Emmy Award-winning and Grammy Award-nominated performer/author Geoffrey Mark knows more than a thing or two about the American phenomenon known as Ella Fitzgerald. Mr. Mark personally saw Ella 25 times in concert. He was privileged to assist her during the later years by providing playlists which utilized songs that fit her vocal range, in the order in which they should be performed. Nicknamed “The First Lady of Song”, “The Queen of Jazz”, and “Lady Ella”, Ms. Fitzgerald died on June 15, 1996– but her legacy is stronger than ever as we enter the second half of 2018. One of the first questions I got to ask Geoffrey Mark was, “What is it about Ella’s music that transcends the generations?” He tells me:
We have seven decades of recordings to listen to, and there’s something for everyone. If you like country music, there’s an Ella Fitzgerald country album called Misty Blue. Do you like gospel? She has a gospel album. Do you like the contemporary sounds of the late 60’s– Lennon, McCartney? Ella has an album of that. But she is the high water mark for what is now called The Great American Songbook– which started with Ella Fitzgerald because her manager, Norman Granz finally got her away from Decca Records. He started Verve Records for her, and started right off with the Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book in 1956– a two LP set of the best of what Cole Porter had written up to that moment in time. Cole Porter. Irving Berlin. Rogers and Hart. Harold Arlen. Duke Ellington. A five LP set of George and Ira Gershwin. What we call “The Great American Songbook” today was Ella’s idea. It was a follow-through. Let’s take what we call the “standards”: Gee whiz… I want to hear Miss Otis Regrets. Who should I listen to? Well, first listen to Ella’s version… of ANYTHING! Because, she sang the songs the way the composers intended. Then, you can listen to other people do different things with them. She’s who everyone else goes to first!
Indeed, many artists through the decades have considered Ella Fitzgerald to be an influence on their own musical careers. While the list would seemingly be infinite, some of that newer generation includes Adele, Lady Gaga, Mica Paris, and Lana Del Rey. Ella’s musical influence on the younger wave of performers transcribes gender, race, sexual orientation, geographical location, and musical genre. One rising performer from the new generation of singers is 39-year old, critically acclaimed counter-tenor Graham J., who lives in Dublin, Ireland and has performed around the world. Norton tells me of Fitzgerald’s influence on his own career: “As a performer there is no greater compliment to receive than having comparisons drawn with Ella Fitzgerald. Leaving aside Ella’s incredible musicianship and crystal cut diction, her gifts of interpretation and communication are in my mind what made her so special. She has a way of shaping a phrase that makes you really listen to what she has to say. When she sings, you believe every word she utters. She sings directly to your soul. That unique quality is something I strive for in my own singing and why I believe she has earned the mantle of ‘The Queen of Song’.”
Many of Ella’s fans and fellow performers have spoken about the legendary Ms. Fitzgerald, but Ella expert Geoffrey Mark wrote the book. Literally. Mark’s new bio ELLA: A Biography of the Legendary Ella Fitzgerald is a all-embracing, 464-page biography of the ageless star. ELLA chronicles the ultimate rags-to-riches embodiment of the American dream, whose personal life was one of the best-kept secrets in show business—until now. The Centennial Birthday Edition of ELLA is illustrated with dozens of photos of Ms. Fitzgerald, including artifacts from her life and her internationally acclaimed , seven-decade career. Developed with material from the archives of her estate, ELLA promises to reveal the unknown side of the famous vocalist. The book features many never-before seen photos, interviews, and anecdotes, and delivers for the first time the true, untold story of Ella the woman. A Deluxe Edition of the book is also available, which includes an exclusive 2-CD set of forty studio and live tracks. These tracks were lovingly and carefully selected by Mr. Mark from all four of her major recording labels, gathering for the first time ever in one collection the best of her work from 1938 through 1990, and programmed as she would have sung them in live performance.
In the middle of his whirlwind book tour, Geoffrey Mark and I continued our conversation about “all things Ella”!
JR: So, Geoffrey… It’s been known that Ella Fitzgerald was notoriously shy in person. But When she interacted with people on a day-to-day basis– her co-workers, her friends, her fans– what was the most predominant thing about her personality? What was her relationship like with those she was close with?
GM: I think it was like with the rest of us: It depended on who those people were. She demanded a lot from her musicians because she gave so much to her music, and she wanted to be with musicians who gave the same. You can’t do jazz and not have your musicians be in support of you. They can’t fight against you. There can’t be fiction. They must BREATHE with you, so that you’re free to do your thing. So, Ella interacted with her musicians one way. She was a little subservient to her managers, because they led the way for her. I’ve never heard her be anything except kind to people working for her. I’ve never heard her be anything but wonderful to her fans… although later in life, a little less so– not because she didn’t want to be nice, but because her health made her weak. She may have just given a concert and didn’t want to stand and autograph 100 programs; she could hardly stand up. So, that would affect how you’d interact.
JR: Could Ella ever be a diva?
GM: Ella could be a little petulant with her musicians if she felt she wasn’t being listened to. If she felt, “Hey, here’s the arrangement. Play it properly!” then she expect them to. It wasn’t because she didn’t want them to express themselves, but as I said earlier, if you’re a jazz singer and you’re doing a song– let’s say, Satin Doll– Ella never sang that song the same way twice. The reason she was able to do that is because the men who played the arrangement played it perfectly, giving her the structure to play around within it. But if THEY started improvising and she didn’t know what the next cord was, or if she was going for a note in a chord and that chord wasn’t there, or they started playing it too fast or too slowly, then SHE was thrown off. If you threw her off musically, you’d hear about it! It was THAT kind of thing. You know what? You SHOULD hear about it if you’re throwing off your star singer. You SHOULD be told! But she was not a haughty person. She was not, “I demand…!” or “You must…!” You could call her “Ella”. That was fine with her. She didn’t have the drug problems that Billie Holiday did, so she was not drunk or stoned to be a problem. She did her very best to cooperate with things. How many albums did Ella record in one day? I don’t know if young people today could understand this: You picked your 12 or 14 songs, an arranger arranged them, and– other than working with Ella to pick keys and maybe ask “Are we gonna do it this fast?” or something like that– often, Ella never heard the arrangement until she was in the studio. The entire thing was recorded live, with the musicians, right there. No overdubs, no electronic fixing. The only thing they ever did was add a little bit of echo to her voice, and even that wasn’t all the time. There was one particular thing that comes to mind: She went in one day, recorded an album with one arranger in one day, came back to the same studio the next day with a new arranger and 12 or 14 new songs, and recorded THAT album. Back to back. In two days! It takes four years to record one song now.
JR: Wow! Well, that speaks to Ella Fitzgerald’s strong work ethic!
GM: Or… “Where is that special bottle of wine I asked for?” Or “Where is that brand of bottled water that has to be shipped in from Switzerland?” Or “Where are the Godiva chocolates?… Until I have that, I’m not singing!” Ella always took care of the work at hand. That was always first and foremost. She was a complete, total professional. Between the late 1940’s and the late 1990’s– for about five decades of her career– Ella toured about 42 weeks a year. Not just in the United States, but all over North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, all over Europe, North Africa, the Caribbean Islands… Two shows a night, six days a week. In radio’s heyday, she was on almost every radio variety show there was. She wasn’t treated well. She was allowed to sing but barely allowed to speak, because she was black. But she was there. It takes your time and your energy to be there and to rehearse and to perform. On television, she was present from the earliest days– like the Ed Sullivan Show in the late ’40’s– until she couldn’t perform anymore. Again, it wasn’t just this country. Nearly every country she performed in wanted a television special from her. And she did them over and over and over again. She made four films. She was on every television variety show that there was in this country. Now, that’s all of that. We haven’t even talked about her recordings! Now, just between 1956 and 1960– four years– Ella recorded, both live and in the studio, enough material to fill 27 CD’s. Ella was constantly working. The only thing that stopped her was health issues. Life on the road was the norm. Life at home was her vacation.
JR: It certainly seems that she “gave back” a lot to her fans. Do you agree?
GM: Mr. Sinatra, Ms. Ross, Ms. Streisand, Beyonce… They go on tour two weeks, five weeks, ten weeks, or however long their tours are these days. The have an act. They sing those same 15 songs every night. Everything is choreographed and lighted, and the sound checks are done, and they wear the same costumes. That’s their act for the tour. Ella never did that. She recorded so many songs through the years– over 2400– that she had at any given moment at her fingertips about 400 arrangements that she could pull from, whether she was with a trio or a quartet or a big band or a symphony orchestra. She may sing these 15 songs tonight and a different eight tomorrow. Let’s say Ella was at Westbury Music Fair on Long Island (Now called NYCB Theater at Westbury). If she knew that you were in the audience– because she could hear you applauding!– and she knew that the audience liked three particular songs more than the others, she kept a notebook. She’d write in it: “This date. Westbury. These three songs”. If she came back in six months, or a year, or two years to Westbury… she’d make sure she sung those songs that you all liked so much. She’d change up everything else, so that you’d never be bored by an Ella Fitzgerald concert. It wasn’t a “Oh, she’s gonna sing her greatest hits again. It’s the same stuff.” She rarely performed her big hits on a REGULAR basis. A Tisket A Tasket was rarely performed as the leading song. Mack the Knife was not the ending of every show. How High the Moon was not heard at every show she did. It was changed up so that she never got bored and her audience never got bored… because she was concerned that if you spent even one dollar to see Ella Fitzgerald, you got your money’s worth! As much as we loved her, she loved us more. That’s how much respect and awe she had for her audiences. That’s why she kept recording. That’s why she kept working so hard. She wanted to be out there bring you that music and making you happy. That’s what made HER happy. I don’t know any other performer like that! Actually, I can say that about Lucille Ball, and I’ve written about her too. Lucille Ball was like that on television. Twenty-three seasons of sitcoms, where they at least tried to make up a new plot each week! Ms. Ball wanted to bring the laughter to her audiences until she just couldn’t do it any more. Also, there was Ethel Merman on Broadway. Fifteen hit Broadway musicals! And even Ms. Merman, once she stopped working on Broadway, had an act that she did for the rest of her life. If you went to go see Ethel Merman in 1974 or 1979, you saw the same show. There were no changes, and there was nothing different. This was her show, take it or leave it, and “This is what I’m doing!” Ella never did that!
JR: It’s clear that she had a love of performing, as opposed to just doing it as a “job” or just being a star, as is the case of so many of our younger performers today! In Ella’s case– and correct me if I’m wrong– there seemed to almost be an absence of vanity. It wasn’t just about being a “celebrity”!
GM: Ella was asked about that once on television, in one of the rare times she gave an interview on television. It was the late 1960’s, and she was asked about the young people of the day. She answered, “Well, they’re wonderful, but they become famous too fast. They don’t learn how to adjust to it. They don’t understand that it’s all about the audience.” She was already a legend. She added, “You have to understand that when you begin to think that you’re really ‘something’, that’s when you become nothing. If your attitude is, ‘I have to work really hard to be the best that I can be, to do my work the best I really can.’, you’re gonna be a success. If you begin to think, ‘I’m so wonderful! Wait till you see this!’, the attitude comes across the footlights.” I think she was right. It’s not that you can’t have confidence. It isn’t that you can’t enjoy what you do. But if you have an attitude problem, then no matter how good you are, I think that the attitude comes across to your fans. I think that Barbra Streisand is a genius and an incredible singer. Although she refuses to say this on record, she took from Ella–as had everybody else. Taking from Ella doesn’t mean you’re not an original or that you’re stupid. It means that you’re smart! Because she’s the best. If you go to see a Barbra Streisand concert, you’re gonna hear People and Don’t Rain on My Parade and My Man. Those songs are always going to be there at every concert no matter what. If you go to see Tony Bennett, you’re going to hear I Left My Heart in San Francisco and The Shadow of Your Smile. They’re just going to be in there. With Ella, that wasn’t so. She wasn’t driven by, “What are my biggest hits?” She was driven by “What is the audience doing to enjoy? What can I bring them that’s new?” And then, somewhere in the concert she would drop in something that everyone would recognize. It was always a surprise. Again, I don’t know of any other singer who did that. Frank Sinatra didn’t do it. Sammy Davis Jr. didn’t do it. Someone once asked, “It’s amazing how many songs that she has in her!” One of her pianists once said that when Ella walked down the street, she dropped notes! There was so much music in her that is would just drop out of her! Ella believed that everybody has a gift… but that unfortunately, too many people either aren’t aware of it, or are afraid of it. So they take the easier, softer way rather than develop what God gave them and using it to accomplish something for other people. For her, it was singing. But for others, maybe it is that they could build a house. Or bake a great cake. Or that you’re a wonderful teacher, or that you take in children because children are your priority. Everybody’s got something. There’s nobody on this planet who has nothing to offer… but most of us just don’t do it. We don’t plug in either because we’re afraid, or because we’ve been raised to believe that we have to BE a certain way. But, the people who get out there and accomplish are the people who say their prayers and do it anyway. That’s courage. It’s not that they are without fear, because everybody has fear. Ella was a courageous woman. She was so shy and so scarred by her earlier life. Her personal life was no bed of roses, even when she was a big star. She never really had a stable marriage or a stable home life. She was never home. Her relationship with her son was loving, but it was loving at a distance, because she was gone so many weeks out of the year. That was the price she paid to be Ella Fitzgerald!
JR: We can all be grateful for her dedication today! And her music will live forever. Thank you for speaking with me, Geoffrey! Good luck on the rest of your book tour.
See Part 1 of our interview here:
ELLA: A Biography of the Legendary Ella Fitzgerald is now available in hardcover and Kindle formats. Proceeds from the Deluxe Edition of ELLA will be donated to The Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation to further her desire to help people of all races, cultures and beliefs. Ella hoped to make their lives more rewarding, and she wanted to foster a love of reading, as well as a love of music, through grants and scholarships that provide music education and to provide exposure to the joys and beauty of music for children and adults. For more about the EFCF or to donate, visit: www.EllaFitzgerald.com.