How Ella Fitzgerald's Glass-Shattering Memorex Campaign Revitalized Her Career In the 1970s, Fitzgerald became the face (and glass-shattering voice) of Memorex tapes. It fueled a career revival that extended her relevance and positioned her to pass the torch to a new generation.
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The Voice That Shattered Glass

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The Voice That Shattered Glass

The Voice That Shattered Glass

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now we bring you the stuff of legends - an urban legend and a jazz legend combining for a legendary advertising campaign. In the 1970s, Ella Fitzgerald became the face of Memorex cassette tapes, a surprising second act for the beloved midcentury singer. Michelle Mercer has the story for NPR series Turning the Tables, which is re-examining the legacies of the women who created American popular music.

MICHELLE MERCER, BYLINE: It all started with a folk tale. In 1970, the Leo Burnett ad agency had a bright idea for selling Memorex's new line of blank cassette tapes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Can the human voice shatter glass?

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

MERCER: They'd enlist audio engineers to prove the old myth that an opera singer could shatter a wine glass with a high note.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BREAKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He did it.

MERCER: And then showed that a Memorex cassette had such exacting sound precision that its recording could break a glass, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: New Memorex recording tape reproductions so true...

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BREAKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...It can shatter glass.

MERCER: It was a good start. But the agency began to think opera was too highbrow for the broader audience that Memorex hoped to reach. The campaign needed a spokesperson whose musical style had a more casual brilliance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW HIGH THE MOON")

ELLA FITZGERALD: (Vocalizing).

MERCER: Enter Ella Fitzgerald - jazz legend, gold standard in vocal excellence for her scat singing and paradigm of high-fidelity sound for her midcentury recordings of the Great American Songbook. In 1972, at age 55, Ella became the face and the voice of Memorex cassettes in TV ads like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ella Fitzgerald - she's attempting to shatter a glass with her amplified voice.

FITZGERALD: (Vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BREAKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: She did it. You are now hearing the Memorex cassette tape recording we just made of Ella.

FITZGERALD: (Vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BREAKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Now you'll see a glass shatter again. But is it Ella, or is it the Memorex?

FITZGERALD: (Vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BREAKING)

FITZGERALD: I'll never tell.

MERCER: Breaking a glass wasn't an unlikely feat for a singer of Ella's range and tone, especially with her voice amplified. What brought special warmth and conviction to the TV ads was Ella's middle-aged appearance. She was on the heavy side, wore a wig and, in some ads, cataract-correcting eyeglasses.

JUDITH TICK: It doesn't really matter that she's not glamorous.

MERCER: That's Judith Tick, a music historian and Ella Fitzgerald biographer.

TICK: There are plenty of people who can be glamorous, but they don't necessarily have that quality of vocal genius.

MERCER: Memorex was selling consumers the ability to make their own recordings on blank cassettes, to improvise their own musical experiences, just like Ella did with her scat singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FITZGERALD: (Vocalizing).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Memorex.

TICK: It means improvisation. It means freedom. And that magic about scat carries over into the magic of the glass shattering.

MERCER: In 1974, the Memorex TV spot evolved. Count Basie, Fitzgerald's old bandmate, sat with his back to a recording booth, listening for the difference between Ella's live voice played through speakers and a Memorex tape recording of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COUNT BASIE: You know, if anybody knows what Ella Fitzgerald sounds like, it's me, Count Basie. But honestly, I can't tell if that's Ella or if that's a recording of Ella on Memorex with...

MERCER: In the era of three-network TV, Memorex commercials aired on both CBS and NBC during football games and rock shows. So anyone who watched television at all was likely to catch an Ella Memorex spot. The tagline...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Is it live, or is it Memorex?

MERCER: ...Became a branding success on par with Maxwell House's good to the last drop. As the campaign became an institution, the almost 60-year-old Ella reveled in a career resurgence. Some jazz purists balked at Ella using the art form to hawk cassettes, but she was indifferent to stylistic boundaries and popular anxieties. Her career dated back to the '30s, when jazz was mainstream music. And television exposure had a distinct meaning for black artists at the time.

TICK: We know that black artists were kept off the radio and television. But it changes in the 1970s because we're in the post-civil rights era. The prestige of black is beautiful, black pride, black culture, is emerging. And that means that there were black celebrities that will be doing all kinds of endorsements.

MERCER: By the late '70s Stevie Wonder was endorsing TDK cassettes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVIE WONDER: It's not just a cassette; it's a little music machine that delivers the best sound for its size I've ever heard

MERCER: Ray Charles endorsed the Scotch brand.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAY CHARLES: When you record, you want that true, pure sound. So do it on Scotch because with Scotch recording tape, y'all know the truth comes out.

MERCER: As tape competition heated up, Memorex reached out to younger consumers by teaming Ella with Melissa Manchester.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIDNIGHT BLUE")

MELISSA MANCHESTER: (Singing) And I think we can make it - make it.

MERCER: Manchester was a rising 25-year-old singer-songwriter known for the hit "Midnight Blue." And she'd been a devoted Ella fan from the moment she heard the singer's "Gershwin Song Book" album as a little girl.

MANCHESTER: She was my guiding light. She just was my guiding light through my whole life.

MERCER: That's Manchester. She's now in her 60s and is still recording music.

MANCHESTER: When I first got to meet her on the set of the Memorex commercial, she was so jolly and so dear and so huggy (ph). And I immediately felt confirmed of all I had hoped for, that she was just magnificent in every way.

MERCER: In the ad, Manchester was thrilled to flunk the Ella Memorex listening test.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MANCHESTER: So Ella stood where I couldn't see her, and I listened carefully to her voice.

FITZGERALD: (Vocalizing).

MANCHESTER: But, you know, I couldn't tell. Nobody's perfect.

(LAUGHTER)

MERCER: Cassette sales rose throughout the '70s with the introduction of the car cassette deck and Sony's first Walkman. But by the end of the decade, the Ella-Memorex partnership showed signs of wear. A 1979 Memorex spot featured Ella opposite jazz fluegelhorn player Chuck Mangione, who performed "Feel So Good," his rare instrumental hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Ella Fitzgerald is listening to Chuck Mangione, while we're recording him on Memorex with MRX3 Oxide.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERCER: The roles were inverted here. Ella sat outside the booth, listening rather than singing herself. Ella's transition from live singer to a more passive stock icon signaled that her spokesperson role had run its course.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: It's Memorex.

MERCER: Ella's last Memorex commercial aired in the early '80s. But she continued to travel and perform throughout the decade and realized that she'd become a kind of folk hero. Airline pilots would warn her not to sing on their flights for fear of broken plane windows. Here she is in an interview from 1980.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FITZGERALD: Oh, it's real funny. When we're in England, you know, and Australia, they don't say Ella Fitzgerald anymore; they say, oh, there goes the Memorex lady.

(LAUGHTER)

MERCER: Ella performed publicly for the last time in 1992, ending a career that spanned six decades and countless styles.

TICK: The thing about Ella is that she is the paradigm of an artist who had total comfort in crossing over many, many kinds of boundaries.

MERCER: That's Judith Tick again, Ella's biographer.

TICK: She didn't need to be defined by one label. And I think the Memorex ad was an example of her eclectic aspirations.

MERCER: Ella Fitzgerald died a few years later in 1996. By then, she had collected quite a few nicknames - the first lady of song, the queen of jazz and, of course, the Memorex lady.

Michelle Mercer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEY CAN'T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME")

FITZGERALD: (Singing) The way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea.

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