WHEN ELLA Fitzgerald began
her now-legendary Verve Song Book series in 1956, she was a
musicians’ and singers’ singer of limited commercial
appeal. Eight years later, when Verve released the final
volume, she had become as much of an icon as Frank Sinatra.
Fans all over the world embraced her as a peer of the
geniuses she’d saluted: Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Irving
Berlin, and others. The Song Book series, in turn, was seen
as a shrine to the songwriting craft at its zenith.
When those albums first appeared, no one knew that the
so-called golden age of classic popular song was. In 1964,
Fitzgerald Sings the Johnny
Mercer Song Book hit the stores,
the Beatles were America’s favorite tunesmiths, and
Fitzgerald’s series had run its course. Her Gershwin box
had included five long-playing albums and a companion EP
single; Mercer got one LP.
Still, this album had its riches. The album placed
Fitzgerald in the Tiffany settings of arranger Nelson
Riddle. The lyrics came from Savannah, Georgia’s favorite
son, a four-time Oscar-winner whose career had spanned
Dixieland, swing, Hollywood, and Broadway. Along the way he
attracted a stellar bevy of collaborators: Richard Whiting,
Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern,
Arthur Schwartz, Harry Warren.
Like Carmichael, this jovial Southern teddy bear was a
voice of American life. In witty, casual, but superbly
honed language, he evoked the open highway (“Blues in the
Night”), the prairie (“I’m an Old Cowhand”), revival
meetings (“Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive”), deserted
barrooms (“One for My Baby”). For Mercer, nature was rife
with human feeling; in one of his masterpieces, a bird
becomes a confidante and a symbol of hope: “Skylark, have
you seen a valley green with spring/Where my heart can go
a-journeying/Over the shadows and the rain/To a
Exploring his words, which she phrased with underrated
thoughtfulness, Fitzgerald bears out the contention of many
that she was the perfect singer. Henry Pleasants, a British
classical-music critic, wrote this about her: “She has a
lovely voice, one of the warmest and most radiant in its
natural range that I have heard in a lifetime of listening
to singers in every category. She has an impeccable and
ultimately sophisticated rhythmic sense, and flawless
intonation. Her harmonic sensibility is extraordinary. She
is endlessly inventive.” The sometimes strident girlishness
of her concert singing is nowhere to be heard here;
instead, the lower keys and relaxed tempos bring out her
most womanly sound.
When she made the Mercer Song Book Fitzgerald was
forty-seven, and a smiling, motherly fixture of the
American home. She sang on all the major TV variety shows,
bouffant wig bouncing as she snapped her fingers. The Song
Books had helped buy her a huge Spanish-style home in
Beverly Hills, but she wasn’t there much; her manager
Norman Granz, who had founded Verve and masterminded the
Song Books, kept her touring constantly. Often she
complained about the grueling pace, but Fitzgerald, who was
twice-divorced, had little to do besides work; inactivity
left her feeling restless and lonely.
If her career was at its peak, Mercer’s was mostly in the
past. A hard drinker with a streak of melancholy – just
listen to “One for My Baby” -- he had hit the creative
skids in the ‘50s. He underwent a final flowering with two
consecutive Oscar winners, “Moon River” (1961) and “Days of
Wine and Roses” (1962) But for the rest of his life (which
ended in 1976), he produced little else of interest.
Fittingly, most of the songs on this album date from his
‘40s heyday. For the Mercer album, Riddle arranged the
ballads in a mellow ballroom style, just as he used to do
in his days with Tommy Dorsey. From there he had become the
first-call arranger for several aristocrats of pop, notably
Sinatra; he was also a top conductor for film and TV
sessions. Working in settings that demanded perfection,
Riddle developed his trademark sound: a plush, impeccably
woven carpet of melody, dotted with enough short solos and
obbligatos to give it the texture of jazz.
Fitzgerald never failed to get the guys swinging. Shortly
before he died in 1985, Riddle recalled her as a breeze to
work with and the quickest study imaginable. “Only when the
demands of her incredible schedule of personal appearances
sap her strength does she droop a little and get a bit
short-tempered or irritable,” he explained.
You won’t hear a hint of that in these supremely poised
performances. Fitzgerald is all earth-mother serenity in
"Early Autumn", Mercer’s adaptation of a moody instrumental
that Ralph Burns wrote for the Woody Herman orchestra.
Fitzgerald explores the mysteries of dejá vù in "Laura,"
based on the theme for Otto Preminger’s 1944 film noir.
Riddle builds his chart around a repetitive ascending
phrase, as hypnotic as the ticking grandfather clock in the
Fitzgerald and tenorman Plas Johnson swing out in
"Something’s Gotta Give"; while in "Midnight Sun", Riddle
teams her with vibraphonist Frank Flynn – a tribute, no
doubt, to the vibes giant Lionel Hampton, the song’s
composer. Unlike the early Song Books, which were full of
rarities, this album contains only one: "Single ‘O,"
written in 1964 with Donald Kahn, who had composed the
standard “A Beautiful Friendship.”
The singer was fearful of touching anything associated with
Billie Holiday; she made an exception for "Travlin’ Light",
a torch song introduced by Holiday on Capitol, the label
Mercer had founded. A tear enters Fitzgerald’s normally
cheerful voice as she sings about the desolation of the
solo life: “No one to see/I’m free as the breeze/No one but
me/And my memories.”
Shortly after recording this song book, she confessed
Beat that she was
relieved to be getting “a little back to the jazz thing” in
her new album, Whisper
Book material is
beautiful,” she said, “but sometimes you can’t do too much
with these numbers before you get away from the essence of
the tune.” Later in life she made a few Song Books for
other labels, but the Verve series captured her in her
prime. The original Song Books have never lost their
prestige; Mercer’s volume is as good as any of them.
-- James Gavin, New York City, 2006
James Gavin, the author of Deep in a
Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, is writing a
biography of Lena Horne.