Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday, apart from being the most important and best-known jazz singers of the last century, represent two sides of an interesting coin. Their early years were more similar than their public images suggest and both bore the scars of hard and abusive childhoods. Both became well known singers when very young. They diverge in that Billie’s pain seems central to her art and appears at times to be its sole subject matter, whereas Ella buried her demons beneath the perfectly phrased song. There is no hint of a troubled soul in Fitzgerald’s style, Holliday is troubled soul personified. Fitzgerald had the more successful career, Holliday is the more dramatic and sentimentalised figure. In our easy readings of such things Ella is pop and escapism and Billie is the blues and hard times. In fact Billie recorded few blues (Ella couldn’t sing a blues to save her life). It is perhaps more accurate to see Ella as representing a detached classicism and Billie a raw romanticism. It is important to remember that they emerge in the same era — Swing. Ella’s trademark interpretations of the best in popular songwriting belong to later years, as does Holliday’s heroin-ravaged cabaret tragedienne. In the 1930s, they were essentially the vibrant focal points of some of the finest dance bands of the day.
This selection shows us the Ella from those years, Ella before she discovered scat and Nelson Riddle arrangements. Not that you would know from the complete absence of liner notes, although the period flavour of the song titles does give it away. As far as I can work out, the numbers here consist of most of the tracks laid down with her first employer, drummer Chick Webb, and the tunes she recorded as leader of that band after Webb’s death in 1939. Webb’s orchestra was considered the hardest swinging and most relentlessly crowd-pleasing of its contemporaries and the tales of various musical giants cut down to size by the diminutive Webb are legendary. This live dominance has never really showed itself on record and though the accompaniments and the playing on this collection is more than adequate, perhaps you had to be there to get the full effect.
The songs and the singing are what count, of course. The songs first. They are a good cross section of dance band fodder thirties’ style — some well-written ballads swung slightly, lovely mid-tempo classics, some jive work-outs, two historically interesting drug songs, and plenty of novelty lyrics. All owe as much to Hollywood and pop as theydo to jazz — though that divide is somewhat artificial. For some fans the novelty songs have a nostalgic charm, but mostly they just irritate. Anyone who bemoans the shallowness of contemporary song writing should be made to listen to “Mr.Paganini” or “McPherson Is Rehearsin” for a day or so. It wasn’t all “These Foolish Things” and “My Funny Valentine” in the good old days. However, these ephemeral pieces were the basis for Fitzgerald’s success ( “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” in particular) and are therefore not to be overlooked. For a modern audience they are unlikely to do very much.
Much better are the hip-Harlem tracks. “I’m Just a Jitterbug” and the cocaine adverts “Wacky Dust” and “When I Get Low I Get High” are undoubtedly lightweight but do conjure up a nightclub hedonism with great zest. The drug-fuelled dance culture of recent times is not new and these amusing and attractive ancestors are worth investigating. The majority of this album’s most effective moments, however, are all provided in by the more characteristic “classy” tunes. Here the true strengths of Fitzgerald’s artistry find suitable form. “It’s Wonderful”, “Crying Mood”, “I Was Doing All Right”,”A Little Bit Later On” and “My Last Affair” are excellent examples of the well-crafted, easy-swaying, syncopated ballad that was to remain the singer’s most fruitful source of inspiration.
On these melodies the Fitzgerald talents can be heard at their best. The much cited perfect pace and pitch, a clarity of delivery and a real sense of interplay with the band are all clearly discernible, not just at an embryonic stage but already fully formed. The big difference is the youthfulness of the voice which turns out to be a pleasing strength rather than a weakness. Lightness of touch more than compensates for any lack of emotional depth. Ella’s main influence was Connie Boswell,a white New Orleans singer who was much better than her marginal status in jazz suggests, and only on these mellow but rhythmically rich tunes can the beginnings of a distinctive persona be heard. Listening to these tracks you can start to understand why musicians and fellow singers alike regarded Fitzgerald so highly.
On the whole this is representative rather than transcendent material — warts and all popular music of the time which ranges from the sublime (“It’s My Turn Now”) to the unpalatably ridiculous (“Bei Mir Bist Du Schon”). This budget compilation is thus worth checking out if you are into the history of song or the genesis of a great singer. No doubt it is brilliant if Swing is your Thing, but I suspect that it will for the most part sound a bit cobwebby to general listeners, who would be better advised to head for the various Song Books. There that flawless classicism has its full flowering. Traces can be found here, plus an energy and enthusiasm that was rather lost as the years passed. Maybe this collection is worthwhile for that alone, though you will have to put up with some high octane corniness in search of it.