Monday, April 25, is the most sacred of holidays to a singer like me: it is the late Ella Fitzgerald’s birthday.
I grew up worshiping Ella Fitzgerald, which was not typical of most kids in the rock era. My school friends probably had, at most, a vague notion of who she was. But I was lucky to be born into the household of a renowned Big Band sax/clarinet player, and my musical horizons had expanded far out of the pop mainstream. A precocious jazzman, my dad Bill Ainsworth played for Tommy Dorsey while still in his teens and ended up backing the fledgling Frank Sinatra. Thus it is that, years later, I grew up hearing Frank, Peggy Lee, Nat “King” Cole, Mel Torme, Jack Jones, and, of course, Ella Fitzgerald. My dad not only played their records, he actually played with many of them.
To me, Ella was the absolute greatest of them all. Though she could scat and soar with an inventiveness and sophistication that shames today’s over-the-top pop artists, I came to love her most for the rich, pure, perfectly-pitched voice that blended deep chest tones with a headier resonance as she advanced far up the scale. (She could have trained as an operatic mezzo-soprano with unbelievable results). She had such a natural way with the lyrics, too. When the beauty of that voice was placed with the most wonderful songs ever written and simply gorgeous arrangements, nothing could touch the results. I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I am able to sing her songs in her exact keys and produce notes in the same range with similar vocal technique. She really did help teach me how to sing! That’s why my debut CD, “Keep It To Yourself,” includes the classic, “Midnight Sun.” I wanted to include my own take on one of Ella’s songs that I’ve studied the most to help me develop as an artist.
I saw Ella perform live with my dad only once. She was performing at the legendary Fairmont Hotel Venetian Room, and my mom and I got in on “comp night” for band members’ families. She was very old by then, with choppier phrasing and a little rasp to her voice, and coping with serious health problems. But she was still fabulous. Years later, I asked my dad for some little “inside” story about her that no one else knew. He said she’d spent her entire stay quietly in her hotel room, watching her favorite soap operas. Apparently, Ella in her later years grew to be quite a soap opera addict. She’d watch soaps all afternoon, come down and wow her adoring crowds, then head straight back up in the elevator to her beloved TV.
I wonder if Ella, if she were starting out today, would even get anywhere in the modern music marketing machine. She had enough trouble in her day conforming to the glamorous image stars were supposed to have. And I contend that looks are more important now than ever. She’d probably have to win a contest, as Susan Boyle did, to get a record contract. Of course, they’d make fun of her on national TV for being frumpy. Then they’d insist she lose 50 pounds, give her an extreme makeover and PhotoShop her like crazy.
If we hadn’t lost Ella in 1996, she would be turning 94 on Monday, and probably still sound better than most modern singers. In her honor, I plan to listen to her version of Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” Just think – if she’d been born a century earlier, before the miracle of recorded sound, that voice would’ve been lost to the ages. But we’re lucky; we get to enjoy her voice forever. As her famous commercial for audiotape used to note, it may not be live, but thank God it’s on Memorex.