In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
Ella Fitzgerald, “the First Lady of Song,” the “Queen of Jazz,” or simply “Lady Ella,” got her first big break at an Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater, a place where many stars first got their start (Diana Ross & the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, and Lauryn Hill, to name but a few). She went on to have an almost 30-year-long career, recording over 200 albums and collecting many awards, including 14 Grammys (making her the woman with the fifth most overall), the National Medal of Arts (given by President Ronald Reagan), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (given by President George H. W. Bush), and internationally, admission into France’s Order of Arts and Letters. She even got her own stamp and was featured in the Google Doodle.
Fitzgerald was a trailblazer. She was the first African American woman to win a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance and Best Jazz Performance and the first woman to be nominated for Album of the Year during the first-ever Grammy awards in 1959. Eight years later, she became the first woman to win the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
She collaborated with many others musicians throughout the course of her career (as we’ll see below), often making old songs her own. Despite her popularity and her status as a major jazz influencer, Fitzgerald still faced discrimination (she once was arrested backstage at her own show). Fitzgerald had powerful advocates though, including Marilyn Monroe, a big fan who used her popularity to advocate for Fitzgerald to perform at a popular club, Mocambo.
Today, on the anniversary of her death and in her memory, we listen to covers of some of her originals (for the cover sticklers) and covers of her own covers (although arguably she popularized these tunes). Before reading on, I encourage you to listen to Fitzgerald’s response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, a song called “It’s Up to Me and You.” Her message, “let’s not hate and let’s not wait,” rings true today.
Fiona Apple and Watkins Family Hour – When I Get Low I Get High (Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb cover)
Fitzgerald collaborated with drummer Chick Webb early in her career, starting in 1935. When Webb died in 1939, Fitzgerald led his band until she decided to pursue a solo career in 1942. This jazz tune gets a pinch of bluegrass from Watkins Family Hour and a dash of unrestrained rage from Fiona Apple. Would Ella say Apple has potential? I think so.
Denise Jannah – Reach for Tomorrow (Ella Fitzgerald cover)
Fitzgerald’s talents didn’t stop at singing. She acted in a variety of movies, including Pete Kelly’s Blues (a musical crime drama), St. Louis Blues (based on “Father of the Blues” by W. C. Handy), and the movie Let No Man Write My Epitaph (another crime drama). In the latter she sung multiple songs, including this one, that she later recorded on an album containing songs from the entire film. Denise Jannah is a Dutch jazz singer who has a whole album devoted to Fitzgerald. This cover follows the simple and sincere original with its uplifting message: “Reach for tomorrow /And keep your dreams ever new / No matter how many times it seems / That dreams are not for you.”
Mica Paris – Imagine My Frustration (Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington cover)
“Imagine My Frustration” appeared on Fitzgerald’s second collaboration album with Duke Ellington, Ella at Duke’s Place. Mica Paris, a British singer, considers Fitzgerald an unsung hero, and aims to spread the word about Fitzgerald’s prowess. What better way to evoke this opinion than by covering “Imagine My Frustration,” a song about being overlooked at a dance. Paris’s version channels that outrage, punctuated by big brass.
The Hot Puppies – Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall (The Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald cover)
The Ink Spots were a vocal jazz group that gained popularity in the ’30s and ’40s. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 (for the record, Fitzgerald has not been inducted… yet?). This collaboration reached number one on the pop chart and the Harlem Hit Parade, the original name for what is now the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart. This song lives on in pop culture albeit in a surprising place; it features on different soundtracks of recent video games (L.A. Noire, Fallout 3 and 4). The Hot Puppies, a Welsh band, maintain the chipper attitude of the original, despite the nature of the lyrics, in this abbreviated cover.
Zee Avi – Dream a Little Dream of Me (Ozzie Nelson, later Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie cover)
Now we get into covers of Fitzgerald’s own covers. This song was first recorded by Ozzie Nelson in 1931, but it has been covered many times since (including by the Mamas & the Papas). Fitzgerald and Count Basie (a jazz pianist) covered it for their collaborative album, Ella and Basie! in 1963. Avi is heavily influenced by the big band music of the ’20s. She has even been likened to Fitzgerald herself. Her version doesn’t include scat singing, but the ukulele is surprisingly expressive.
Seal – The Nearness of You (Glenn Miller Orchestra and Ray Eberle, later Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong cover)
The Glenn Miller Orchestra and Ray Eberle teamed up to first release “The Nearness of You” in 1940. Others covered the song in the ’40s and early ’50s before Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recorded it for their duet album, Ella & Louis. You may be familiar with Norah Jones’s version (which is great), but I had to draw your attention to Seal’s album of standards. We don’t get the contrast between Armstrong and Fitzgerald’s voices in this version, but Seal’s version is smooth with soaring strings and delicate piano.
Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers – Summertime (George Gershwin, later Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong cover)
“Summertime” was originally created for the opera Porgy and Bess. The original cast included African-American singers Todd Duncan (one of the first African-Americans to be in a well-known opera company), Anne Brown (the first African-American singer to attend Julliard), John W. Sublette (who taught Fred Astaire how to tap dance), and Ruby Elzy (who sang at the White House for Eleanor Roosevelt and the wives of the Supreme Court Justices). Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald later collaborated on a jazz album of selected songs from the opera to accompany the Goldwyn film version. In 2001, their version won the Grammy Hall of Fame Award for having “qualitative or historical significance.”
I am in love with this cover; I can’t get over how awesome it is. It is the saxophone/rock interpretation we didn’t know we needed. Abair and the Boneshakers exude power and confidence without being cocky, matching the assertive trumpet in Fitzgerald and Armstrong’s version. Although this version doesn’t have vocals to emulate Fitzgerald’s part, the back and forth of the wail of the saxophone and the subtler groove of the electric guitar is expressive in its own way.