Jazz clarinetist Tony Scott once said “When Ella [Fitzgerald] sings ‘My man he’s left me,’ you think the guy went down the street for a loaf of bread. But when Lady (Billie Holliday) sings, you can see that guy going down the street. He’s got his bags packed and he ain’t never coming back.”
Some music fans might see that comment as a putdown of Ms. Fitzgerald, dubbed by her fans and comrades in song as “The First Lady of Song,” since Ella never tranmitted the sorrowful blues of Holliday. But Ella’s men were forever suitors who always came back for more.
Some of those suitors, including legend Quincy Jones, Ruben Studdard, Stevie Wonder join with women singers in a gala celebration of what would be Ella’s 90th birthday this week in the television special, We Love Ella! A Tribute to the First Lady of Song, a special from Thirteen/WNET premiering on Wednesday, June 6 nationally with repeat performances throughout the week. Repeat performances in the New York City area include screenings on Thursday, June 7 through Sunday, June 10 with times ranging from 10 am to 9 pm. Viewers in other national markets should check their local PBS schedule for times.
It is hard to estimate the worth of a singer who had the classic torch song, “Cry Me a River,” actually written for her and her only. Or to weigh the importance of a lady whose recordings of the composers Rogers and Hart, Ira and George Gershwin, Cole Porter were produced in songbook series, which still set the silver for many current musicians’ feasts.
Some of the current musicians who honor Ella’s swing on the program include chanteuse, Nancy Wilson who closes the show with a heart throbbing, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” after describing how she listened to Ella as a child dreaming of a career; singer Natalie Cole who co-hosts the show with Quincy Jones tells of meeting Ella as a child with her father Nat King Cole and calling her “Aunt Ella.”
But Ella’s influence must perhaps must be understood in the context of her early years when she got her start singing in the band of a four-foot tall dwarfed drummer, Chick Webb, who had the heart and strength of a giant. Webb actually adopted Ella as a teenager since she needed an adult guardian to sign contracts as a minor. Ella repaid Webb’s faith in her by fronting his band in many legendary big band competitions with the like of the Benny Goodman’s orchestra.
While the flower best associated with Billie Holliday was the gardenia she pinned in her hair to initially cover a burned spot, perhaps the petals that could be associated with Ella might be a crystal rose, flung through the heavens, joining lovers everywhere and somewhere, waiting for the right person and the right time to climb stairways to heaven. Singer Patti Austin evokes this destiny when she sings Ella’s classic “Heaven is Where You Are.”
But we must not forget the famous scat interpretations of Fitzgerald. Stevie Wonder and the a capella group Take Six give memorable renditions of the do wop vocals that Ella introduced so well because she said “I just wanted to be able to talk to musicians in the language they would understand.”
Music critic John Rockwell spoke of the woman who received the National Medal of Arts from President Regan in 1987 and sold over 40 million albums that “she brings together the major influences that have shaped American popular music in this century. Her style is not just a combination of pop and jazz, but of white and black, girl and woman, voice and instrument.”
When the suitors left Ella when she passed away in 1996, they had stardust on their sleeves. But heaven has sent her many children to help us see the midnight sun she always knew was burning. See her magic in new generations this week and dance. That’s what Ella would have wanted.