seventeen year hiatus) realized immediately that she was not the peerless dynamo she had once been: "Ella never studied singing, so she never learned how to preserve her vocal equipment. She had great talent, strength, and desire, so she sang as much as she could as long as she could--night after night, year after year, country after country. She held up longer than anybody else, but in the end her voice wore out."
This decline is most clearly charted in Ella's four duo albums with Joe Pass: Take Love Easy (1973), Ella and Pass . . . Again (1976), Speak Love (1983) and Easy Living (1986). These albums make intriguing listening. They chart the decline of Ella's voice and "vocal equipment." But they also reveal a savvy artist who recognizes her ever increasing limitations and maneuvers ever more skillfully within them.
Other notable Pablo albums include two more collaborations with Count Basie: A Classy Pair (1979) and A Perfect Match (1980). Ella was not in good physical shape when these albums were recorded, but the youth and energy of the young Basie musicians clearly inspired her. A Perfect Match, which was recorded live at Montreaux, reveals some of Ella's old explosiveness, particularly on perennial swingers like "Sweet Georgia Brown." The voice isn't what it was, and Ella can be heard breathing hard in a place or two, but the pitch, the rhythm and the imagination surface again. The album's crowning moment occurs on the last cut when Basie's young musicians take turns trading fours with the legendary scatter.
Throughout the 80's, Ella had more and more trouble controlling her diabetes. In 1986 she underwent open heart surgery and in 1987 had a toe amputated. But, amazingly, she continued to perform between hospital stints. Paul Smith describes this phase of her career. "Really, Ella's only family was her audience. She devoted her entire adult life to them. When the lights went down and the people went home, Ella was lonely. I think that's why she kept going. By the time she quit doing live performances in 1989, she could no longer walk onto a stage--or even stand up. Her performances had become increasingly inconsistent, though even at the end she could still--once in a while--swing like nobody else. But the audiences forgave her even when she didn't. They had fallen in love with her through all those great albums over all those years, and they came to pay homage."
In 1991, Ella won yet another Grammy for All that Jazz, which had been recorded in 1989 with an all star group including Harry "Sweets" Edison, Clark Terry, Benny Carter, and Al Grey. The award was clearly given for Ella's past accomplishments. No one who has luxuriated in Ella's prodigious output can listen to All That Jazz without regret. A voice that once soared effortlessly is now forced and scratchy. Even though Norman Granz continued to record her through 1991 and claims to have enough material for yet another album, one cannot, after hearing All That Jazz, look forward to it.
When interviewing singers and accompanists, I always ask them who their favorite singers are. Ella's name is almost always mentioned first. When interviewing Rebecca Kilgore for the Mississippi Rag a few weeks ago, I asked her why she thought Ella was the best. "Because," said Kilgore, "she could do any song in any way. She could sing a love song straight and make you cry. She could dress it up just a little--or a lot. Every other singer I can think of specializes in certain types of songs. But Ella did them all."
Fortunately, Ella was recorded so often and so well throughout her career, that the Polygram vaults still contain significant unissued material. One has reason to hope, therefore, that we haven't heard the last of the world's greatest jazz singer.