About this Recording
8.120765 - FITZGERALD, Ella: Ella And Company (1943-1951)

‘Ella And Company’ Original Recordings 1943-1951

Ella Fitzgerald’s life story is well-known by jazz aficionados; how she won an amateur contest in 1934 singing “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection” and idolizing vocalist Connie Boswell; her early years as the girl singer with Chick Webb’s orchestra; and her taking Webb’s place upon his untimely death in 1939. But this was only the first stage in a career that lasted over a half-century and saw the shy singer from Yonkers, New York become the most celebrated female vocalist in jazz history.

Ella is best known for her series of ‘Songbook’ album tributes to American songwriting greats such as Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, and the Gershwin Brothers, all recorded under the aegis of producer/impresario Norman Granz for Verve Records in the 1950s. However, it was the preceding decade that established Ella as a premier interpreter of popular music, as well as her most commercially successful years.

In July 1941, the draft and the coming of World War II ended Ella’s two-year stint as leader of the Webb orchestra. The jazz industry was in a state of flux at the conclusion of the war. The big bands, which had thrived during the war, now found it difficult to stay together, due in part to increasing costs and changes in the American societal landscape. As the bands dissipated, their vocalists emerged as the next successful focus of the music industry. Some pop-leaning singers, like Dinah Shore and Perry Como, thrived in the decade following the end of the war. But jazz-oriented singers often found nowhere to go; a few went along with the bebop trend, but many could not adapt to the new poporiented milieu. This was where Ella Fitzgerald showed her tremendous versatility and staying power, proving that she could excel in the commercial world as a solo performer.

Venturing forth as a solo artist, Ella was backed initially by the Webb band’s rhythm section. She made a few more records before the American Federation of Musicians’ recording ban halted recording featuring Union musicians. Upon settling with the union in 1943, Decca Records was at first unsure what to do with the talented young singer. With a penchant for crosspollinating its contracted artists, Decca decided to pair Ella with some of the label’s other personalities and vocal groups. Until the end of her tenure with Decca in 1955, Ella Fitzgerald alternated her solo performances with combined efforts with Decca’s stable of stars.

The Ink Spots was one of the most successful of the all-male vocal quartets that got started in the 1930s on the heels of the sensational Mills Brothers. At first, the group emulated the Mills Brothers’ talent for imitating musical instruments, but eventually developed a style of their own, focusing on lead tenor Bill Kenny and baritone Orville “Hoppy” Jones. At her first session after the end of the recording ban in 1943, Ella and the Ink Spots recorded Cow Cow Boogie, which had been a pre-ban hit for Freddie Slack and Ella Mae Morse. Fitzgerald’s birdlike voice contrasted nicely with Hoppy Jones’ spoken chorus (“that cat was raised on loco weed!”). The result sold well enough that Decca spent much of the next decade teaming Ella with its top vocal groups as well as colourful jazz personalities such as Louis Armstrong and Louis Jordan; most of the sessions helmed by Decca producer Milt Gabler.

In comparison with the Ink Spots, the Song Spinners was a relatively colorless yet competent vocal group that got a career boost due to the absence of musicians in the recording studios during the AFM ban. In 1943 they became frequent accompanists for vocalist Dick Haymes. The following year, they backed Ella in her recording of Stan Kenton’s And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine. Five years later, Gabler took advantage of another recording ban by teaming Ella and the Song Spinners in an unaccompanied cover version of Jon and Sandra Steele’s My Happiness. The group’s ethereal backing of Ella’s lead in the first verse is one of their best moments on record.

Although the Delta Rhythm Boys had no hit songs of their own, the gospel-styled vocal quartet accompanied Ella Fitzgerald on several occasions in the mid-1940s. Patterned after the Mills Brothers, the group, consisting of Lee Gaines, Carl Jones, Kelsey Pharr, and Traverse Crawford bridged the gap between the Mills Brothers and doo-wop vocal groups of the 1950s. Their recording with Ella of (I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons was one of seven versions that charted during 1946 and 1947.

We have included one performance teaming Ella Fitzgerald with the Mills Brothers: the lovely ballad I Gotta Have My Baby Back, which was written by country honky-tonk singer/songwriter Floyd Tillman.

Of all the solo performers Ella teamed with during this period, Louis Armstrong provided the most creative spark. We’ve included eight sides featuring Ella and Satchmo, most of them ballads, among them the wistful Dream a Little Dream of Me (a revival of Wayne King’s 1931 hit), The Frim Fram Sauce (Nat ‘King’ Cole’s exercise in culinary double-talk) and Oops!, the latter one of Johnny Mercer’s lesser-known lyrics. The highlights of these exquisite duets come when Louis sings and Ella chimes in with her melodic wordless fills. Although Ella and Louis are more restrained than they would be on their later jazzier duets for Verve, the Decca sides readily exhibit the charm and chemistry of these two jazz vocal immortals.

Ella’s teaming with R&B pioneer Louis Jordan had a more personally charged chemistry since the two not only worked together while in Chick Webb’s band (1936-38), but were also romantically involved for a brief period. Their duets were jivey and hip, especially on Ain’t Nobody’s Business But My Own from 1950, which came hot on the heels of Tennessee Ernie Ford and Kay Starr’s countrified rendition (both recordings backed with “I’ll Never be Free”). A surprise hit for Ella and Jordan was the comic calypso romp Stone Cold Dead in the Market, (written as “He Had it Coming” by Trinidadian Wilmoth Houdini) in which Jordan plays the role of music’s only singing corpse.

During her final years with Decca, Ella Fitzgerald searched for her place in the music industry, just as they were searching for a place to put her. Commercially, her joint efforts with Decca’s stable of pop/jazz acts did well. But in the meantime, thanks in part to her marriage to jazz bassist Ray Brown, she had met Norman Granz and began touring regularly with Granz’ all-star jazz concert series, Jazz at the Philharmonic. In late 1955, Granz wrested her away from Decca and began producing her acclaimed ‘Songbook’ series of LPs, beginning her long and fruitful association with Granz’ Verve label. But it was the period in between this and her formative years with Chick Webb in which Ella Fitzgerald established herself as not only a survivor of the Big Band Era, but one whose development helped elevate her to the esteemed status as ‘The First Lady of Song’.

Cary Ginell (a winner of the 2004 ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism)

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