Seventeen years after Ella Fitzgerald passed away, the author still finds himself in thrall to a certain kind of singing.
“Summer journeys to Niagara and to other places aggravate all our cares/We’ll save our fares!/I’ve a cosy little flat in what is known as old Manhattan we’ll settle down/Right here in Town!/We’ll have Manhattan….”
So begins a charming song from the Great American Songbook. Rodgers and Hart wrote this song in 1925 for a Broadway show. A simple melody evocative of that wonderful place, and full of the simple joys of love between an ordinary guy and an ordinary girl, full of inside jokes on how the tawdriest of attractions makes sense when one does not have two coppers to rub together. The singer? Ella Fitzgerald.
There is something wonderful about the African-American songstresses of days gone by. They were usually big, with voices to match. You can always tell a black singer by her voice, because of a certain something, a je ne sais quoi, in particular, in the voices of the great jazz singers of the 1950s and later. Singers of that era invariably were less schooled and less adept in the use of technology than their soul sisters of later decades.
As a result, their voices sound more authentic — a naturally lower timbre and the ability to hit high notes with great ease.
Ella Fitzgerald passed away 17 years ago, after a long and rich life as the foremost exponent of the American Songbook. Born in 1917 in Virginia to a couple in a common-law marriage, she had a difficult and unhappy childhood; her parents separated barely a month after her birth, and her mother died when she was 15. When she was 17 and living in New York with an aunt, she entered a singing competition in Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. Her performance of ‘Judy’ unexpectedly won her the first prize. She ended up joining drummer Chick Webb’s band and soon the hits began coming.
When Webb died, she took over and called the band ‘Ella and Her Famous Singers’. As she matured, she turned more towards lyrical expression. Her unusual ability to mimic a musical instrument took the technique called ‘scatting’ to the next level. It was a matter of time before her journey led to jazz.
Ella was not alone. She was perhaps primus inter pares in a parade of great voices that graced the American stage. All of them had similar backgrounds to Ella — all of them came from the African-American community, and they overcame great odds to be heard.
Take Etta James. Born to a single mother, she was brought up in a foster home and was discovered singing in a club. Recording contracts followed. After she was relatively successful with a couple of big hits, the Argo label signed her and released ‘At Last’ and the eponymous LP in 1960. The song itself was moderately successful initially, but it is impossible to miss the longing for the loved one who is finally with her.
Music reflects the times, and often it is very difficult to separate the performance from the context. This brings to mind the incomparable Queen of Soul, the one and only Aretha Franklin. One of the most beautiful songs from the 1960s is ‘I Never Loved a Man’. And here is the story behind it: Atlantic Records (founded by the Turkish immigrant Ahmet Ertegun) signed Aretha from another label. She was then flown to Atlanta to meet the backing band. This was during the 1960s, a time of civil rights upheaval. The story goes that she met the band — all of whom were white men. So they sat down with Aretha on the piano and banged out the song in two hours flat. It is very hard to not discern the natural desire of a newbie to showcase her talents, even if it was to an admiring bunch of musicians who had not an ounce of prejudice. But this was the 1960s in the South, and one can almost hear Aretha say, “Listen to this, boys, you ain’t heard nothing like this.”
Bessie Smith was another great African-American musician, who lived between 1895 or so until her tragic death in a car accident in 1937. She started life as a busker and lived a hard life. The story goes that when she was taken to hospital after the accident the hospital refused to admit her because of her colour. Among her tunes, ‘I need a little sugar in my bowl’ is a rare gem. However — no disrespect to Bessie — I prefer the version by Nina Simone. Nina was a regal singer with a strong voice. She took Bessie’s original song and lyrics and modified it in 1968. The permissive 1960s allowed Nina to include the lust in love into the song. It really catches you by the throat.
But back to Ella — the true Queen of Jazz. Ella had the gift of being able to partner with great performers in their own right, and that allowed her to showcase her talents in a manner that none of her soul sisters could emulate. She performed with the Benny Goodman orchestra, with Louis Armstrong and with Duke Ellington. An early partnership with Norman Granz proved significant. He was instrumental in making jazz mainstream by getting the Philharmonic to play jazz arrangements, and ended up as Ella’s manager.
When he founded Verve Records, he naturally asked Ella to record the Cole Porter Songbook. This became the first of a series of records that focused on a single composer and helped establish them in the pantheon as serious musical works. As I write this from Berlin, I must mention that in 1960 she performed at the Deutschlandhalle — a monument to the 1936 Olympics in the Tony Charlottenburg neighbourhood, now sadly demolished due to advancing age. While singing ‘Mack the Knife’ she forgot the lyrics and improvised them. This improvisation — and of course the raucous performance — won her a Grammy and the album itself was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
In recording the songbook, Ella performed a subtle service to America — here was an African-American woman singing the songs that were predominantly composed by Jewish composers, and were sung by and listened to by the white American public. There are many songs by Ella to choose from, but my personal favourite is ‘Manhattan’.
I love these songbirds. Most of all, I love Ella. It is always poignant to remember how unhappy their lives were, and wrought from these tempestuous beginnings was a musical gift we must treasure. So go on! Switch on the music. Put on a disc of Ella singing something from the ‘American Songbook’. Take your favourite senor or senorita by the hand to the dance floor. On commence!