100 Essential CDs – Number 90 –Glenn Miller – The Ultimate Collection

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The Ultimate Collection – Glenn Miller  (Prism 1998)

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And now for something at least a generation earlier than most of the music on my Essential CDs list.  This was the music that our parents and grandparents listened and danced to.  My Dad was a big Glenn Miller fan and always said that during the War that was what the people he was serving with wanted to listen to.  He always said that the notion that Vera Lynn was the sound of the War Years was wrong, that most people he knew found her depressing, that if you didn’t know whether each night was going to be your last then “In The Mood” was a much better bet.

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Fast forward fifty years when I knew someone who worked in a crematorium.  I asked him what was the most popular music chosen to leave a service and he said it was Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood”- Now, that was a few years ago and things are likely to have changed as the war years generation have diminished in numbers so much, but there is no doubting the effect that this bandleader’s music has had on many lives.  For those of us born in the decades after his death there is still so much to consider as essential.  The research for chart positions usually takes some time for these CD reviews, but Miller predates all UK charts and the US Billboard charts.  However, “Moonlight Serenade” has charted twice as a re-issue in the single charts (In 1954 probably due to the release of “The Glenn Miller Story”, of which more later, and  again in 1976 when there was a bit of a swing revival).  There have been 11 charting albums for Miller and his Orchestra of re-issued music.  The most recent was actually the most successful – 2010’s “The Very Best Of” issued on Sony which reached number 4 in the charts.  That is a 24 tracker and would seem to be a very good choice.  I however, have gone for this non-charting budget 1998 release  which has 23 tracks in an order which seems to me to provide the perfect Miller playlist.  At times this can be not enough Glenn Miller so then I would opt for the 100 hits collection over 5 CDs which was released by Demon in 2009.

Three of the many other Miller compilations available

Glenn Miller was born in Iowa in 1904 and slogged away very much on the breadline for many years as a trombone player and song arranger.  The 1954 movie “The Glenn Miller Story” which I watched recently, starring James Stewart as the bandleader makes much of the fact that Miller was searching for a sound that he heard in his head.  This came about when he moved a clarinet to the lead with saxophones harmonising which led to a rich, distinctive feel which became established as “The Glenn Miller Sound”.  This clarinet player Wilbur Schwartz spent five years in the Orchestra until 1942 and died aged 72 in 1990. By the time war broke out in Britain in 1939 Miller was a huge star.  He had the Orchestra, a vocal group “The Modernaires” and a number of featured vocalists such as Ray Eberle, Marion Hutton, Tex Beneke, Paula Kelly and Skip Nelson all of whom feature on tracks on this CD.

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James Stewart in “The Glenn Miller Story”

Miller was first and foremost an arranger, adapting tunes to his signature sound.  His main songwriting success came with “Moonlight Serenade” which closes this CD.  The “Glenn Miller Story” features it being composed then being turned into a cheesy vocal number with limited approval before Miller is persuaded to develop it as an instrumental track.  With its clarinet led saxophone section this sums up perfectly the Miller Sound that turned him into a household name.

The most essential tracks, and those that brought the most success were the instrumentals and the CD kicks off with the most radical of them all.  “In The Mood” had been first recorded by the Edgar Hayes Orchestra but Miller’s version from 1940 with its jive rhythms seems to nod towards the rock and roll that would be sweeping the nation by the mid 50’s.  Its changes of volume and intensity throughout the track also makes it memorable.  Great track, but I think I favour even more what comes next, “String Of Pearls” which is chock-a-block with hooks and has that middle section which sounds like it comes from a 60’s movie soundtrack.  This is a more jazz-influenced sound.  Here Miller’s 1941 recording is the original version of the song.  It is significant in The Glenn Miller Story as James Stewart’s Glenn, whilst a struggling musician, scrimps to buy a pearl-like necklace for girlfriend Helen (played by June Allyson) who is presented with the real thing when, now famous, he introduces the song at a nightclub.

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June Allyson and James Stewart

The same film also features “Little Brown Jug” with more than a measure of poetic licence.  In the film Helen loves the song and it is heard sung by a glee club as the courting couple take a walk through campus grounds.  She suggests Miller arranges it but he holds out until it is used as a Christmas surprise for his wife at the Christmas concert.  This is a tearjerker moment in the film because (I’m sure I’m not spoiling anything here, we all know what happened to Miller) he has not turned up for the concert as his plane has been lost in fog.  In reality, the song was one of the Orchestra’s early  hits from 1939, his first million-seller recorded some five years before Miller’s disappearance.

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After these three instrumentals we get a number of vocal tracks including the sublime “Serenade In Blue” and the rightly famous “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (rather spoilt for my generation who will recall it as “Toffee Crisp A Choo Choo” from a television ad). A number of the vocal tracks are songs that were already popular numbers such as “Over The Rainbow”, “That Old Black Magic” and “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree” but there are some little gems to be found amongst these.  I have a big soft spot for “Humpty Dumpty Heart” and especially, “Elmer’s Tune” from 1941 which was a vocal version of an instrumental by the Dick Jurgens Orchestra.  “On A Little Street In Singapore” is another gem which was covered magnificently in 1978 by Manhattan Transfer(UK#20)- a group who had their UK debut hit with another song associated with Miller when “Tuxedo Junction” got to number 24 in 1976 during that mini Swing music revival I mentioned earlier.

Manhattan Transfer scored big with songs associated with the Orchestra

There’s a couple of ambitious instrumentals in Miller’s take on Verdi with “Anvil Chorus” with its drum solo and “Song Of The Volga Boatman” recorded with the Army Air Force Band with its strident jazz arrangement.  In 1942 the Glenn Miller Orchestra was disbanded as Miller joined the Army Air Force and directed its band.  Miller was an incredibly popular touring attraction, played to troops in war-torn Europe and America and was promoted to the rank of Major.

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The CD ends with five first class tracks, the almost-instrumental of “Pennsylvania 6-5000” (the phone number of New York City’s Hotel Pennsylvania where the Orchestra played).  “I’ve Got A Girl In Kalamazoo” is a great fun track with vocals by Marion Hutton, Tex Beneke and The Modernaires.  This leaves us with two monumental instrumentals the stirring “American Patrol”, a nineteenth century marching song  which Miller brought to a whole new audience with his 1941 version and the aforementioned Miller composition “Moonlight Serenade” which provides a  great closer for this immense talent.

Major Glenn Miller was lost at sea in a plane crossing to France in December 1944.  His success did not last the entire war and yet over 70 years later his music is so redolent of that time and the hope and optimism of those who listened and danced to his music.

 

Glenn Miller- The Ultimate Collection is currently available in the UK from Amazon for £7.78 , used from £0.01 and as a download for £5.99.

100 Essential CDs – Number 84 –Forever Ella– Ella Fitzgerald

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Forever Ella – Ella Fitzgerald (Verve/Polygram 1996)

 UK Chart Position – 19

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My second essential Ella Fitzgerald album released in 1996 gave her a Top 20 UK album chart placing – her first for thirty-six years!  In its very healthy running time of 76.5 minutes we get 21 tracks and only two that overlap with “The Incomparable Ella” and that is why I would consider it to be an Essential CD.

Verve, being primarily a Jazz label have made a more jazz influenced selection from the smooth standards that seem to dominate “Incomparable Ella” and on “Forever” we get examples of her duetting with great pal Louis Armstrong and his trumpet, there are live performances, a little more deviation from the established melody of a tune and examples of her scat singing.  The songs come from the same selection of great twentieth century American songwriters but tend not to be their best known songs.  Quite often, again, Ella provides the definitive versions of these songs. The recordings are from 1956-63 and are beautifully reproduced.

We open with the Gershwin brothers’ “Someone To Watch Over Me”, a song which over the years has developed a slight menacing tone to it- reminiscent of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” but there is no sign of stalking in Ella’s version.  It is sung as a pure love song, as the Gershwins intended.  It is one of the highlights of the album and provides an ideal opener.  The Gershwins are present again for a song which was written, alongside DuBose Heyward for “Porgy And Bess”.  “Summertime”as a song may have suffered from just too many versions, an over-recorded, over-performed jazz standard.  For me the best version is probably by Sarah Vaughan but Ella’s is a close-run thing.  Ella and Louis Armstrong recorded a whole album released in 1957 dedicated to the songs on “Porgy And Bess” which is a high-standard recording (I have it as part of a three CD set “The Definitive Ella & Louis” released at a bargain price in 2009 by Not Now Music).  It is unusual in that it opens with a lengthy trumpet solo from Louis until Ella eases in.  The whole thing is languid, as indeed it should be.

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Louis duets vocally with Ella on another two tracks on the album (one came from the 1956 album “Ella and Louis” and the other from the follow-up “…Again” from a year later.)  “Tenderly” is a beautiful love song and “I Won’t Dance” shows the great fun side of their relationship and is a real charmer.  (I also love the way Ella pronounces “Monsieur”!)

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Talking of pronunciation on the version of “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” Ella very definitely sings “as rich as Rocketfeller” rather than the Rockefella we would expect to hear.  I’ve always been fascinated as to the reason for this.  Was there something which stopped them singing the name of the tycoon- some legal thing perhaps?  Was it a private joke or did she just get it wrong?  I always think “Rocket-feller” would be a nice person to know, whatever the state of his wealth- some kind of 1950’s superhero!

Cole Porter songs provide three tracks on the album, “I Get A Kick Out Of You” features on the “Incomparable Ella” release but there is also “I Love Paris” and for me, another of the highlights of the album “You Do Something To Me” performed with huge warmth with that lovely refrain that shows the genius of Porter’s songwriting;

Let me live ‘neath your spell.
Do do that voodoo that you do so well.
For you do something to me
That nobody else can do.

It is quite unusual for the time to have lengthy vocal tracks on albums, yet Ella takes over 7.5 minutes easing her way through “These Foolish Things” (a song written by Harry Link, Jack Strachey and Holt Marvell).  It’s at a slower pace than one usually hears this song and admittedly does go on a little bit.  Elsewhere we have the perkiness of “Mountain Greenery” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, a couple of live tracks in “Gone With The Wind” and “Lullaby Of Birdland” and a lengthy dooby-dooby-do scat section in “Blue Skies”.

The album’s closer is a song very much associated with the Rat Pack “One For My Baby (And One More For Me)” is an unusual song for a woman, but that never worried Ella – her “Change Partners” (not on this compilation) doesn’t bother to change any genders which always sounds like a brave move.  Although Sinatra may have considered this his song, I prefer Ella’s version.

With this CD and the “Incomparable Ella”( if I have to choose just one CD then it would be “Incomparable”) you would have an essential selection of songs.  If you would like a little more Ella I would recommend the 5 CD 2009 Demon Music release “100 Hits – Ella Fitzgerald” as that can be picked up at a bargain price and maintains a high standard throughout- although there is quite a bit of overlap between the two CDs reviewed and this.  A 1995 MCA release “The Best Of” has some  interesting earlier tracks including a duet with the Ink Spots and for a more unusual choice look out for “The Reprise Years” a 2006 release from Rhino. This is a compilation of tracks she recorded in London in the late 60’s and early 70’s when she was in her fifties and looking for a more relevant sound.  It’s the song choices that makes it seem very different from what you have heard Ella do before – Motown tracks such as “Get Ready”, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, “Ooo Baby Baby” and “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game”, contemporary soul songs such as “Knock On Wood” and “Sunny”, the odd Beatles tune and the very unpolitically correct Randy Newman song “Yellow Man”.  It’s much better than its curiosity value suggests but not as essential as the two Ella CDs I have recommended.

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“Forever Ella ” is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £10.53 and used from £0.01.   In the US it is available for $16.70 and used from $0.01.  There is also another album with the same title released in 2007 with a completely different track listing and different cover.  As this contains remixes of classic Ella tracks by Layo & Bushwacka, and Miguel Migs you might wish to exercise caution.

100 Essential CDs – Number 13 –The Incomparable Ella– Ella Fitzgerald

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The Incomparable – Ella Fitzgerald (Polydor 1980)

 UK Chart Position – 40

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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.

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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”.

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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!”

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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.

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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.