Tag Archives: Ella Fitzgerald

George Gershwin ► Monday Musical Appreciation

Born on this date in 1898, by the time George Gershwin died at the all-too-early age of 38, he was known across the globe as one of the greatest composers who ever lived.

Born in Brooklyn to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, originally the family name was Gershowitz, which George’s father Americanized to Gershwine. George was actually born Jacob Gershwine, but was called George. He later dropped the “e” from the end of his name, and eventually so did the rest of the family.

Born 2 years earlier, brother Ira (born Israel Gershwine) was George’s lifelong lyricist. Together they wrote songs now considered the foundation of the American Songbook. Songs like (edited list from Ira’s WikiWackyWoo):

As well, George Gershwin wrote many songs without lyrics. F’rinstance, most everyone recognizes passages from Rhapsody In Blue, whether they know the composer or not. The score was commissioned by The King of Jazz, Paul Whiteman, to debut at what he was billing as An Experiment In Modern Music on February 12, 1924. It was an instant classic when it was first performed.

We are used to hearing Rhapsody In Blue with a big orchestration. A revelation of the digital age is this recording of a piano roll that George Gershwin cut during his piano playing prime. Not only do we get to listen to the Master at work, but after he ‘cut’ the piano roll they rolled it right back to the beginning and Gershwin ‘cut’ a second piano part; in effect making this one of the earliest candidates for overdubbing. Close your eyes and listen to Gershwin’s 4 hands.

George Gershwin wrote standards, Broadway shows, classical pieces, and commercial fluff.

Of course one could go on endlessly about George Gershwin — as dozens of books and documentaries have — but as I always say: It’s what’s in the music that counts:

Crank it up and D A N C E ! ! !

The First Lady of Song ► Monday Musical Appreciation

Light up 99 candles because today we celebrate the birthday of the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald. 

Let’s let her official website speak for her:

Dubbed “The First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald was the most popular
female jazz singer in the United States for more than half a century.
In her lifetime, she won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million

Her voice was flexible, wide-ranging, accurate and ageless. She
could sing sultry ballads, sweet jazz and imitate every instrument in an
orchestra. She worked with all the jazz greats, from Duke Ellington,
Count Basie and Nat King Cole, to Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and
Benny Goodman. (Or rather, some might say all the jazz greats had the
pleasure of working with Ella.)

She performed at top venues all over the world, and packed them
to the hilt. Her audiences were as diverse as her vocal range. They were
rich and poor, made up of all races, all religions and all
nationalities. In fact, many of them had just one binding factor in
common – they all loved her.

A recent remix of one of Ella’s most well known tunes proving her relevance to another generation
Biography picks up her story:

on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia, singer Ella Fitzgerald was
the product of a common-law marriage between William Fitzgerald and
Temperance “Tempie” Williams Fitzgerald. Ella experienced a troubled
childhood that began with her parents separating shortly after her

My meager Ella Fitzgerald collection, but I have the best stuff

With her mother, Fitzgerald moved to Yonkers, New York.
They lived there with her mother’s boyfriend, Joseph De Sailva. The
family grew in 1923 with the arrival of Fitzgerald’s half-sister
Frances. Struggling financially, the young Fitzgerald helped her family
out by working as a messenger “running numbers” and acting as a lookout
for a brothel. Her first career aspiration was to become a dancer.

her mother’s death in 1932, Fitzgerald ended up moving in with an aunt.
She started skipping school. Fitzgerald was then sent to a special
reform school but didn’t stay there long. By 1934, Ella was trying to
make it on her own and living on the streets. Still harboring dreams of
becoming an entertainer, she entered an amateur contest at Harlem’s
Apollo Theater. She sang the Hoagy Carmichael
tune “Judy” as well as “The Object of My Affection,” wowing the
audience. Fitzgerald went on to win the contest’s $25 first place prize.

unexpected performance at the Apollo helped set Fitzgerald’s career in
motion. She soon met bandleader and drummer Chick Webb and eventually
joined his group as a singer. Fitzgerald recorded “Love and Kisses” with
Webb in 1935 and found herself playing regularly at one of Harlem’s
hottest clubs, the Savoy. Fitzgerald also put out her first No. 1 hit,
1938’s “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which she co-wrote. Later that year Ella
recorded her second hit, “I Found My Yellow Basket.”

When Chick Webb died in 1939, Ella Fitzgerald took over the band, renaming it Ella and Her Famous Orchestra. In 1942 she went solo staying with Decca Records, which had released the Chick Webb band recordings. The WikiWackyWoo fills in the next chapter:

With Decca’s Milt Gabler as her manager, Fitzgerald began working regularly for the jazz impresario Norman Granz and appeared regularly in his Jazz at the Philharmonic
(JATP) concerts. Her relationship with Granz was further cemented when
he became her manager, although it would be nearly a decade before he
could record her on one of his many record labels.

With the demise of the Swing era and the decline of the great touring big bands, a major change in jazz music occurred. The advent of bebop led to new developments in Fitzgerald’s vocal style, influenced by her work with Dizzy Gillespie‘s big band. It was in this period that Fitzgerald started including scat singing
as a major part of her performance repertoire. While singing with
Gillespie, Fitzgerald recalled, “I just tried to do [with my voice] what
I heard the horns in the band doing.”[14]

Her 1945 scat recording of “Flying Home” arranged by Vic Schoen would later be described by The New York Times
as “one of the most influential vocal jazz records of the
decade….Where other singers, most notably Louis Armstrong, had tried
similar improvisation, no one before Miss Fitzgerald employed the
technique with such dazzling inventiveness.”[6] Her bebop recording of “Oh, Lady Be Good!” (1947) was similarly popular and increased her reputation as one of the leading jazz vocalists.[24]

It was during this latter period of Fitzgerald’s career that she entered the pantheon of musical superstars to become the First Lady of Song.

I was lucky enough to see Ella Fitzgerald at Toronto’s Imperial Room.  I thought it would be her last tour (but I believe she did one more after this) and I thought if I didn’t see her then, I might never have the chance again.

It was my first time in the Imperial Room, even though it was not my first time wearing a tie, required at the Imperial Room. It was also very expensive. It cost $75.00 per person and, of course, I took a date. That was a pretty penny for me back then, but I could console myself that it came with dinner. The Imperial Room was a supper club.

The mediocre meal came and went and now it was time for Ella Fitzgerald. The orchestra started it’s vamp, someone introduced her, and v e r y  , v e r y , v e r y  s l o w l y Ella Fitzgerald shuffled onto the stage with an anonymous attendant on her arm.
All I could see was my $150 going down the drain in the interminable time it took her to get to center stage where the microphone stood. 
Yet, the minute she started singing, all those years fell away. While I had never seen Ella Fitzgerald in her prime, and only had recordings and movies to rely upon, I was taken all the way back as she covered all the highlights of her career, joked with the audience, and giggled like a little girl.

It was one of the most memorable musical moments of my entire life!!!

The Wiki also details her last years:

In 1985, Fitzgerald was hospitalized briefly for respiratory problems,[45] in 1986 for congestive heart failure,[46] and in 1990 for exhaustion.[47]
In March 1990 she appeared at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England
with the Count Basie Orchestra for the launch of Jazz FM, plus a gala
dinner at the Grosvenor House Hotel at which she performed.[48] In 1993, she had to have both of her legs amputated below the knee due to the effects of diabetes.[49] Her eyesight was affected as well.[6]

In 1996, tired of being in the hospital, she wished to spend her last
days at home. Confined to a wheelchair, she spent her final days in her
backyard of her Beverly Hills mansion on Whittier, with her son Ray and
12-year-old granddaughter, Alice. “I just want to smell the air, listen
to the birds and hear Alice laugh,” she reportedly said. On her last
day, she was wheeled outside one last time, and sat there for about an
hour. When she was taken back in, she looked up with a soft smile on her
face and said, “I’m ready to go now.” She died in her home on June 15,
1996 at the age of 79.[6] A few hours after her death, the Playboy Jazz Festival was launched at the Hollywood Bowl. In tribute, the marquee read: “Ella We Will Miss You.”[50] Her funeral was private,[50] and she was buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.

As always it’s all in the grooves. Here are some of my favourite Ella Fitzgerald recordings out of the hundreds that she has made.

You’re The Top ► Monday Musical Appreciation

Eighty-one years ago today one of the greatest songwriters in the English language recorded one of his greatest songs.

Cole Porter was already famous when hired to write the tunes for Anything Goes. As his official biography at the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame tells us:

But while his social life [in Paris] was dazzling, Cole’s career was moving frustratingly slowly.
He studied briefly with the noted French composer Vincent d’Indy. He had a few small
successes, contributing songs to such shows as Hitchy-Koo 1919 and the Greenwich
Village Follies of 1924
. And in 1923 he had a success in Paris with a short ballet called
Within the Quota. But Broadway producers had little interest in his work. However, in
1928, Irving Berlin recommended Cole to the producers of a “musicomedy” called Paris,
starring Irene Bordoni. Cole wrote five songs for the show, and one of those songs
“Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love)”, became Cole’s first big success.

Finally, the Broadway career that had so long escaped him began to be a reality. He
followed up on Paris with another “French” show, and a full musical this time, Fifty
Million Frenchmen
(1929). The show, with a book by Herbert Fields, ran for 257
performances, and included “You’ve Got That Thing”, and “You Do Something To Me”.
And then, for a London show called Wake Up and Dream (1929), Cole wrote “What Is
This Thing Called Love?”

Now living in New York, Cole entered an extraordinarily productive period in which
show followed show on Broadway, and hit song followed hit song. The New Yorkers
(1930) introduced “Love For Sale”. His 1932 musical Gay Divorce starred Fred Astaire,
in Astaire’s last Broadway role and Astaire’s only Broadway appearance without his
sister and longtime dancing partner Adele. The show ran for 248 performances, and
included “Night And Day” and “After You, Who?”

In 1934, Cole wrote one of his greatest scores for a show with a book by Guy Bolton,
P.G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsey, and Russel Crouse, Anything Goes. The show
starred Ethel Merman, William Gaxton, Bettina Hall, and Victor Moore and included
“Anything Goes”, “I Get A Kick Out Of You”, “All Through The Night”, “Blow, Gabriel,
Blow”, and “You’re The Top”.

Cole Porter wasn’t known for his singing voice and he recorded so very few of his own songs. However, we’re fortunate to have Porter’s own version of the song, from October 26, 1934, the first time it was ever recorded:

From page 34 of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Fiction: “An Almost Theatrical Innocence:”


On October 26, 1934, Cole Porter, accompanying himself on the piano, recorded the song “You’re the Top” from his new musical Anything Goes (its book by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, revisited by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse), a show that would open for its tryout in Boston on November 5, 1934, and on Broadway on November 21, and run for 420 performances. Anything Goes was not only one of the great musical comedies of the 1930s but a high point in the history of the musical theater. Five of the show’s numbers became popular song standards: along with “You’re the Top,” there was “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “All Through the Night,” “Anything Goes,” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.”

What makes “You’re the Top” so wonderful is the clever wordplay, the spectacular rhyming scheme, and all those terrific Pop Cultural references, which would have been known by Mr. and Mrs. First Nighter, but some of which are almost unknown today:

At words poetic, I’m so pathetic
That I always have found it best,
Instead of getting ’em off my chest,
To let ’em rest unexpressed,
I hate parading my serenading
As I’ll probably miss a bar,
But if this ditty is not so pretty
At least it’ll tell you
How great you are.

You’re the top!
You’re the Coliseum.
You’re the top!
You’re the Louver Museum.
You’re a melody from a symphony by Strauss
You’re a Bendel bonnet,
A Shakespeare’s sonnet,
You’re Mickey Mouse.
You’re the Nile,
You’re the Tower of Pisa,
You’re the smile on the Mona Lisa
I’m a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,
But if, baby, I’m the bottom you’re the top!

Your words poetic are not pathetic.
On the other hand, babe, you shine,
And I can feel after every line
A thrill divine
Down my spine.
Now gifted humans like Vincent Youmans
Might think that your song is bad,
But I got a notion
I’ll second the motion
And this is what I’m going to add;

You’re the top!
You’re Mahatma Gandhi.
You’re the top!
You’re Napoleon Brandy.
You’re the purple light
Of a summer night in Spain,
You’re the National Gallery
You’re Garbo’s salary,
You’re cellophane.
You’re sublime,
You’re turkey dinner,
You’re the time, 

of a Derby winner.
I’m a toy balloon that’s fated soon to pop
But if, baby, I’m the bottom,
You’re the top!

You’re the top!
You’re an arrow collar
You’re the top!
You’re a Coolidge dollar,
You’re the nimble tread
Of the feet of Fred Astaire,
You’re an O’Neill drama,
You’re Whistler’s mama!
You’re Camembert.
You’re a rose,
You’re Inferno’s Dante,
You’re the nose
On the great Durante.
I’m just in a way,
As the French would say, “de trop”.
But if, baby, I’m the bottom,
You’re the top!

You’re the top!
You’re a dance in Bali.
You’re the top!
You’re a hot tamale.
You’re an angel, you,
Simply too, too, too diveen,
You’re a Boticcelli,
You’re Keats,
You’re Shelly!
You’re Ovaltine!
You’re a boom,
You’re the dam at Boulder,
You’re the moon,
Over Mae West’s shoulder,
I’m the nominee of the G.O.P.
But if, baby, I’m the bottom,
You’re the top!

You’re the top!
You’re a Waldorf salad.
You’re the top!
You’re a Berlin ballad.
You’re the boats that glide
On the sleepy Zuider Zee,
You’re an old Dutch master,
You’re Lady Astor,
You’re broccoli!
You’re romance,
You’re the steppes of Russia,
You’re the pants, on a Roxy usher,
I’m a broken doll, a fol-de-rol, a flop,
But if, baby, I’m the bottom,
You’re the top!

Coincidentally, on the same day Cole Porter recorded his version of “You’re the Top,” so did Paul Whiteman. Even though the show wouldn’t open up on Broadway for another month, Whiteman brought his orchestra into the studio to accompany vocalists Peggy Healy and John Hauser for this version:

Happy birthday to one of the greatest tunes ever recorded. Here are a few other versions:

This song is THE TOPS!!!

The Very First Grammy Awards ► Musical Appreciation

Domenico Modugno singing his big hit “Nel blu dipinto di blu”

Dateline May 4, 1959 – The very first Grammy Awards are presented to a diverse group of artists and genres for the music of 1958. I thought it might be instructive to take a look back and see what was on The Hit Parade 55 years ago.

There’s no denying that the BIG winner of the night, with both Record of the Year AND Song of the Year, was Domenico Modugno. Let’s hear a round of applause for Domenico Modugno!

Who the hell is that? Oh, c’mon. You know his huge hit tune “Nel blu dipinto di blu.” It was on everyone’s lips in 1958. No? Does this remind you?

How’d you like that interpretive dance near the end? Don’t tell me you skipped that part. Ed Sullivan knew how to pick ’em.

Domenico wasn’t the only one who walked away with a Grammy. Henry Mancini picked up Album of the Year for The Music of Peter Gunn. Everybody sing-a-long:

It was also a very big night for Alvin and the Chipmunks. They also garnered two Grammys, taking home the prize for both Best Children’s Recording AND Best Comedy Recording:

But Domenico and Alvin weren’t the only double award winners that night. Ella Fitzgerald took home two different awards for two different LPs. The Best Jazz Performace by an Individual Grammy award went to Ella for The Duke Ellington Songbook.:

That cut is not from the Ellington songbook LP, but it’s one of my faves from a live performance of Ella with Duke Ellington in Japan. Ella won another Grammy that night in the Pop music category of Best Vocal Performance for her interpretation of the Irving Berlin Songbook:

One of my favourite shows, The Music Man, won for Best Original Cast LP. While it’s cheating to use the 1962 movie version, that’s the one I know best. And since it’s one of my favourite musicals, here are 3 of my fave tunes from it, and the re-release trailer.

With songs like Perry Como’s “Catch A Falling Star” or “That Old Black Magic” by Keely Smith and Louis Prima also grabbing Grammys, there wasn’t a lot of youth culture represented. The only thing resembling Rock and Roll was this song by The Champs, who took home the Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Performance.



A Musical Appreciation ► Louis Armstrong

Dateline August 4, 1901 – A Black boy is born into a world of extreme poverty and Jim Crow laws in New Orleans, Louisiana. By the time Louis Armstrong died in 1971, in Queens, New York, he was one of the most recognizable musicians on the planet. Along the way he entertained millions and became one of the greatest performers in all of Jazz. However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

While I’ve been a fan of Louis Armstrong for many years, I became a huge fan all over again by what Jazz historian Gary Giddins said in Ken Burns’ (amazing multi-part) Jazz documentary. Giddins was asked whether Armstrong was a genius. Giddins replied (paraphrasing), “We tend to throw the word ‘genius’ around. However, if by ‘genius’ you mean that after him nothing was ever the same again, then by that measure Louis Armstrong was a genius.”

“You can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played”
~~~~~Miles Davis

It was Louis Armstrong’s praise of Bing Crosby talents that made me reassess everything I ever thought about Der Bingle. Here they are together in one of my favourite Louis Armstrong clips, a terrific Cole Porter tune from the movie High Society:

“What was the greatest band of the 20th century? Forget the Beatles – it was Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and its subsequent incarnation, the Hot Seven… these bands altered the course of popular music.”
~~~~~Playboy magazine

 There are two things that have always impressed me about Louis Armstrong and neither have to do with his music.

Armstrong being fitted by Toronto’s world famous hatter Sam Taft

1). In the mid-’40s, when he was just starting to make some really good money, he bought a house on 107th Street in Corona, Queens, NYC. He lived there the rest of his life, long after he could have afforded to move to better and more expensive digs. When he wasn’t touring he was known for sitting on his porch and greeting the neighbourhood kids, who all called him Pops, and giving them apples and unconditional love. That house was made a National Historical Landmark in 1977 and is now the Louis Armstrong House and Museum.

2). During his lifetime Armstrong was criticized for being an Uncle Tom for playing to segregated audiences, accepting the title “King of the Zulus” in the 1949 Mardi Gras parade, and not doing more for ‘his people.’ Billie Holliday was even quoted as saying, “Of course Pops toms, but he toms from the heart.” Aside from the fact that being named King of the Zulus was a singular New Orleans honour misunderstood elsehwre in the country, when Louis Armstrong made his views on race relations known, the entire world listened.

In 1957, during the desegregation controversy in Little Rock, Arkansas, Arstrong sppoke out loud and clear. He called President Eisenhower “gutless” and “two-faced” for sitting on his hands and doing nothing. And, to put his money where his mouth was, Armstrong cancelled a tour of the Soviet Union he was about to do on behalf of the State Department. Uncle Tom would never have said, “The way they’re treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.”

“Louis Armstrong is the master of the jazz solo. He became the beacon, the light in the tower, that helped the rest of us navigate the tricky waters of jazz improvisation.”
~~~~~Ellis Marsalis

Louis  Armstrong also helped change Jazz singing. He wasn’t the first to Scat, but he helped popularize the genre with his joyful Scat singing, which was as revolutionary as is trumpet playing.

As for honous: 

  • When his version of “Hello Dolly” knocked The Beatles off the top of the charts in 1964, he became the oldest person to have a #1 hit on the Billboard charts; 
  • The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed his 1928 version of “West End Blues” as one of 500 songs that shaped Rock and Roll;
  • On what would have been his 100th birthday New Orleans renamed its airport Louis Armstrong International Airport
  • Also on his centenery the United States Postal Service put Armstrong on a First Class stamp;
  • He was given a postumous Lifetime Grammy Award in 1972;
  • Eleven of his songs have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame;
  • President Richard Nixon released a statement upon Armstrong’s death calling him Mr. Jazz. 

“I’m proud to acknowledge my debt to the ‘Reverend Satchelmouth’ … He is the beginning and the end of music in America”
~~~~~Bing Crosby

However, it’s always been about the music. Louis Armstrong recorded hundreds, maybe thousands, of sides in his lifetime. Here is just a small sample of what made Louis Armstrong one of the greatest musicians ever.

“If you don’t like Louis Armstrong, you don’t know how to love”
~~~~~Mahalia Jackson