Thursday, March 08, 2007

Ella Fitzgerald, by Stuart Nicholson

This bio of the most swinging of all jazz singers is dullsville. The subject being Ella, I presumed even the most half hearted book on her would have to be a fun read.

Author Stuart Nicholson is more of a jazz scholar, and that’s probably what bogged down this book. Ella the woman is barely touched upon. Perhaps fair enough, considering how private she was. What you get with this book is more of a biography of Ella’s recorded works, from her early years with Chick Webb, through her Decca recordings, then onto Norman Granz and the Verve years.

Having said that the book is an uninspiring read, I agreed with a lot of what the author had to say about Ella’s singing. Ella’s recordings can often be quite anodyne; they can almost put you to sleep. She’s such a perfect singer, with that famous crystal clear diction and breathtaking technique, that style often triumphs over content.

As some critics have noted, Ella never really internalised the lyrics of the songs she sang. Hence there is a bit of a ‘disconnect’ between her singing and the lyrical content of a song. No wonder she seemed happy to sing just about any song.

For example, the recording of the famous Verve American songbook series was produced like a line of sausages out of a factory. Often Ella would learn the songs just the night before recording them. Hence the quote by Sylvia Syms at the beginning of chapter eleven, ‘I don’t think anyone would accuse Ella of having an intellectual relationship with the lyrics of her songs.’

On the other hand, when Ella hit her stride boy could she swing. It’s on those records that you marvel at Ella’s extraordinary art. In essence, she was a happy singer, a singer of life’s joys.

One positive I did get out the book was Stuart Nicholson’s defence of Ella’s early output for the Decca label. This period is often derided as being full of dross. Ella recorded lots of novelty songs at Decca, with a keen commercial eye on making as many hits as possible. (She sold some 22 million records for the company). Interestingly, it’s during her time at Decca that she also wrote a lot of her own hits.

The later part of her career went the way of most has-been singers: she started recording lots of inappropriate material, just to stay ‘hip’ and with the times. Would you believe that Ella even wanted to record the theme song to the Australian soap Neighbours? She told London’s Evening Standard that she had heard the song on British television. (Ella was a soapie junkie.)

My feeling is that you’d have to be a pretty hardcore fan to read this biography. Shoot me, but I like to read biographies because I find that they’re lively and gossipy and so human. Or that they offer compelling insights.

This biography is dry and dutiful and serious, so unlike Ella at her best. Forget the book and get yourself a copy of Ella Swings Gently with Nelson Riddle.

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