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Ella 101: Pete Kelly's Blues (Day 30 of 101)

May 24, 2018

To mark the end of the first month of Ella 100, today we celebrate the first of only two feature film appearances made by Ella Fitzgerald.

The movie is 1955's Pete Kelly's Blues, a musical crime drama based on an NBC radio drama that ran in summer 1951. A pre-Dragnet Jack Webb starred in the series, and also produced, directed, and starred in the film.

Set during the Prohibition Era, the movie follows the story of Pete Kelly, a jazz cornetist and bandleader who runs afoul of gangsters in 1927 Kansas City, a hotbed for jazz, organized crime, and political corruption. Rounding out the cast are names like Janet Leigh (as Pete's wild and wealthy girlfriend), Edmond O'Brien (as a crime boss who tries to muscle in on Pete's earnings), Andy Devine (a police detective), Lee Marvin (Pete's clarinetist), and famed jazz singer Peggy Lee, who earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her work as a gangster's alcoholic moll.

Ella had a cameo as singer Maggie Jackson; her frequent guitarist, Herb Ellis, also plays a member of Pete's band. Even Jayne Mansfield (in her second film appearance) turns up for a moment.

The movie received mixed reviews (though beautifully shot, it's a weak film for sure) and is mostly forgotten today outside of classic film buffs and jazz completists, but the presence of two of the genre's greatest singers at the top of their game and a plot that makes frequent musical numbers intrinsic to the story makes it a must-see for hardcore devotees.

Ella had a bit of dialogue with Jack Webb, but generally appears for the purpose of singing two songs: she gives her take on the Tin Pan Alley tune Hard Hearted Hannah, and is entrusted by Webb to sing the movie's theme.

Webb was an ardent, lifelong jazz enthusiast (and was married to jazz siren Julie London - we'll come back to that in tomorrow's entry), and gave passionate attention to the film's soundtrack. hiring a crack band of musicians to serve as Pete Kelly's Big Seven and giving the star treatment to Ella and Peggy.

(A bit of trivia: The well-known song "Sing a Rainbow" was written for this film by Arthur Hamilton, and debuted by Peggy Lee, which ended up being the film's longest-reaching legacy.)

Ray Heindorf wrote the the title song, and Sammy Cahn added lyrics that fit like hand in glove with typical phrases like "When you're born with, you will die with the blues, think what you choose" that are just familiar enough while being put together in a way that manages to sound unique and unembarrassed. The song was soon covered by the likes of singers June Christy and Bobby Darin, and still crops up on the occasional jazz album as a minor standard, but it was written for Ella, and she delivered it beautifully.

On a personal note about the woman behind the music, her lifelong struggles with shyness and self-image come through in her scenes. She comes off as pretty self-conscious, but the music shines through.

Keep scrolling below for a clip of Ella's other song in the film, the studio recording of "Pete Kelly's Blues," a second version she recorded a decade later, and a live television performance with trumpeter Ray Anthony...plus one more bonus.

The studio recording, from the 1955 soundtrack album.

"Hard Hearted Hannah" is the kind of song Ella always had fun with, a wry, swinging tune with a jazzy melody that let her engage in some fun vocal acrobatics while injecting a little humor. Running through descriptions of "cold, refrigerator mama" Hannah "pouring water on a drowning man," Ella's clearly enjoying herself on this one.

"She's sweet as sour milk!"

Ella revisited the song nine years later, on her 1964 Hello, Dolly! album (which also featured our Day 21 song, a cover of the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love"), as arranged by Frank DeVol. 

 

Ella singing the theme song in a gorgeous, noir-esque performance with trumpeter Ray Anthony and his orchestra for a live, hour-long television special promoting the film, along with a second clip of her doing "Hard Hearted Hannah" from the same special. She appears much more at ease here, singing live, than lip-syncing to her own voice in the movie. Her sassy, gossipy "Hannah" is a delight.

The entire, hour-long(!!!!) television special from 1955 promoting the film. This is very interesting and unusual for its time because Webb and people from both on and off-camera elements of the film (including Peggy Lee and lead the audience on the step-by-step process of making the movie. And all of the original commercials are there too!

Ella appears at 15:47 singing "After I Say I'm Sorry" and delivering a punchline. She returns at the 31:33 mark for the aforementioned performance with Anthony.

The movie was a passion project for jazz lover Webb, who also staged a 30-day, cross country tour to promote the movie, but it proved to be another strike-out with the property after the short-lived radio show. In 1959, he convinced NBC to turn it into a television series - which, interestingly, co-starred singer Connee Boswell, Ella Fitzgerald's early influence. Ella's career was launched when she won amateur night at Harlem's Apollo Theater - singing a Connee Boswell song.

The TV show ran the same length of time the radio show had: three months. That was it for ol' Pete Kelly, but greatness still lay ahead for Webb with the role of Sgt. Joe Friday.

Ella 101 is a daily look at 101 essential recordings by Ella Fitzgerald, who was born 101 years ago this month. Tune in to Equinox, Monday nights from 8 - 11 p.m. on WYSO, to hear Ella and more great jazz with host Duante Beddingfield.