WYSO

Ella 101

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
Credit William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song, was born 101 years ago. Beloved around the world as not just America's foremost jazz vocalist, but perhaps the premier interpreter of The Great American Songbook, Ella won 13 Grammy Awards and has sold over 40 million albums.

For the next 101 days, every day, Equinox host Duante Beddingfield will share a recording from her six-decade career and discussing its context among her catalogue and, occasionally, among music history.

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

An odd novelty tune, 1946's "Stone Cold Dead in the Market (He Had It Coming)" placed Ella Fitzgerald in the studio with swing master Louis Jordan to record a lively calypso duet about a wife beater whose wife murders him with a frying pan in public.

One of the first black musicians to find major crossover success with mainstream white audiences, "King of the Jukebox" Jordan wrote and performed many singles that topped the R&B charts and simultaneously reached the top ten in pop as well, scoring at least four hits that sold over a million copies. 

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Ella Fitzgerald and legendary bandleader/pianist Count Basie shared an innate sense of rhythm and swing that made them a great pair, and they teamed up a few times during her career.

1963's Ella and Basie! is 41 minutes of wall-to-wall excellence from some of the top musicians in jazz, and one of the finest ever released by either artist. In 2017, online music news magazine Pitchfork named it the 175th best album of the 1960s, saying of Ella and Basie, "As musicians, they had almost too much in common. The horns in his band punched with a lead singer’s brio, while she sang like a horn, winding and unpredictable, the words mere containers for the sounds she made."

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

In yesterday's post, I discussed Ella Fitzgerald's involvement in the Jack Webb film Pete Kelly's Blues, and shared her two musical numbers from the movie. I've also discussed in a few posts Ella's career-long desire for a big pop hit she never found.

A third song was written for Ella to sing onscreen, but didn't make it into the film. As a result, it ended up becoming a major hit for another singer.

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

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.

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Along with being one of the greatest voices of all time, Ella Fitzgerald was celebrated as one of the world's most talented scat singers - "scatting" being the art of wordless vocal improvisation, essentially an instrumental solo in vocal form.

This track, "Ella Hums the Blues," is the one I chose to play during my Ella 101 on-air promo that runs on WYSO FM. It was recorded in April 1955 for the movie Pete Kelly's Blues, in which Ella has a cameo as a jazz singer. (We'll come back to Pete Kelly's Blues, with more info, in tomorrow's post.)

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

No legendary musician's catalogue is complete without at least one winter holiday album, and Ella Fitzgerald's 1960 Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas is not only one of the classiest, well produced holiday albums the jazz genres has ever seen - one could also make a strong argument for it being the most fun LP Ella released in her entire career.

The brilliant Frank DeVol provided arranging and conducting duties, surrounding Ella with soft horns, a glowing vibraphone, and even (on some tracks) a small vocal chorus that actually manages to add fun to the proceedings without getting in the way or sounding cheesy - an extremely rare feat in jazz and pop.

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

By the 1950s, Billie Holiday was known as a peerless blues singer among jazz musicians. However, in 1963, Ella Fitzgerald did something Billie never achieved - she recorded an entire album of only blues songs.

1963's These Are the Blues found a hard-swinging Ella in a mostly straightforward tilt at classic blues cuts, with a band led by Wild Bill Davis on organ and featuring Roy Eldridge on trumpet, Herb Ellis on guitar, Ray Brown on bass, and Gus Johnson on drums.

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

From 1962's Ella Swings Gently with Nelson, the second of two albums Ella Fitzgerald recorded that year with arranger/conductor Nelson Riddle, comes this sizzling rendition of Hoagy Carmichael's 1930 standard "Georgia On My Mind." The song was covered by many musicians through the 1960s after Ray Charles' timeless version went to the top of the charts in 1960, and Ella and Nelson's version may be among the very finest efforts.

The production on this album is stunning, with Riddle's orchestra sounding like 100 musicians playing in glorious unison. He charts a seductive, dynamic arrangement that goes from cinematic big band jazz to swaggering blues, with shouting horns and a perfectly in-the-pocket alto sax solo by Ronny Lang.

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

In 1962, Verve Records released Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd's smash hit Jazz Samba album and set the world aflame, bringing the bossa nova out of Brazil and sending it around the world, claiming an Album of the Year Grammy for Getz's "Desafinado."

Recording companies and artists in every language began recording bossa tunes to ride the wave of popularity, and Verve attempted to cash in on the craze with many of its own in-house jazz musicians. Ella Fitzgerald fell instantly in love with the genre, and in that same year released a two-sided bossa single. Side A featured an English-language cover of "Desafinado," with a Brazilian-flavored take on the classic "Stardust" on the flipside.

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

One of the earliest entries in Ella Fitzgerald's nearly six-decade career is "All My Life," recorded with pianist and bandleader Teddy Wilson. The song was written by Sam H. Stept and Sidney Mitchell for a film called Laughing Irish Eyes, where it wass debuted by Phil Regan.

This outing, recorded in New York on St. Patrick's Day, 1936, is a fascinating look back at where jazz - at the time considered pop music - was in the 1930s and how far Ella's style came afterward. Heard through today's perspective, the standout here isn't Ella, it's a couple of the band members, and Ella gives what seems to be the standard, oddly intonated, high and somewhat nasal type of vocal that was the standard in the 1920s and through the late 1930s, as popularized by singers like Rudy Vallee.

Pages