TERRY GROSS, host:
The great jazz and pop singer Ella Fitzgerald recorded a lot back in the 1950s and 60s, her prime, so much stuff that unheard Fitzgerald is still coming out. Her latest release was recorded live in Hollywood during the Kennedy administration. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead weighs in.
(Soundbite of song, Perdido)
Ms. ELLA FITZGERALD (Singer): (Singing) Someone, someone as for Perdido, dont know how the lyrics go
(Soundbite of applause)
Ms. FITZGERALD: (Singing) tu ru ru tu go Perdido, the boys start playing, Cab coming in swaying and everybody was saying, how much they like Perdido
KEVIN WHITEHEAD: For a long time, I never thought of Ella Fitzgerald as a night club singer. She came up working with Chick Webbs orchestra at Harlems huge Savoy Ballroom and her later classics were recorded in the studio, or before adoring theater and festival crowds in Europe. She did perform in smaller places, but her night club recordings started trickling out only recently. The definitive collection so far is Twelve Nights In Hollywood, four CDs from Verve. Its from night club stands in 1961 and 62, when she was at her peak as an interpreter and improviser.
(Soundbite of song, Give Me The Simple Life)
Ms. FITZGERALD: (Singing) I dont believe in frettin or grievin, why mess around with strife? I never was cut out to step and strut out, give me the simple life, some find it pleasant dining on pheasant, those things roll off my knife, just serve me tomatoes, and mashed potatoes, give me the simple life, a cottage small is all Im after
WHITEHEAD: Of course she can belt out a classic tune and scat sing like nobodys business shes Ella Fitzgerald. Her Broadway and movie songs are still the mark other singers aim for, or they should be. In the intimate setting of the Crescendo club, she can also bring it down to a whisper and still hold the house.
(Soundbite of song, Baby, Wont You Please Come Home?)
Ms. FITZGERALD: (Singing) When you left you broke my heart, but that will never keep us apart, every hour in the day, you can hear me say, baby, wont you please come home, mama needs lovin baby come on home
WHITEHEAD: Guitarist Herb Ellis with Ella Fitzgerald, showing more blues feeling that she gets credit for. On Twelve Nights in Hollywood, her performances are often pointedly short, and the focus is always on Ella, in this Hollywood epic the star is in every scene. Her artistry is timeless, but these live recordings also lay bare the showbiz codes of another era. Fitzgerald introduces celebs in the house like Walter Winchell, tosses a timely Sinatra or JFK reference into a lyric, and pokes a little defensive fun at rock and roll. She also impersonates other singers some better than others.
(Soundbite of song, Wont You Come Home Bill Bailey)
Ms. FITZGERALD: (Singing) As Miss Della Reese might say: Wont you come home Bill Bailey? I say wont you come home? I say youve been away, youve been away too long. And as Miss Pearl Bailey might say: Bill, honey, daddy Im telling you better come home. Honey, youd better bring it on home cause honey Im just so tired of waiting on you in these shoes, daddy. Honey, I just cant wait no longer, you better come on home.
WHITEHEAD: Thats a good Pearl Bailey. Ella Fitzgeralds humor, unerring pitch and rhythm, and her way of reshaping a tune all come together on a breakneck version of 1925s Clap Hands! Here Comes Charlie! She fills the middle section with a free-floating collage of 1920s references, like a jazz T.S. Eliot. Stan Levey is on drums.
(Soundbite of song, Clap Hands! Here Comes Charlie!)
Ms. FITZGERALD: (Singing) Clap hands, here comes Charley now. (Unintelligible) Clap hands, here comes Charley now. Clap hands, here comes Charley. Clap hands, here comes Charley. Hey, hey, Charles is an old boy, yeah, yeah. I say, (unintelligible) Oh, the roaring twenties. You can tell (unintelligible) take it junior, hey, hey, Charleston oh boy, yeah, yeah. I say be untouchable. Clap hands, here comes Charley. Clap hands, here comes Charley. Clap hands, here comes Charley now. Oh boy, meet the (unintelligible) Hey Charlie, take a bow...
WHITEHEAD: Ella Fitzgerald is funny onstage, and the talking between songs prompts her to sing a bunch of introductory verses those often omitted build-ups to Broadway songs, created to smooth the transition between talking and singing in musicals. Fitzgerald occasionally bobbles a lyric, or sounds a little flustered by that loud table in the back, the discotheque upstairs, or folks requesting her latest single shes gonna do anyway. But all that adds to the charm. Listening to Twelve Nights in Hollywood isnt exactly like being in the room with Ella Fitzgerald. But you get to lean in the window.
(Soundbite of applause)
Ms. FITZGERALD: Thank you ladies and gentleman.
(Soundbite of song, I Feel a Sudden Urge to Sing the Kind of Ditty That Invokes the Spring)
Ms. FITZGERALD: (Singing) I feel a sudden urge to sing, the kind of ditty that invokes the spring, so control your desire to curse, while I crucify this verse, this verse Ive started seems to me, the tenth antithesis of melody, so to spare you all the pain, Ill skip the darn thing and sing the refrain, the night is young, the skies are clear, and if you want to go walkin, dear, its delightful, its delicious, its de-lovely, I understand
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for emusic.com. He reviewed Ella Fitzgerald Twelve Nights in Hollywood on Verve. Im Terry Gross.