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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.

Old pals Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong teamed up in the late 1940s when she was on the Decca label, but it's their three albums for Verve Records that are most remembered. The first of those, 1956's Ella and Louis (note that Ella was such a huge star at the time that she was billed ahead of beloved living legend Armstrong), was so pristine and so well received that a year ago, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

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.

1964's Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Johnny Mercer Songbook, despite often being forgotten among her Verve output, is a beautiful work that is significant for many reasons: it was her fifth and final collaboration with Nelson Riddle arranging and conducting, it was the final entry in her Songbook series, it's the only Songbook album that focused on the work of a lyricist.

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.

This fun recording was the lead track from Ella Swings Brightly With Nelson, the first of a back-to-back pair of albums Ella Fitzgerald and Nelson Riddle released in 1962. At the 5th Annual Grammy Awards, Ella won Best Vocal Performance for this album (her 7th win since the award's inception).

Interestingly enough, after yesterday's post from her miserable late '60s period at Capitol Records, this album was recorded November 14, 1961 at the Capitol Records Tower (Riddle's home base) but for her home label, Verve.

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.

Music and television history right here...

Sunday, February 2, 1964: Ella headlines an installment of The Ed Sullivan Show that also features Sammy Davis, Jr. and Rip Taylor. (Note that even at the peak of Sammy's Rat Pack, international superstar years - he would also open his Tony-nominated run in Golden Boy a few months later - Ella was still billed above him as the bigger star.)

Ella did four songs throughout the episode, and Sammy three (including his knockout West Side Story medley accompanied only by Johnny Mendoza on bongos), and at the end, Sammy crashed her fifth song.

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.

On July 20, 1966, Ella Fitzgerald recorded an entire album, her final studio session for Verve Records. Whisper Not, named for saxophonist Benny Golson's hard bop ballad written ten years prior, is a classy, if mostly subdued, outing which placed Ella before the Marty Paich Orchestra, with Paich handling arranging and conducting duties, and a rhythm section of Jimmy Rowles (p), Joe Mondragon (b), and Shelley Manne (d).

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.

Another unusual, unique entry in Ella Fitzgerald's extensive recording career, this is likely the sexiest version of "Just a Closer Walk" you'll ever hear, but before we get into that, a bit of history.

1967 marked the end of Ella's peak period as both a recording artist and a vocalist as she entered her fifties and departed from the Verve record label, where she'd spent more than two decades scoring triumph after triumph on vinyl. Her celebrated voice had begun to show small signs of wear, and over the next eight years, she would hop from label to label, recording nine largely lackluster albums for five different houses.

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.

"My fur coat's sold,
Oh, Lord, ain't it cold
But I'm not gonna holler
Cuz i still got a dollar,
And when I get low..."

So let's reach way back and talk about this weird anomaly from early in Ella Fitzgerald's singing career. Ella made her name singing in drummer Chick Webb's big band before striking out on her own in the late '40s.

On April 7, 1936, the band recorded this strikingly jaunty ditty about a female drunk or junkie--it's hard to tell for sure, because back then, "high" was also a synonym for "drunk." (See the lyrics from Bessie Smith's 1928 "Me and My Gin," also covered by Dinah Washington 30 years later, for a clear example of this.)

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.

My favorite Ella Fitzgerald recording, a spectacular track recorded March 18, 1958 for The Irving Berlin Songbook, then--amazingly--cut from the record! This didn't see daylight till the following year's Get Happy.

Here, conductor Paul Weston drops Ella in front of a big band filled out with a number of her regular studio backers (including frequent collaborator Harry "Sweets" Edison on solo trumpet) and provides a jazzy, wide-open arrangement as a vehicle for perhaps the greatest scat solo she ever laid down in a studio setting, a dazzling flight over two and a half full choruses.

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.

A sizzling take on a major standard, with a knockout big band arrangement by Bill Doggett. That horn sound is MASSIVE. And no wonder - the band included folks like Ernie Royal, Melba Liston, Kai Winding, Les Taylor, and Phil Woods. Hank Jones on piano, Lucille Dixon on bass, Gus Johnson on drums, Mundell Lowe on guitar. Hell of a band.

Ella's having a blast here playing with multiple dynamics, getting to do torch ballad and blistering swing all in a matter of minutes, even throwing in a little scat. Recorded in January 1962 as the closing track for that year's Rhythm is My Business, it nicely capsulizes all of what she did best.

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.

A fun track from 1963's Ella Sings Broadway, this fluffy little number from The Pajama Game is juiced up with a smoky, vamping, almost bebop-style Marty Paich arrangement that lets Ella play around a little. A good example of how she could take a song that had no business being taken seriously on a vocal jazz record, and make it somehow work.

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