This month Rolling Stone magazine released its list of the top 200 singers of all time. If we put aside the foolishness of such an endeavor and forgive the authors for the fact that they're actually in the business of generating clicks and comments and subscriptions, we must admit that it would be a fun activity to crack open some beers with a few friends and take turns linking your phones to a bluetooth speaker on the table as you make your case for one singer or another. Do you prefer Bono or Bruce? Mariah or Whitney? John, Paul, George, or Ringo?
But lists like these exist only to spark debate. So here's my quibble with this particular list. When I first clicked on the link, I went straight to number one (Aretha Franklin, if you must know), and scrolled backwards looking for one name in particular, fully expecting to find it in the top ten. Or at least the top twenty. Maybe the top thirty or forty? But it wasn't until I got to #45 that I found the name I was looking for -- Ella Fitzgerald.
(Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised. When the magazine produced a top 100 back in 2008, Ella didn't even make the list. Also of note, Mariah Carey jumped from #79 in 2008 to #5 this year, and Whitney Houston climbed from #34 to #2. It's not an exact science, apparently.)
The thing about Ella Fitzgerald is that she's unlike any singer you'll ever hear. I don't want to diminish the work of modern musicians like Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, brilliant artists in their own right, but Lady Ella's career spanned more than six decades, or roughly the combined age of those two ingenues.
But it's Ella's versatility, not just her longevity, that truly sets her apart. This collaboration with Duke Ellington highlights everything she can do. As the record opens with "Something to Live For," the first track on what's called "The Pretty, the Lovely, the Tender, the Hold-Me-Close Side" of the record, Ella hits the listener with a line as syrupy smooth as anything Billie Holiday might sing:
I have almost everything a human could desire,
Cars and houses, bear-skin rugs to lie before my fire.
But there's something missing,
Something isn't there,
It seems I'm never kissing the one whom I care for.
I want something to live for...
It's a classic standard from composer Billy Strayhorn (though Ellington gets a credit as well), but Ella makes it her own, putting her soul into every syllable of a song she'd one day name as her favorite. From there she makes her way through four other ballads, including "I Like the Sunrise," a hopeful Ellington tune commissioned for a 1947 celebration marking the centennial of Liberia's independence.
All of it's thoroughly gorgeous, but it's the flip side, "The Finger-Snapping, Head-Shaking, Toe-Tapping, Go-For-Yourself Side" that I can't get enough of. The opening track, "Imagine My Frustration," teeters between blues and something close to rock and roll, and the energy only seems to build as the record spins towards the closing song.
Remember the versatility I mentioned? Ella Fitzgerald, the Queen of Jazz, opens the record with a song that evokes a lounge singer on stage, perhaps leaning forlornly against a piano with cigarette smoke gently spiraling through the single beam of a spotlight. And she finishes with another Ellington tune, "Cotton Tail," a high-tempo vehicle for Ella to unleash her trademark scatting, a vocal styling in which she leaves lyrics behind and allows her voice to become an instrument alongside the horns in Ellington's band.
And it's truly amazing. If improvisation is the cornerstone of jazz performance, Ella is one of the few vocalists to fully embrace the possibility of vocal improvisation. This track allows her to have a call-and-response conversation with Ellington saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, with each artist laying down a bar or two before listening to an echo from the other. (Take a look at this amazing video of a live performance recorded just a few months after the studio recording. Ella and Paul trade licks side by side at the front of the stage for more than two glorious minutes.)
Fifty-seven years later "Cotton Tail" is mind-blowing, but the reaction in the moment was no different. According to Leonard Feather's liner notes, "When the final tape was played back, the orchestra and everyone else present burst into applause. Grinning in happy embarrassment, Ella said, 'Aw, you're just saying that because you are in a hurry to get out of here!' But I suspect she knew, just as we all did, that nothing could top the inspiration of this magnificent take."
Six decades later, nothing does.
"The Pretty, the Lovely, the Tender, the Hold-Me-Close Side"
1. Something to Live For
2. A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing
3. Passion Flower
4. I Like the Sunrise
"The Finger-Snapping, Head-Shaking, Toe-Tapping, Go-For-Yourself Side"
1. Imagine My Frustration
2. Duke's Place
3. Brownskin Gal in the Calico Gown
4. What Am I Here For?
5. Cotton Tail