DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
In 1935, drummer Chick Webb was a Harlem bandleader, looking to make a bigger impact on recordings. And singer Ella Fitzgerald was a homeless teenager who had recently won an Apollo Theater talent contest. They were introduced and she joined his band.
Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead tells us about a new box set that showcases their work together.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIZA")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Chick Webb, taking a too-rare drum feature with his big band on Gershwin's "Liza." Webb's outfit terrorized competitors in band battles and sent dancers into orbit at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. On record, they were rarely that explosive. Early on, they did have some hot Edgar Sampson arrangements that Benny Goodman would soon turn into hits, like "Blue Lou" and "Don't Be That Way." But the Webb band also had an old-school crooner, Charles Linton, with pre-Jazz Age enunciation.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS")
CHARLES LINTON: (Singing) Night drew a curtain around us and the blossom with the dew with a gleam. Romance and happiness found us and carried us off in a dream. Oh, moonlight and magnolias...
WHITEHEAD: Charles Linton helped draw a curtain over mannered singing like his when he brought scruffy 16-year-old Ella Fitzgerald to Chick Webb's attention. Her sound was streamlined and modern, about melody and rhythm more than emoting. Ella was unformed, but could read music and learn a song in a second. This is it, Webb said. "I have a real singer now. That's what the public wants. Music publishers deluged the band with mostly forgettable medium-tempo swing tunes, but Ella could make something out of almost anything. Her articulation was always precise, but, as in later years, a New York accent might slip out.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SING ME A SWING SONG")
ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) Oh baby, I don't want any moon, bright and yellow. You can have your sweet romance, sing me a swing song and let me dance. Mr. Trombone, play some corn, I ain't carin' what notes. Mr. Trumpet, grab a horn Brother, give me hot notes. Oh baby, I don't want any tune on a cello. Give the rhythm men a chance Sing me a swing song and let me dance.
WHITEHEAD: Contrary to press reports, Chick Webb never adopted Ella Fitzgerald, but there was some family feeling in the band, the belief that the success of one was good for all. Benny Goodman made some moves to steal her away, but Ella stayed put. She started writing a bit and had a hand in her mega hit "A Tisket, a Tasket," one of the band's several adapted children's songs. The first song Fitzgerald co-wrote, "You Showed Me the Way," could almost have been a love letter to Webb and the orchestra that gave her a home.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU SHOWED ME THE WAY")
FITZGERALD: (Singing) You showed me the way when I was someone in distress, a heart in search of happiness, you showed me the way. My skies were so gray, I never knew I'd feel a thrill. I couldn't dream a dream until you showed me the way.
WHITEHEAD: Meanwhile, the band's soloists still got a few chances to strut on record. Chick Webb, like other leaders, had a little band drawn from the big one, his Little Chicks, with its intertwined clarinet and flute. Wayman Carver takes a rare-for-1937 flute solo on "Sweet Sue." Webb swings at a whisper, using wire brushes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET SUE")
WHITEHEAD: Chick Webb suffered from tuberculosis of the spine and other ailments, and died in a Baltimore hospital in 1939. His ultra-cool last words: I'm sorry, but I gotta go. The orchestra continued under Ella's name, losing steam even as she matured. The last of their juvenile tunes, 1941's "Melindy, the Mouse," had a grown-up subtext. You can hear how Ella Fitzgerald's light touch there showed the way to flip new singers like Anita O'Day.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MELINDY, THE MOUSE")
FITZGERALD: (Singing) Melindy was a mousy living in a little housy and her life was one of wonderful ease. On the sunny side of 20 with a poppa who had plenty, her life was just a bowl of cheese. One day a kitty said, my, but you're pretty. I love you. Mousey near died, but replied, why I know nothing of you. You're just a kitty cat.
WHITEHEAD: This music is from a typically mammoth, lovingly annotated 8-CD box from Mosaic, "The Complete Chick Webb & Ella Fitzgerald Decca Sessions (1934-1941)." It actually warms up with a few earlier tracks. Various budget anthologies skim the vocal or instrumental cream from these four dozen sessions. The complete output shows how hits collections distort the historical record.
When the old days look rosier to us, we're usually remembering the highlight reel. There are hidden gems here, but they ain't all gems. By 1941, Ella had ripened enough to go solo and the orchestra folded. Before long, singers like Frank Sinatra were eclipsing big bands as popular attractions. Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald had already showed them the way.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M THRILLED")
FITZGERALD: (Humming) (Singing) I'm thrilled just holding your hand or just standing beside you awhile. You look in my eyes and smile and, oh, but I'm thrilled. Gee, but I'm thrilled.
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for A Point of Departure, Down Beat, and eMusic, and is the author of "Why Jazz." He reviewed "The Complete Chick Webb & Ella Fitzgerald Decca Sessions (1934-1941)" on the Mosaic label. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan shares her picks for the best books of 2013. This is FRESH AIR.