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A life in twelve songs: an Ella Fitzgerald playlist

Essay | 24 minute read
'She was transparent. She performed candour, truth. She made truth fashionable'. So writes Ali Smith about the life, and voice, of Ella Fitzgerald who became the sound of united America even as 'segregation claimed her to be a lesser person'

‘I’ll Chase The Blues Away’ (Sampson/Harrison), Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb and his Orchestra (1935)

You can’t do road rage when you’re listening to Ella Fitzgerald singing I’ll chase the blues away’.

By which I mean:

one hot lunchtime this summer we were trying to drive out of town in traffic and there was a lot of contagious fury on the road all round us, and the other cars alongside us and coming towards us were full of the faces of impatient people, all of us caught up in the solipsism so many drivers and passengers give in to when we’re in cars nowadays, like there’s only one world and it’s our world, not yours, so get off the road, everybody else, you’re nothing but everybody else.

Then this song, which is one of the first that the young Fitzgerald recorded after she joined Chick Webb’s orchestra in the mid 1930s, a simple little nothing of a song about being no longer blue because a lover’s been found who’ll be true, played out of the speakers into the car, and its opening is a little energy high-kick which gives way to a shoulder-dancing jaunt up and down the keys.  At its core is Fitzgerald’s youngest recorded voice (she’s seventeen or eighteen at most), and it’s both carefree and proper, as if carefree is a kind of discipline – it reveals that being carefree is its own precision, and is even a kind of classiness.

As if by, yes, magic, the sense of aggression in the car air vapourised for us; this song’s high strut plus Fitzgerald’s undauntedness left us freed-up, and if you’d seen us that day on that road you’d have seen, through the windscreen of just another car in a furious queue, two women, laughing.

‘All My Life’ (Stept/Mitchell), Ella Fitzgerald with Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra (1936)

There’s a Bruce Baillie short film from the mid 1960s called All My Life.  It lasts the length of a song, this song (which was one of the rare few that Fitzgerald recorded with Teddy Wilson).

In it, film-poet Baillie’s camera does nothing but pan from right to left along a rickety, gapped but still standing, woodslat garden fence on a bright summer day, blue sky the background, the garden in the foreground full of tall grasses, sunstruck, a bit parched-looking.  The fence is lined with weeds or dry-looking flowers, until you get to Fitzgerald’s voice singing the words I’ve begun living, when what was fence suddenly becomes a huge and riotous burst of thousands and thousands of small wild red roses.  The next burst of rosebush overwhelms the fence completely.  The third burst of roses, or efflorescence, or ecstasy, is the cue for the camera to soar skywards up over the fence then up over a power line, like a drawn line in the sky, and above it to nothing but blue.

I think it’s one of the most perfect meetings of image and music I’ve ever seen.

‘Vote for Mr Rhythm’ (Ranger/Siegal/Robin), Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb and his Orchestra (1936)

Like all the true greats, she’s biographically slippery, Ella Fitzgerald.  This is because, for her, biography’s not the point.

Was she born in 1917 or 1918?  Recently, sources have settled on 1917.  The story goes: mother dead when she was young; stepfather abusive; Fitzgerald the street urchin ran away from the Training School for Girls in New York, where the black girls were segregated in the most dilapidated outbuildings and where the school choir was composed only of white girls.  She survived on the street by dancing and singing for pennies, watching out for police raids for the numbers-runners and sleeping in movie houses or wherever she could find a bed for the night.

None of this story comes from Fitzgerald.  It’s been gathered and pieced together by others over the century.  It was a life story she’d shed, at least publicly, like clothes she simply no longer wore, for pretty much the rest of her public life, at the least uninterested in being pinned down by the circumstances of her own past or at the mercy of some story being told about her by others, where the rough made the smooth or whatever.  She ignored it.  She blanked it.  She cut loose from it.

All the same, the story goes: egged on by her friends who drew straws to see which one of them would do it she signed up to the regular amateur talent night at the Harlem Opera House.  The first time she did the pianist played the wrong music and she was too underconfident to do anything other than sing the song she had in her head, running off the stage when the audience booed; the next time she signed up as a dancer, but the act onstage directly before her turn was an already popular local dance-item so she changed her mind and sang a Connee Boswell song instead.

Was it the great drummer and orchestra leader Chick Webb himself, or Bardu Ali, his band’s MC, who was there that night, heard the girl sing that song and knew to nip backstage and follow up on the voice he’d just heard?

It was 1934. Within two years she’d be singing lines about Webb being Mr Rhythm in a joyful dancy song, one tangentially about what was still hugely contentious, suffrage, when it came to civil rights for black Americans in the land of the free. Let freedom ring. But ‘Vote for Mr Rhythm’ is a whole other kind of national anthem, a whole other America made possible, and it leaps to its highest, most exuberant proclamation at the end of her vocal: of thee I swing.

Webb was young and brilliant too. His orchestra was making unimaginable money.  He was a man illness had stunted; every time he played he played against pain. So what? He played like anything. He was a hit. His orchestra was a hit.

The story goes: when the record company wanted to cut Ella Fitzgerald from recordings, Webb refused to record for them unless she sang.

He became her legal guardian.

He died young, spinal tuberculosis, dead at the age of 29. After he died, Ella Fitzgerald inherited his orchestra.  The newspapers were full of interviews with the now rich young singer, all of them bemused at how little she seemed to understand the ramifications of her own inheritance, or to care.  She thought, she told one paper, she might like to buy a wristwatch maybe, or so the story goes.

In 1972 she talked about her very first recording with the man she always referred to with formal respect as Mr Webb.

‘I’ll never forget it.  The record was ‘Love and Kisses’.  After we made it the band was in Philadelphia one night when they wouldn’t let me in at some beer garden where I wanted to hear it on the piccolo (the jukebox).  So I had some fellow who was over twenty-one go in and put a nickel in while I stood outside and listened to my own voice coming out.’

On stage with the Chick Webb Orchestra, 1936 (Gilles Petard/Redferns)

‘Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen’ (Secunda/Jacobs/Cahn/Chaplin), Ella Fitzgerald and her Savoy Eight (1937)

To me, you’re very fine: this old world seemed new to me. The world, full of all the newly possible languages.

In 1945, when asked by a reporter about joining Webb’s orchestra a decade ago and what it had meant to her, she told this story:

‘Three years before that, I stopped Mr Webb on the street and it was Winter.  I asked for his autograph and his hands were freezing cold, but he signed that autograph for me.’

‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ (Feldman/Fitzgerald) Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb and his Orchestra (1938)

There’s an interview with her in one of the papers in 1938 where the interviewer can’t get her to talk to him for dancing.  She keeps just swaying away across the room doing another dance step she’s invented or perfected.

He’s there to talk about the massive success of this song. Fitzgerald had been intrigued by the success Maxine Sullivan was having with her jazz-adapted Scottish folk tunes, ‘Loch Lomond’ and ‘Annie Laurie’.  She’d been central to the lyric writing of ‘A-Tisket A-Tasket’, singing a brown and yellow basket in place of the original nursery rhyme’s green and yellow one, making the song even more a work of innocence by replacing the original rhyme’s ‘sent a letter to my love’ with ‘sent a letter to my mommy’, then persuading Webb to record this nothing of a something, about loss, and colour, with its lightness of tone regardless of both.

I’m assuming that Fitzgerald’s much less well-known contemporary recording of ‘MacPherson is Rehearsin’ (Aspiazu/Sunshine)’, Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb and his Orchestra (1938) also stems from the sales success had by Sullivan’s (lovely) early Scottish remakes.  I’d never heard ‘Macpherson is Rehearsin’, not till this year, and the only recording I’ve so far been able to find of it is a bit wonky-sounding.  But I love it, its mock bagpipe opening and riffs, its ballsy beat and upfront swing, Fitzgerald’s laughable approximation of a Scottish accent, all of which quite consciously, in a mere three minute turnaround, rhymes lassies with chassis, brings everyone together for some truckin’ in the heather and transforms centuries of Scottish presbyterianism into pure comic exultation.

Och.  Aye.

The Chick Webb years were dandy.

If you’re enjoying going through this playlist chronologically, slip forward now to the end of the piece and cue up the final track, the 1945 recording of  ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon (Arlen/Harburg/Rose), Ella Fitzgerald and the Delta Rhythm Boys (1945)’, though I’m choosing it as my play-out track instead and skipping a little further forward now in time, to

‘Someone to Watch over Me’ (Gershwin/Gershwin), Ella Fitzgerald with Ellis Larkin (1950)

It’s only twelve years after songs like ‘A-Tisket’ and ‘Macpherson’, but it’s as if we’re on a new planet.

The unadornedness in Ellis Larkins’ recordings with Fitzgerald is a revelation.  Larkins knew to strip back everything, use piano accompaniment only, in other words to foreground her solo – the pure voice – so much so that though she’s in a kind of partnership with the piano accompaniment it somehow feels almost as if she’s accompanying herself.  Her recordings with him reveal new warmth and depth. He takes her seriously as a force, allows and liberates her voice – no, matches her voice by playing a minor to natural major, revealing in doing it how major her talent is (and bringing out a yearning lining, a minor undercurrent there all along in the clean bright major of her talent).

Larkins’ recordings with Fitzgerald of Gershwin songs are apparently what gave Norman Grantz the idea to ask Fitzgerald to sing the Song Book collections, a project which began in the mid 1950s.

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald was off on her own postwar-song adventure, one part improvisation. one part perfection, and had begun doing things like, say, piercing an old standard like ‘April In Paris’ with riffs from ‘Half a Pound of Tuppeny Rice’ and ‘Jingle Bells’, because songs, as doing this revealed, aren’t singular things. Improvisation and perfection need each other; all along, too, she’d known that language held all the other possible languages, which you hear as soon as she sings something like

‘Airmail Special’ (Goodman / Mundy / Christian), Ella Fitzgerald and the Ray Charles Singers (1952) – or whatever version of this song you like –

Rebop!  She sang this made-up word back in 1937, at the end of a song called ‘There’s Frost on the Moon’ – it’s credited as the birth of bebop.  In the 1940s she’d worked with Dizzy Gillespie, and ‘listening to Dizzy made me want to try something with my voice that would be like a horn. He’d shout “Go ahead and blow!”‘

But in ‘Airmail Special’ it’s like she’s inventing a brand new language.  It’s like song itself is the wild frontier.

This is the place where Ella Fitzgerald will meet, without realising it (and without any actual literal meeting, of course), the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, and they’ll dialogue (both without knowing it).  Beauvoir had visited the US at the end of the 1940s.  She’d been taken with the new force of abstraction in art and music. She’d been shocked by it, and perturbed. In America, Day by Day, her journal of her time there, she wrote:

‘What pleases Americans about jazz is that jazz expresses the moment.  But since for them the moment is abstract, they also want an abstract expression. They want noise, rhythms – nothing more. It may be that noise and rhythms are orchestrated with art and skill so that the present is indefinitely reborn from its death, but the meaning of the old jazz is lost. … Such a shift to abstraction is not limited to jazz. Strolling again through the art galleries and reading certain works by young writers, I’ve been struck by the general character of this phenomenon. Cubism and surrealism have also been emptied of their contents with only the abstract scheme preserved. These formulas, which were living languages in Europe and whose life was destroyed by the movement itself, are reencountered here, intact but embalmed. They are produced and reproduced mechanically without an awareness that they no longer have anything to say. In this country that’s so ardently oriented towards concrete signs of civilisation, the word “abstraction” is always on my lips.  I must try to understand why.’

If she’d simply turned her journal back to a page some days earlier in her visit, she’d have come across this note about the particular gift and power of what she calls this ‘abstract’ quality in everyday life:

‘In the afternoon I go to cash a check.  As soon as I enter the bank, a uniformed employee comes  toward me to help.  I might think he is waiting for me. … I sit down; I show my papers to Mr John Smith.  He’s not some anonymous cog, and I am not an anonymous client; he does me the courtesy of addressing me by name, personally. … In France, the verification would have been done on the other side of the counter, without my involvement and no doubt grudgingly; then I would have been assigned a simple number.  I’m not a fool.  This respect granted the citizen is completely abstract; that same polite smile that assures David Brown that he’s a unique individual will also gratify John Williams, who is unique, too. Nothing is more universal than this singularity recognized with such ceremony.’

I’m going to borrow the word: ceremony.

Fitzgerald’s open and improvised abstraction frees language from meaning into both no meaning and new meaning in a ceremony of the uniqueness of voice. It makes for new form. It’s an expression of the lack of meaning, the loss of meaning in fixed and old and used-up language; it’s an expression of the rebellion, the freedom and the inventiveness of the human voice, and of all the possibilities for change summed up in the unfixing, not just of the line of a song but of the very notion of any given songline, any given song.

In the meeting of language with ostensible nonsense, in the exchange which allows voice to be at once pure musical instrument and brand new meaning-maker / meaning-questioner, in the clash of same old song with brand new take on it, it’s a liberation at every level.

It’s a ceremony that renews everything.  Its high kick demolishes old walls.

‘I’m always True To You in my Fashion and I Get a Kick Out of You and It’s De-Lovely’ (Porter), Ella Fitzgerald Cole Porter Song Book (1956)

The New York Times in 1950 declared the uniqueness of Ella Fitzgerald’s position as ‘a black woman popularising urban songs written by Jewish immigrants to a natural audience of predominantly white Christians’.

‘You know what I’m trying to do? she declared herself in 1958.  ‘I’m trying to be myself.’

Fitzgerald’s being herself often  took a shape something like this: in front of an audience, introducing the next song and saying the old line about how the band had had a request for this song and that’s why they were going to play it, she’d stop (so the story goes) and say, instead, ‘You know, we really didn’t have a request.  This is just our next number.’

She was transparent.  She performed candour, truth. She made truth fashionable. In these years she perfected transparency with a uniqueness that’s something akin to that other word Beauvoir uses when she’s talking about ceremony: universal.

Over the next three decades, in the series of Song Book recordings for Grantz, working with songs by Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Ellington, Berlin, Gershwin, Arlen, Kern, Mercer and finally Jobim, she gave the great songbook writers one single voice, gave the Great American Song Book that single voice – but a voice so open as to sound almost mythical, something about it of pure spirit, plus a sense of the single voice performing as a communal act, and a voice so transparent itself that it held each song (and each songwriter too) as if in water – that clear – so that each song can be experienced clean, distilled, as the spirit of itself.

‘Mostly I picture what I’m singing,’ she said.  ‘If it’s a river, then I get a picture in my mind of a river.’

Singing Cole Porter, she knows that what’s sexy about him is his wit and she grants that sexiness cleanness, turns all his sophisticated knowing into something purified, the tin-pan-tithesis of sophistry.  In ‘I get a Kick out of You’, she somehow, in the fall of the opening intro, makes its last word, face, sound so new and surprising that it’s as if it didn’t even have a rhyme (though it did) – somehow she makes the word face as sublimely ever-surprising as the actual face of the beloved.

If it’s Rodgers and Hart she’s singing, and they know their way around the urban dancefloor, then so does she, with a kind of knowledge that’s ancient and fresh and modern. When it comes to the Gershwin Song Book, she takes the place where Ira’s best-friend-punny rhymes meets his brother’s minor keying and turns it into something funny, trustworthy, moving and dimensional. They suit her, the Gershwins and she suits them, because they’re innocents too, and one of Fitzgerald’s skills is to return innocence to everything she sings; by which I don’t mean naivety, I mean something like a state of repaired wholeness.

This innocence is hard won.

Let’s face it,’ she said in 1983, ‘there were lots of things back then that you either had to overlook or you got angry and cried about.’

While she’s singing the nation’s Song Books into that one wide-open united American voice, she is touring the places where segregation claims she’s a lesser person, along with every other black person on the planet.  In some of these places, her manager, Norman Grantz, starts selling mixed seating into usually segregated audiences. ‘When the show started the people were all staring at each other and so afraid that they couldn’t even applaud. We got away with it, even though they ran us out of town after the show.’ In Houston in 1955, the police, annoyed at the racial integration of the concert, come into the backstage rooms and arrest her along with with other members of the band, for ‘shooting dice’.  They take them all down to the station, Fitzgerald in her blue taffeta gown (though the judge, in the end, recognises the racism and throws the case out).  Down at the police station they ask her to make a statement. She tells them she’s got nothing to say; she was backstage having a piece of pie and some coffee and they’ve arrested her for it. Then the members of the Houston police force who’ve just arrested her ask her for her autograph.

Ella Fitzgerald, on an aeroplane, flying somewhere or other, teaching herself new songs.

Ella Fitzgerald, the kind of international star who sends a Christmas card every year to a fan in Manchester in England who wrote to her once, the kind of celebrity who spends her time at home in recovery from a cataract operation learning Portuguese on Linguaphone so she can do some Brazilian songs, or studying French, ‘wouldn’t it be a kick to sing a song in French?’

The story goes: she fell in love with a Danish man who worked for an airline. She moved to Copenhagen and lived there for three years. While she was there, she learned to speak the language.

A band member, describing her walking down the street, trailing musical notes as she goes.

Duke Ellington, at the piano, and Ella Fitzgerald, performing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1964 in New York City (David Gahr/Getty)

‘Azure’ (Ellington), Ella Fitzgerald sings the Duke Ellington Song Book (1957)

Her lightness and smoothness and fullness of voice are in themselves a kind of heroic.

She grants each song her self, and in the granting she gifts it anonymity, distance, intimacy, calm.

Hearing an Ella Fitzgerald song, even one you don’t know very well, or at all, is like someone coming towards you on the street, someone you love, simply and complexly, and haven’t seen for far too long.

‘But Not for Me’ (Gershwin/Gershwin), Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book (1959)

Ira Gershwin said this about her: ‘I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.’

‘I Was Doing All Right’ (Gershwin/Gershwin), Ella Fitzgerald and her Savoy Eight (1938)’ and ‘I Was Doing All Right’ (Gershwin/Gershwin), Ella Fitzgerald sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook (1959)

Imagine a short story or novel about the world at its worst, bleakest, toughest, but told in so unruined a voice that the world is lent grace back by it, both transformed and revealed exactly as it really is.

The story goes: when she was a small girl at school a boy called her a racist name and she pushed him over, knocked him down. (The class gave her big respect.)

This song in its two versions together lets you hear the rough brightness of her very early voice, its honed and just blunted edge. You can hear the restraint, the pressure of the world on it. The deep comfort we associate with her voice isn’t there yet; you start to hear it in the 1940s songs, as her voice opens like a rose, many-layered, a kind of gift of ease.

But her early self is already in dialogue with her later self, and that’s what you can hear between these versions two decades apart in the same song about the past and its future.

What’s mysterious is the agelessness of her voice in both versions.

‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’ (Arlen/Harburg/Rose), Ella Fitzgerald and the Delta Rhythm Boys (1945)

This one’s last because it’s my favourite, and this is my playlist. You will have your own favourite. Myself, I think it’s the best extant version of this song, a song about the gift of trust, the gift of belief.

It’s all calm exuberance, all blunt and playful clarity. It wanders into and out of bebop imagination and possibility, slides into and out of the given shape of things, shares the song laughingly with the voices of the Delta Rhythm Boys, and while it’s doing all this it tells us, quite frankly, about this song’s and every song’s meaninglessness, nothingness, while simultaneously offering something altogether else, better, more: another kind of planet altogether.

I first heard it more than forty five years ago, so I’ve loved it practically all my life.

Without your love, it’s a melody played in a penny arcade.

She sings it like it’s an open window.