|About this Recording
ELLA FITZGERALD Vol.5
‘Lullaby Of Birdland’ Original Recordings 1947-1954
In this collection of songs, we find Ella Fitzgerald still exploring her own post-swing territory. In another Naxos compilation, Ella & Company (Naxos 8.120765), Ella exhibited her versatility in combining her talents with artists ranging from the smooth sounds of the Mills Brothers to the ebullient Louis Armstrong. On this recording, we witness Ella as she fronts a variety of Decca studio orchestras singing everything from blues to bebop.
In the post-swing, pre-rock Never-Never- Land of the late ’40s and early ’50s, crooners ruled the best-selling records charts. The top ten artists during this period included names such as Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore, all of whom got their starts as big band singers. Ella Fitzgerald was no different, catapulting herself from her success singing “Judy” in a 1934 amateur contest to scoring hits first for the Chick Webb orchestra and then, after Webb died, fronting the band herself.
After the demise of the big bands, Ella was faced with a double-edged sword as to which direction to take her career. On the one hand beckoned a promising future as a commercial pop singer. Her birdlike lyrical voice was perfect for the Tin Pan Alley standards such as I Hadn’t Anyone Till You and A Man Wrote A Song, both featuring the backing of the lush Gordon Jenkins orchestra and chorus.
On the other hand, Ella was equally driven by her jazz chops, and even though she came from the conservative Big Band Era, seemed equally comfortable singing bebop, a style that fits perfectly with her talent for scat singing. The most obvious example of this is on Walter Bishop’s My Baby Likes To Be-Bop, featuring the orchestra of Ella’s then-husband and music director, bassist Ray Brown. Three days after this was recorded, Ella, still in a scatting mood, recorded Sir Charles Thompson’s Robbins Nest with Illinois Jacquet’s orchestra, adding in another scat/bop chorus after singing Jacquet’s lyrics. In the latter, Ella displays one of bebop’s hallmarks: quoting a well-known song during her chorus, in this case, a snippet from “Humoresque”. Blue Lou, recorded in 1953, also shows her superb bebop technique on a song that had been in Chick Webb’s repertoire since 1934.
Decca Records, Ella’s label since she began recording with Chick Webb in 1936, was by now a proven pop powerhouse, and was not interested in Ella becoming a full-fledged jazz singer. The previously cited excursions into bebop were the exceptions rather than the rule. Decca preferred Ella to instead crank out novelty songs (patterned after her first hit, “A-Tisket ATasket”) and pop standards such as the Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler classic I’ve Got The World on A String. For many of these recordings, they used proven arranger Sy Oliver (formerly with Jimmie Lunceford’s swing band) supplying the accompaniment. Oliver was also on hand to work with Ella on her superb rendition of George Shearing’s Lullaby Of Birdland (with lyrics by George David Weiss) complete with organ by Bill Doggett. At the same session, Ella strayed even further into R&B on Tiny Bradshaw and Henry Glover’s Later, which includes one of her most virtuosic scat choruses.
Ella Fitzgerald’s versatility had resulted in an unexpected hit: her calypso duet with jump bandleader Louis Jordan on the Wilmoth Houdini tune, “Stone Cold Dead In De Market” in 1946. Four years later, Ella and Oliver joined forces on another novelty calypso, Peas And Rice, a song which Decca A&R chief Milt Gabler had purchased from one Mabel Pollard, of whom nothing is known (Decca receptionist? Aspiring songwriter? Waitress at the corner soda shop?)
Despite her series of pop ballads recorded for Decca, Ella had started a second career as a jazz singer, beginning with her 1946 appearance on Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic tours. During this time, she fell under the influence of bebop pioneers Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, which resulted in her expanding her jazz sensibilities as a vocalist.
Of the songs on this recording, only two (Walkin’ By The River and Melancholy Me) made even brief appearances on Billboard’s ‘Juke Box Charts’, a fact that may explain why Decca allowed Ella to sign with Granz’ Verve label in 1955. Granz had become Ella’s manager in 1953 and convinced her that she needed to take her career in a different direction from the aimless meandering she had been doing with Decca since the end of World War II. Decca had apparently run out of material for her to record, as evidenced by her bizarre Latin percussiondriven rendering of My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean, certainly the strangest version of this song until it was topped by John Lennon’s first vocal with the Beatles eight years later.
By the mid-1950s, it was apparent that Ella Fitzgerald was going nowhere with Decca and needed a career change. Still, the recordings here show her doing her best with a variety of songs, expanding her repertoire, and further developing one of the most admired vocal styles in popular music.
Cary Ginell – a winner of the 2004 ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism
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