18 March 2009
Music Snob Journal #4: Ella Fitzgerald - Sings The Cole Porter Songbook
Many before me have lauded and compared the merits of various African American jazz divas from the golden age of 20th century pop music. For me, there are only a few really worth mentioning. And there are no real surprises here... I love Billie Holliday for her mournful voice, Sarah Vaughan for her dramatic approach, Dinah Washington for her sly bluesiness, and Nina Simone for her attitude.

... and then there was Ella Fitzgerald, First Lady of Song, whose ultimate claim to fame was that she had a truly sweet voice.

Each singer has managed to produce definitive readings of pop/jazz standards. Billie Holliday alone has claimed ownership of so many songs. It's impossible to sing her signature tunes like "Good Morning Heartache" or "Strange Fruit" without calling it an homage. Meanwhile Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington each has her own signature tune. Just one listen to Vaughan's version of "Lush Life", "Autumn In New York" and "My Man's Gone Now" and it's impossible to hear those songs any other way. Dinah Washington's "What A Difference A Day Made" and "Mad About The Boy" are classics! Meanwhile, Nina is just Nina... anything she sings -- from "My Baby Just Cares For Me" to "I Shall Be Released" just becomes her.

Ella, on the other hand, had no definitive style per se. She wasn't a dramatically showy vocalist like Sarah Vaughan. And she couldn't turn "Night & Day" into an aching lament like Billie did. Technically, all of them had strengths of their own. Sarah had an amazing range, her low register especially haunting. Billie's voice was limited but she knew how to bring out the heartache in every line with her mastery of phrasing.

Technically, Ella was pitch and note perfect. Almost annoyingly so. She didn't take as much liberty with the melody as some of her peers. (Except in concert, that is! Her vocal scats on her live recordings are nothing short of amazing!). What Ella possessed over the others was honey... she had golden warm rays of honey in her voice. The morning sun, flowers in the garden, birds chirping in the air, pastel polka dots that sprout in every footstep on the beat. When Ella sang, everything just feels good, things fall into place, the songs breathe as they should, and you can sing along because it's so easy to sing along to Ella. You don't just call something like that talent... it's a gift!

As a singer myself, it's sometimes hard to find that balance of technique and individuality. Everyone has a differently textured voice. Limitations can often be defining qualities. Michael Stipe of REM has a gritty nasal tone... if you can call it tone. Stipe'll never be what some would call a "classic" singer in the style of Tony Bennett or even Bruce Springsteen. But he has a style of his own. Which is I think harder to achieve because it's going against what the mainstream music audience prefers. I take my hat off to any musician who can survive in the industry for more than five years.

During the height of Ella's popularity from the 40s to the 60s, she was mainstream. She was popular among black and white audiences in America, Europe and Japan even though she was not classically pretty or glamorous. But she had a great singing voice that matured into a well-rounded interpreter of pop/jazz standards. I've been listening to her Gershwin songbook and it's simply amazing. Crisp. And the words are perfectly enunciated... not like the floridly flowery melismas of most of today's popular vocalists. She was like a black Julie Andrews. Ha ha ha...

Anyway... put your hands together for one of Ella's best recordings!


Ella Fitzgerald - Sings The Cole Porter Songbook (Verve, 1956)

Disc: 1
1. All Through the Night
2. Anything Goes
3. Miss Otis Regrets
4. Too Darn Hot
5. In the Still of the Night
6. I Get a Kick Out of You
7. Do I Love You?
8. I'm Always True To You In My Fashion
9. Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)
10. Just One of Those Things
11. Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye
12. All of You
13. Begin the Beguine
14. Get Out of Town
15. I Am in Love
16. From This Moment On

Disc: 2
1. I Love Paris
2. You Do Something to Me
3. Ridin' High
4. Easy to Love
5. It's All Right with Me
6. Why Can't You Behave?
7. What Is This Thing Called Love?
8. You're the Top
9. Love for Sale
10. It's De-Lovely
11. Night and Day
12. Ace in the Hole
13. So in Love
14. I've Got You Under My Skin
15. I Concentrate on You
16. Don't Fence Me In
17. You're the Top [Alternative][#][*]
18. I Concentrate on You [Alternate Take][#][*]
19. Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love) [Alternate Take][#][*]

(This is the tracklisting for the 1997 reissue.)

How can anyone beat this album? I love Billie's "Lady In Satin" and though the two are not really comparable, Ella kicks ass.

Lots have been written about Ella and her recordings for Verve, the jazz label founded by Norman Granz. While she was a great vocalist, most of Ella's early recordings before she joined Verve tended to lack artistic focus. Granz's great contribution to Ella's career was most definitely getting her to record a series of songbook albums featuring some of America's best songwriting talents. Ella's songbook series featured Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and Johnny Mercer.

And the first of the eight songbooks she eventually recorded was the Cole Porter songbook.

Granted, she didn't record all of his songs. That would've been crazy. But the tracklisting is incredible. And the whole thing was recorded in just a few days, while Ella was in the middle of a nationwide tour. Unbelievable. Because she just sounds amazing, so technically precise and such blithe readings of Porter's witty lyrics.

Lots of people prefer the Gershwins. I know why. Ira Gershwin was an earnest lyricist. And they framed his brother George's genius musicality without really ever getting in the way. Songs like "The Man I Love" or "Our Love Is Here To Stay" or "Nice Work If You Can Get It" are pretty typical of the Gershwin fare--they're easy to listen to, easy to just sink into, and you can put them on anytime and not really worry what it is you're listening to cause it's just... what it is. It's fluff. But it's good fluff!

Cole Porter on the other hand was more playful. Never in a Porter song will you find a straight sentiment. There's a sinister layer that coats his songs... that is, if you're not taken aback by how funny it actually is. Porter's lyrics are black comedy for the bourgeois. His songs mock pretentious society while simultaneously and obviously reveling in it. I 'd like to think that Porter had a wicked sense of humour in his songs due to the "rumoured fact" that he was "homosexual". Although he married, he was alleged to have had affairs with men throughout his life. In addition to having musical talent, he was also rich by inheritance and marriage and enjoyed an intercontinental lifestyle. He died under rather tragic circumstances, however. After a horse-riding accident which crushed one of his feet, Porter suffered many bouts of depression, which lasted until his death in 1964. You can read more about Porter on Wikipedia...

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Porter was a funny guy. And his funny songs found a playful and precise interpreter in Ella. The combination shouldn' have worked. For one, Ella and Cole lived on completely different planets. Porter's life was lavish and glamorous, especially during his popular years on Broadway. Ella was a jazz workaholic, touring here, recording there... she was also a shy and private person. She married twice (and a rumoured third) to men of dubious character, and was conscious about her weight, didn't have much of a fashion sense... poor girl didn't really have much of a clue. (Tsk... of course she had.)

But what she had was... that honeyed voice. Just listen to her tackle "Too Darn Hot" and "Just One Of Those Things" and "Begin The Beguine"... Porter songs have deceptively simple melodies. They're not easy to sing. Mostly because it's so easy to oversing them and go straight for the jugular. But that kind of approach kills Porter's wit. Porter's songs are much more revealing if they're sung with a certain sly attitude. What's important in a Porter song is the punchline... everything builds up to that climax of bittersweet pleasure... all the mystery is lost if it's attacked.

That's not to say that Ella was all too reverent. Ella was jazz. She knew how to swing it. And though her Gershwin and Ellington songbooks displayed a more knowing approach, to hear Porter songs moved this way and that by Ella's sense of time and phrasing is just magic.

The arrangements are none too bad either. Although there's a sense that she might have covered too much ground with not really enough firepower (compare this to the more ambitious arrangements on the Gershwin songbook), Ella's performances and the choice of songs manage to pull the album together.

It's hard to pick a favourite from this set. I love "You're The Top". Mostly because of the lyrics, with rhymes galore, and a veritable list of everything that's whoopeedoo.

"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 Louvre 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, 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. Or GOP!
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 blop,

But if, baby, I'm the bottom,
You're the top!"

I (don't) think that's the full set of lyrics for "You're The Top". Ella only sings half of this version. It's a bit of a throwaway song especially compared to other Porter tunes like "Love For Sale" or "I've Got You Under My Skin" etc... but I do love this tune.

Here's a sweet clip of Nat King Cole and Ella duetting on "You're The Top". From 1957 (the year Malaya was born). They sang completely different lyrics!

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