Born 100 years ago today, in 1917, if not quite at the dawn of the recorded music era, then during its infancy, Ella Fitzgerald has done more than most singers to fill the world with beautiful music and spread the joy and the love of the Great American Song Book. But what is it that makes Ella so important? Or as Mel Tormé put it, “She was the best singer on the planet.”
As a teenager she bunked off school, worked for the Mafia and lived on the streets, so it is perhaps surprising that her purity of voice has beguiled audiences since she first recorded with Chick Webb’s Orchestra in 1935. Like so many singers from the era of the big bands, Ella’s job was to perform live for dancers at clubs and ballrooms and then to go into the studio to sing the pop songs of the day, whether they truly suited her voice, or not. As often as not these songs better suited the band than the singer.
It wasn’t until the summer of 1938 that Ella found real success and when she did it was with a 19th century nursery rhyme that was brought up to date by Van Alexander who regularly sold arrangements to Chick Webb. ‘A-tisket A-tasket’ hit the right note with record buyers and it made No.1 on the American hit parade. A year later Webb passed away from spinal tuberculosis and for the next few years Ella kept his orchestra together, billed as Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra.
However, it was a struggle to keep it going; the band members were very demanding and Ella, barely in her twenties, found their demands difficult to rebut. In the summer of 1942 things came to something of a head when the American Musician’s Union (AFM) called a strike for all its members, which put an end to recording. Decca Records, Ella’s label, came to an agreement with the AFM in late September 1943 and instead of putting her back with her Orchestra, Decca teamed Ella with another of their prized recording assets, The Ink Spots. The result ‘Cow-Cow Boogie’ which made the Billboard top 10. Later in 1944 the same pairing scored a No.1 with ‘Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall’ coupled with ‘I’m Making Believe’.
Having had this success Decca tried to replicate the formula with recordings with Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan, The Delta Rhythm Boys and The Song Spinners and there were some modest hits. One of these was her last chart success of the decade, ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ with Louis Jordan, from the Esther William’s 1949 film Neptune’s Daughter. The problem was, no one at Decca could work out what Ella should be singing solo.