ELLA FITZGERALD Vol.3
'Oh! Lady Be Good' Original Recordings 1945-1952
The most universally revered of all black female jazzsingers, Ella evolved her own, individual 'third person' approach to a song:'You tell it like a beautiful story, and it's always a story that happened tosomebody else'. For more than half a century Tin Pan Alley supplied her withfresh material while those already established were always happy to have theirmaterial revived by her, most notably Gershwin, who claimed he never thoughtmuch of his own songs until Ella sang them. Throughout her long career, herinterpretative instinct never deserted her: elegant yet spontaneous, she becameNumber One among jazz-singers, although she vehemently rejected so restrictinga label, seeing herself in the broader r?â??le of 'singer of popular songs'. Whatever the repertoire, however, scator ballad, none can outshine her innate sense of rhythm, technical security andidentification over such a wide range of styles.
Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in Newport News City, WarwickCounty, Virginia, on 25 April 1917. During her early childhood she and her siblings were abandoned by theirtruck-driver father to the devices of their laundress mother, Tempie, butdespite poverty and less-than-equal odds, Ella stayed cheerful. A member of her school glee club, shealso sang in the Bethany African Methodist Episcopal Church Choir, soonmastered the piano and listened avidly to the radio where she heard - andlearned by heart - all the latest tunes from the Boswells and her hero LouisArmstrong. In 1932, followingTempie's sudden death from a heart-attack, Ella was assigned to the care of heraunt in New York. A rebellious anddifficult teenager, she was remanded briefly to the New York State TrainingSchool, a sort of girls' reformatory, in Yonkers.
By 1934, however, she already aspired to a show-biz career.Quitting the reformatory she began to frequent the 'Black Broadway' zone around7th Avenue and after trying her luck in various talent competitions won firstprize in a Radio WMCA competition. The prize, non-monetary, consisted of airtime and a stage debut at theHarlem Apollo at 253 West 125th Street. Ella's backing group at that auspicious if fairly low-key event was ledby Benny Carter (born 1907) who, impressed by what he heard, recommended her tohis former boss, Fletcher Henderson. Initially, this led her nowhere (Henderson was at that time no longer ina position to take on unknown vocalists, however talented) but Ella, meanwhile,had won a prize in another Apollo contest, comprising $25 expenses plus aweek's work with the band of drummer-vocalist Tiny Bradshaw (1905-1958) at theHarlem Opera House.
Her appearances there brought her recognition and anintroduction to bandleader Chick Webb (1910-1939), the Baltimore-borndrummer-songwriter who had fronted his own New York-based bands since 1926 andwho was fated to die prematurely from tuberculosis while resident conductor atthe Savoy Ballroom. Ella was effectively adopted by Chick and his wife andinitially shared credits as his vocalist with Charles Linton and others ad hoc,but by June 1935 she had cut her first discs with the band. Their first US hit, \Sing Me A SwingSong" charted at No.18 in July 1936, but Ella also freelanced and recordedelsewhere (notably with Benny Goodman, the Mills Brothers and groups fronted bypianist Teddy Wilson and saxophonist Teddy Hill), before going on to recordfurther hits with Webb including, in 1938, their first US No.1 "A-Tisket,A-Tasket", which charted for 19 weeks. However, as Chick's illness progressedshe herself began to front the band, in the guise of 'Ella Fitzgerald & HerSavoy Eight' and in 1939, following his death, she would take the reins for thenext three years billed (at any rate until the musicians' union strike ofmid-1942) as 'Ella Fitzgerald & Her Famous Orchestra'. See Naxos Jazz Legends 8.120540 and8.120611, covering the years 1936-1941.
From late 1942 onwards Ella pursued a career as a vocalfreelancer with leading contemporary bands and jazz groups and in November ofthat year recorded the first of several intermittent titles (pre-1952) with TheInk Spots. Three of these were awarded the distinction of hit-singles: "I'mMaking Believe" and "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall" (a double-sided USNo.1 in November, 1944) and "I'm Beginning To See The Light" (No.5 in April,1945). Her other US Top 30 entries included (in 1945) a revival of It's Only APaper Moon (the Harold Arlen-Ed Harburg standard originally aired by Cliff'Ukelele Ike' Edwards in the 1933 film Take A Chance) and in July 1946 shescored a big No. 7 success with rhythm & blues saxophonist-bandleader LouisJordan in "Stone Cold Dead In The Market". A No. 9 sequel to this was found, byJune 1949, with "Baby, It's Cold Outside", while her numerous collaborationswith Louis Armstrong included, in 1946, "You Won't Be Satisfied" (No.10) and in1950, "Can Anyone Explain?" (No.30). Outstanding among Ella's many scatperformances, Smooth Sailing, with the Ray Charles Singers, clocked in at No.9in 1951.
With her contract with Decca ongoing, from 1946 onwards Ellawas an established solo jazz stylist in her own right, universally respectedfor her rare combination of flair and harmonic accuracy. In December 1947 shemarried Dizzy Gillespie's bassist Ray Brown and toured with him with Jazz AtThe Philharmonic. Honed and expertly marketed by her guru Norman Granz (herpersonal manager who in the early 1950s made her the principal attraction ofhis newly-formed, prestigious Verve label) she swiftly became a media star. Arare example of a jazz-singer who won and retained a foremost niche amongnon-jazz audiences, into the 1970s and beyond she enjoyed a special status asan interpreter of American popular songs (her late-1950s LP albums with BuddyBregman featuring her conspicuous fortes Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers andGershwin remain classics). However, for many Ella fans the real highlight of her immediate post-warcareer was the 1950 Gershwin set (Tracks 8-15) which benefit from the sensitivesolo accompaniments of Baltimore pianist Ellis Larkins (born 1923).
Peter Dempsey, 2003