75 years and still not enough Ella


April 25, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Birthdays are traditionally a time for warm wishes and heartfelt praise, and Ella Fitzgerald's 75th -- which is today -- is no exception. Particularly since this year's festivities include the release of two new retrospective packages: "75th Birthday Celebration" (GRP 619), drawn from her Decca recordings; and "First Lady of Song" (Verve 314 517 898), which skims the cream from her work for Verve.

Laudable collections, both of them. But that's the problem. Because when you get right down to it, there are few pursuits more pointless than trying to think up new ways to praise Ella Fitzgerald.

What could possibly be left to say? Fitzgerald, after all, has been paid almost every compliment a singer could earn. As jazz critic Bob Bach observed, "Ella Fitzgerald has been called the greatest and the First Lady of Song and almost every other superlative for so long that it begins to become one of those accepted bromides, like 'an apple a day keeps the doctor away.' " And that was back in 1948!

How has she come to deserve such acclaim? Quite simply, by singing better than almost anyone in the business. It helps that she was blessed with a phenomenal instrument, a voice that comfortably spans two and a half octaves and shines in every register. Moreover, her technique is virtually flawless, affording her total control over the finer points of phrasing, intonation and rhythm.

But by far the most impressive thing about Ella Fitzgerald's hTC singing is that she has enough insight and musicality, enough style and taste, to make the most of those gifts. The critic Henry Pleasants observed in his book, "The Great American Popular Singers": "There is simply nothing in her performance to which one would want to take exception. What she sings has that suggestion of inevitability that is always a hallmark of great art. Everything seems to be just right."

That was true pretty much from the start, too. Listen to "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" -- the 1938 chart-topper that kicks off the "75th Birthday Celebration" set -- and it's obvious that her skills are already in place. Although the song itself is little more than a jazzed-up nursery rhyme, Fitzgerald keeps the melody from slipping into sing-song predictability through careful phrasing and judicious use of vibrato. Even better is the sense of personality she brings to the song, as she delivers the lyric in tones ranging from girlish sass to Shirley Temple petulance.

"A-Tisket, A-Tasket" was originally credited to Chick Webb and His Orchestra. But after the single spent 10 weeks atop the best-seller charts, Fitzgerald was clearly the band's star. Indeed, she took over the ensemble after Webb's death in 1939, and ran it until 1942 as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra.

But "75th Birthday Celebration" only includes a smattering of those performances, and entirely ignores the recordings she made with Webb before "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," including such hits as "Rock It for Me" and "(If You Can't Sing It) You'll Have to Swing It."

Still, if the set's track listing is selective, at least it has its priorities right. Milt Gabler, Fitzgerald's longtime producer at Decca, was responsible for the repertoire represented here, and he wisely spares us the raft of novelty tunes that followed on the heels of "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" -- "I Found My Yellow Basket," "Wacky Dust" and "Chew, Chew, Chew (Your Bubble Gum)." But he does include some of her more substantive "joke" songs, including the delightful "Stone Cold Dead in the Market," a 1945 hit that finds Fitzgerald utterly at home with the song's calypso groove -- and far better at faking a Caribbean accent than her duet partner, Louis Jordan.

Why Fitzgerald cut so many novelty songs is plain: They sold well, particularly during the careworn days of World War II. Whether such songs suited her is a more interesting issue, though. One could hardly imagine Billie Holiday doing as well with such fluff, and not just because Holiday lacked the lighthearted fluidity that Fitzgerald brought to every performance. Rather, the difference is that Holiday invested too much of herself in her singing to waste time on trivialities. If there wasn't a meaningful emotion to express, she wasn't interested.

But Fitzgerald, with her effortless range and sparkling technique, could glibly toss off any tune, no matter how silly the sentiment. And that glibness undercuts a lot of her early work, as single after single ends up aurally enticing but emotionally shallow.

Granted, there are times when the music itself is enough -- particularly when she leaves the verbiage behind and scat-sings. Several songs on the "75th Birthday" set are almost pure scat, like her version of the Lionel Hampton hit "Flying Home" or the bop-inflected "Oh, Lady Be Good," and her vocal virtuosity on those sessions never seems to overshadow her melodic invention.

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