In a career that spanned most of the twentieth century, Ella Fitzgerald sold more than 40 million records, helped to define the American Songbook, became the first African-American woman to win a Grammy, and sang with almost all of her peers. And yet, twenty years after her death, she remains a strangely under-appreciated jazz singer, perhaps because she lacks the Rat Pack mythology of Frank Sinatra and the romanticized miseries of Billie Holiday.
Or, perhaps it’s simply because she sounds so happy. Her vocal tone is bright and clear, her phrasing so fluid and breezy that the songs become playgrounds, but that ebullience of voice should not suggest a lack of depth or a dearth of soul. Fitzgerald can sound melancholy, even lonely, but there’s always a hardy optimism lurking in even her slowest, bleakest tune—as though she knows the next tune will be a happy one.
100 Songs For A Centennial, a 4xCD retrospective chronicles the first two major chapters in her career, starting with Fitzgerald’s tenure at Decca and then with her even more impressive run at Verve. While not a comprehensive overview of her life and career, this box set provides apt context for a series of releases commemorating her 100th birthday.
Born in Virginia but raised in New York—where one of her first jobs was lookout for a brothel—Fitzgerald willed her career into existence, first by winning a talent show at the Apollo and then signing with Chick Webb’s orchestra, all while still a teenager. Her early hits were largely novelty tunes, including her immensely popular “A Tisket, A Tasket” in 1938. Like Sinatra, however, she gracefully weathered the change from singles to albums in the 1950s, understanding that the new format allowed her to make bigger and more complex statements.
At Verve she undertook one of the most significant endeavors in the history of recorded music: a series of albums exploring the catalogs of such songwriters as Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, Duke Ellington and George & Ira Gershwin. 100 Songs ends with Fitzgerald in her early forties, around the time she was enjoying her last smash hit, “Mack the Knife,” but even as the pop landscape made less room for her brand of pop music, the blithe excitement of her vocals never waned.
In the twentieth century and even in the twenty-first, there’s something incredibly compelling and even poignant about cheeriness of her interpretations. In the face of oppression within the jazz scene and without—she was dismissed for being too black, for being a woman, for not being traditionally beautiful and desirable—Fitzgerald met the world with what might be considered a radical happiness, which is the animating force on 100 Songs for a Centennial.
The June 2017 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring our cover story on Summer Of Love, talking to the musicians, promoters and scenesters on both sides of the Atlantic who were there. Plus, we count down the 50 essential songs from the Summer Of Love, from The Seeds to The Smoke, and including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. Elsewhere in the issue, we remember Chuck Berry, go on the road with Bob Dylan and there are interview Fleet Foxes, Fairport Convention, Fred Wesley, Jane Birkin and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks’ co-conspirators Angelo Badalamenti and Julee Cruise. Our free CD has been exclusively compiled for us by Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold and includes cuts from Todd Rundgren, Neu!, Van Dyke Parks, The Shaggs, Arthur Russell and Cate Le Bon. Plus there’s Feist, Paul Weller, Perfume Genius, Ray Davies, Joan Shelley, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Johnny Cash, Alice Coltrane, John Martyn and more in our exhaustive reviews section