Monday, June 11, 2007

Ella Fitzgerald's Christmas (2006)

This CD was given to me by my family last Christmas and has patiently sat next to my computer the longest in a stack of CDs that are upgrades to my personal collection.

This brand new album was reissued last Christmas and replaced a CDR copy of the original 1990 issue (see below) I obtained in a trade with another Christmas collector long ago.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Where do I begin?

Long before Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, long before Madonna, Stevie Nicks, and Janis Joplin... Long before Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, and Connie Francis, long before Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, and Billie Holiday... there was a woman named Ella.

Born in 1917, Ella didn't want to be a singer as a little girl. She wanted to be a dancer. After moving to New York, her mother was killed in an auto accident and went to live with her aunt - who died suddenly of a heart attack and she moved back to her native Virginia.

After dropping out of high school, Ella got two odd jobs - one was a lookout for a bordello, the other an assistant to a Mafia-affiliated numbers runner. The long arm of the law caught her, sent her to reform school, where she promptly escaped and headed back to New York City. For a brief time, the woman who would influence a whole generation of singers and be considered the "First Lady of Song" was homeless.

She still had dreams of dancing. On November 21, 1934, she travelled to Harlem and the Apollo Theater for one of their legendary "Amateur Nights". However, the Edward Sisters, a well known local dance duo, went on first and Ella quickly changed tactics from dancing to singing. She sang two songs, won the contest, and its prize of $25. It was the first time she has sung publicly and Ella had found her calling.

Two months later, Ella met an up-and-coming bandleader named Chick Webb. Webb was reluctant to hire her at first because of her innate shyness which all but disappeared when she sang behind a microphone. Ella's first salary under Webb? $12.50 a week.

For three years (1935-1938), Webb and Ella were the rage of Harlem. They toured frequently and began to record songs - most were "novelties and disposable pop fluff" in Ella's words. But some became huge successes. It was a nursery rhyme that made America stand up and take notice of Ella - "A-Tisket, A-Tasket", co-written by Ella and Webb, was the biggest song of 1938.

Fate stepped in again shortly thereafter. In June, 1939, Chick Webb died after a lifelong battle with congenital tuberculosis of the spine. The band was renamed "Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra", she became the de facto bandleader, and continued on until 1942 when World War II and the death of the Big Band Era broke the orchestra apart.

Going solo, Ella signed with Decca Records and began appearing regularly with the Jazz At The Philharmonic. However, be-bop was now the rage in the jazz scene and Ella remarkably and quickly adapted by "trying to do with my voice what I heard the horns in the band were doing." Her 1945 recording of "Flying Home" has long been considered a milepost in the jazz world, and her subsequent records were masterpieces as well.

By 1950, Ella was firmly established as one the greatest jazz singers of all time. So she could take chances on songs that had little or no commercial appeal. Such was the case on September 26, 1950 when she stepped in front of a microphone in New York City to record her very first Christmas record - a sly double entendre record that was reminiscent of her early pre-Decca recordings. That record was:

Ella's voice is so sweet that it takes the instant edge off the record and makes it a fun Christmas record. But radio stations refused to touch it and the single went unnoticed for many years after.

By the mid-1950s, Ella was recording and touring constantly and her popularity was yet to reach its peak. She was growing tired of recording every jazz record out there and giving it the bebop/scat feel. Her manager Norman Granz decided a major career move was in the works.

In 1956, Granz formed Verve Records around Ella and she moved to her new label in a big way. She recorded "Ella Sings The Cole Porter Songbook", the first of eight songbooks she would record of famous American composers between 1956 and 1964. The other songbooks? Rodgers & Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer. Ella was now giving the pop world a run for their money.

One summer week in 1960, Ella went into the recording studios and laid down tracks for her first complete Christmas album. The end result was "Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas", released at Christmas, 1960 and one of the best jazz Christmas albums ever recorded.

This album was first issued on compact disc back in 1988 but thankfully in 2002, Verve issued a new, remastered version of this album on CD that added the original album artwork and six bonus tracks to the whole package. I highly recommend this album for any Christmas music enthusiast.

At the beginning of the 1960s, the pop scene was being transformed as rock and roll began to dominate the music charts. Ella pushed on, continued to record songbooks, other great jazz albums, and appear on television and in nightclubs. Around this time (varying Internet sources can't agree between 1960 - 1963), Verve was sold to MGM Records and when Ella's contract expired in 1966, MGM decided against renewing it.

She was quickly signed to Capitol Records and Ella went into their famous Hollywood studio to record an album of spirituals and gospel hymns entitled "Brighten The Corner". Released in 1967 during the summer of love, it barely registered on the landscape. That same summer, she began recording the album you see before you.

Recorded over a two day period (July 17-18, 1967), the theme chosen for this Christmas album was strictly standards. Ella's dynamic voice cuts through like a bow on a ship in the water. Backed by Ralph Carmichael's choir and orchestra, this is a fine, solemn album.

One of my favorite tracks is "Sleep, My Little Lord Jesus" which conjures up images of the infant swaddled in clothes lying in a manger. Ella's voice is so soft and clear that makes you smell the stable and you're looking over your shoulders waiting for some shepherds to show.

This album was released in 1967 and sold moderately well. It was issued on CD back in 1990, once again in 1996, and a third time in 2000, all using the same similar cover:

Using the pattern above (1990, 1996, 2000), a reissue was due in 2006. This new reissue contains no new Christmas songs, alternate takes, etc. What it does contain is the complete Christmas album and the aforementioned "Brighten The Corner" album on one CD - both albums Ella issued in 1967! Not a bad upgrade!

Sadly, this was the last time Ella ever recorded Christmas music. The rest of her career at Capitol, then Reprise Records found Ella recording a strange lot of music - "Savoy Truffle", "Sunshine Of Your Love", "Hey Jude", "I Heard It Through The Grapevine", even some country and western tunes! Ella was awash in a sea of dreck.

Norman Granz to the rescue again. He began a new jazz label called Pablo Records and Ella quickly signed on in 1970. From 1970 to 1989, Ella called Pablo home and continue to record, re-record, and re-re-record jazz songs and issue albums.

By the time Ella recorded some famous television commercials asking the question "Is it live or is it Memorex?" in the late 1970s, she was a bonafide living legend.

She continued to tour, record, and influence generations of young jazz singers like Patti Austin, Diane Schuur, and a young Diana Krall.

Problems with diabetes slowed her down in the mid-1980s. She recorded her last album in 1989 and played her final concert around 1991 or 1992. By then, her eyesight was almost gone and her legs needed to be amputated in 1993. Three years later, on June 15, 1996, diabetes took the rest of Ella Fitzgerald.

Her career spanned 57 years and she received thirteen Grammy awards. Her whole career was summed up very nicely by Ira Gershwin, brother of George and co-writer of many of their famous songs:

"I didn't realize our songs were so good until Ella sang them."

UP NEXT: The Don Les Harmonicats - Christmas With



stubbysfears said...

Ah, the blog that refreshes!

Thank you! And congratulations upon your triumphant return.

CaptainOT said...

Stubby - Thank you, my good man!