The Incomparable – Ella Fitzgerald (Polydor 1980)
UK Chart Position – 40
And now a CD featuring perhaps the greatest song stylist in popular music. Sixteen tracks which form a perfect introduction to Ella Fitzgerald. Ella is another of those artists that everyone needs to have in their collection and there is so much to choose from. This release which first appeared on vinyl in 1980 features in the main the best of the series of eight Songbook albums she recorded between 1956-64. Any serious music fan should probably have all of these in their collection but when cash and space is at a premium this provides an essential alternative. Nobody can sing a song like Ella can and for many of these songs her version remains for me the definitive version – and what songs too, 5 Cole Porter, 4 Rodgers & Hart, 3 George and Ira Gershwin, 2 Harold Arlen (1 with Johnny Mercer, 1 with Harburg and Rose), 1 Irving Berlin and 1 Ray Noble representing some of the greatest song-writing of the 20th Century.
My introduction to Ella Fitzgerald was a little odd. Sometime in the 70’s she was used as part of an advertising campaign for Memorex tape- the tagline was “Is it Ella or is it Memorex?” in which her scat singing ended up with a note which shattered glass, both with her singing live and on tape. For some reason I found this really funny and thought Ella Fitzgerald was some kind of joke novelty performer. The ad became much impersonated in school playgrounds at the time. It took a little while to put together the woman with the beautiful voice with the woman on the gimmicky ad campaign. The song which did this for me was her version of the Rodgers and Hart song “Manhattan”- this really is the only version of this song you need to hear and I think it is why it has not been recorded as much as some of their songs. I don’t think anyone past, present or future would be able to come anywhere near the quality of this version. It works sublimely, with its lovely skipping rhythms, a voice full of reassurance and warmth and even makes the somewhat torturous rhyme of “spoil” and “girl” work beautifully. For years we Brits all wanted to sample “baloney on a roll” without any idea of what it could be! It’s a no- place-like-home song which makes the streets of Manhattan seem exciting, familiar and comfortable.
This is perhaps my second all time favourite Fitzgerald song. I think it is just topped by a song not actually on this or many other compilations -you would need to investigate on the Ella Sings Harold Arlen Songbook recording. Her version of “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” from the Wizard Of Oz is just magical with its big band arrangement and superb vocals. The song was a little cheapened by the original being engineered into the charts following the demise of Margaret Thatcher but it is a joy from start to finish and may just have the edge on “Manhattan”.
Ella Fitzgerald was born in 1917 and her early years were marked with poverty and homelessness. In 1934 she entered an Amateur Talent Competition at the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem which she won- the princely sum of $25. It brought her to the attention of Benny Carter which indirectly led to her becoming the featured vocalist of Chick Webb’s Orchestra. When Webb died in 1939 Ella took over the leadership of the band – and for the next two years while her reputation was being established held this role unusual for an African-American woman. In 1941 she went solo. Ella is perhaps unique in that her difficult upbringing is not really reflected in her voice, in many ways the polar opposite of many of the great singers such as Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf whose suffering can be heard in almost every song. Ella’s reaction was to put a gloss over it for the most part. In the 40’s and 50’s when she was at her peak of her success life for many was pretty miserable and Ella’s warm and radiant vocals would have gone some way to explain her success. As Stevie Wonder sings in his tribute to Duke Ellington and the Swing Era in “Sir Duke”;
“and with a voice like Ella’s ringing out, there’s no way the band can lose!”
And there’s no way any band is losing out on this selection of 16 tracks. There are the swinging numbers “The Lady Is A Tramp”, “It’s Only A Paper Moon” and “That Old Black Magic”, the sensitive numbers such as “A Foggy Day In London Town” and “I’ve Got A Crush On You”, the dance numbers “Cheek To Cheek” and “I Got Rhythm” and the out and out romancers such as “The Very Thought Of You” and “Every Time We Say Goodbye”. There’s also the sheer beauty of “With A Song In My Heart” which I’ve grown to love. As a child it was part of my Sundays as it was used as the theme tune for “Two Way Family Favourites” a radio programme which played requests for those in the Forces. As a child I found this depressing, it was redolent of wet Sundays and music I couldn’t associate with. Over the years Ella’s vocal version of this must rank as one of the most tender songs of all times with the superbly romantic lines;
“At the sound of your voice
Heaven opens its portals to me”
Every time I hear those lyrics the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Lyrically as clever as “Manhattan” is another Rodgers and Hart Song “The Lady Is A Tramp”. Just as I fancied eating Baloney on a Roll I never really was tempted by “Mulligan Stew” – I’m sure I would be wishing for Turkey. Like “Manhattan” there’s the playfully dodgy rhyme “sad” with “Noel Coward” which needs a vocalist like Ella to pull it off. There’s also the lovely couplet;
“But Social circles spin too fast for me
My Hobohemia is the place to be”
Could this be the only mention of “Hobohemia” in a song? “It’s Only A Paper Moon” is also chockfull of delightful lines with its “cardboard seas”, “canvas skies”, “muslin trees” and “honky tonk parades”. I Get A Kick Out Of You” feels lyrically daring in a song from the early 30’s with its references to cocaine, alcohol and air travel. The drug lines were often substituted with “Some like the perfume in Spain” but Ella is not watering down her version.
I will be returning to the recordings of Ella Fitzgerald but this CD provides the best introduction to her work which puts it nicely into the Top 20 of my all-time favourite CDs and it is one I have played so many times over the last 35 years (both on vinyl and CD) that just to take it down from its shelf feels like reuniting with an old friend.
“The Incomparable Ella” is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £8.43 and used from £0.01 and as a download for £6.49. In the US it is available to download for $6.99 and used from $0.01. Spotify only have eight of the tracks from this CD available for streaming.