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Ella 101: Ringo Beat (Day 22 of 101)

May 16, 2018

A little-known novelty song in Ella Fitzgerald's catalogue, "Ringo Beat" was a "tribute from the elder generation — a jazz grande dame trying to get with the times," as described in Rob Sheffield's 2017 book Dreaming the Beatles.

In yesterday's post, I discussed Ella's tremendous love of rock and roll, and especially of the Beatles. On the heels of claiming the world's first hit Beatles cover in 1964 (yesterday's "Can't Buy Me Love," which went up the charts in the UK), a few months later, she went into the studio with "Ringo Beat."

It started back with Elvis and his Gibson guitar
Chubby Checker went a-twistin' and became a star
Then along came a drummer with the Beatles four
He beat a kinda rhythm and they clamored for more...

Of that Ringo beat, yeah yeah,
That Ringo beat, yeah yeah...

You can hear the smile on Ella's face as she sings the catchy tune, and it's clear she believes every word - it is one of only a handful of songs credited to her as songwriter - but it almost never happened. She had to pressure her label, Verve Records, into even letting her record it.

Ella believed she had another crossover pop hit in the charming number, but it wasn't to be. Upon its release, "the disc jockeys wouldn't play it," she said in complaint during a DownBeat Magazine interview. It made it to #127 on the Billboard pop chart, and for only one week. And it was certainly done no favors by "Fallin' in Love," a painfully embarrassing attempt at pop/rock that ranks among her worst records and is best left forgotten.

It's all something of a shame; Ella searched constantly for the pop hit that eluded her after the rock era came in. As several of her contemporaries struck big through the 1950s and '60s with crossover success (like Sarah Vaughan with "Broken-Hearted Melody" and "Whatever Lola Wants," Peggy Lee with "Fever" and "Is That All There Is," Count Basie with "April in Paris," "The Basie Twist," and "Every Day I Have the Blues," Cannonball Adderley with "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," plus folks like Jimmy Smith, Les McCann, the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Nancy Wilson, and pretty much everything Ray Charles ever released - and then there's Sammy Davis and Frank Sinatra...), Ella surely must have felt she was standing in the corner wondering what she'd done wrong and where her hit was, even as the accolades and awards kept rolling in.

"Ringo Beat" is terribly earnest, and within that, it's also an attempt to remind older viewers to listen with young ears and remember the days when their own music was considered noisy and revolutionary, even pointing out Benny Goodman's legendary Paramount Theater show that ushered in the swing era, propelled by Gene Krupa's wild, mad drumming.

Remember when Krupa was a drummer boy
We shouted and hollered and jumped for joy
We stood in line for the Paramount show
And we could holler was "Go, go, go!"

(Ella was a serious student of music, and her comparison is more than apt: In rock and jazz drummer Max Weinberg's 1984 tome The Big Beat: Conversations With Rock's Great Drummers, he wrote, "D.J. Fontana had introduced me to the power of the big beat. Ringo convinced me just how powerful that rhythm could be. Ringo's beat was heard around the world and he drew the spotlight toward rock and roll drummer. From his matched grip style to his pioneering use of staggered tom tom fills, his influence in rock drumming was as important and wide spread as Gene Krupa's had been in jazz.")

The song makes an admirable, good-natured attempt to bridge generations by presenting something fun in a format attractive to young listeners, but with lyrics that speak directly to the soul survivors of the big band and bebop eras. "No doubt about it there's a new sensation," she sings in the final verse, "He started a rhythm for the younger generation."

Ella never again wrote and recorded a pop tune of her own, but would continue covering and referencing modern rock, pop, and soul through the remainder of her career. Most of the results are pretty poor, but it makes the quality attempts into rewarding surprises. We'll touch on several of both the good and the bad over the next few months.

"Ringo Beat," clocking in under two minutes - it's likely taken you longer to read this post than it will to hear the song - ultimately came to be merely a footnote in Ella Fitzgerald's career, but it speaks volumes about the woman herself, and her love for music of all kinds.

So don't knock the music of the kids today
Remember they're playing the Ringo way...

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.