The inscription on Ella Fitzgerald’s grave marker at the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles is unambiguous. It reads: “The First Lady of Song.”
If anything, this might be an understatement.
“She’s one of the purest examples of God in art,” Hamilton star Leslie Odom, Jr. proclaimed.
Bing Crosby said, “Man, woman or child, Ella is the greatest of them all.”
In a tribute to Fitzgerald, The New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote: “If this woman was the greatest American singer, it was in part because she could turn any song into an oxygen rush of bouncing melody that reached the listener’s ear as pure, untroubled joy.”
Fitzgerald’s cornerstone recordings — the gold standard’s gold standard — came when the singer split with Decca Records (a 20-year run in which she sold 22 million records) and signed with Norman Granz’s new label “Verve.”
On February 7, 1955, she stepped into a recording studio and began singing Cole Porter compositions. The record was slated to be a single LP, but, with the wealth of material and a performer who surpassed Granz’s most extravagant hopes, the Cole Porter Songbook contained 32 tracks, all impeccably rendered.
When Porter first heard the completed double album, the unflappable composer was dazzled. “My, what marvelous diction that girl has,” he said.
The Songbook went on to become one of jazz’s eternal bestsellers and Fitzgerald’s career soared into a rarified realm.
“I was only singing bebop,” Fitzgerald said. “But it finally got to the point where I had no place to sing…Norman came along, and he felt I should do other things, so he produced
The Cole Porter Songbook with me. It was a turning point in my life.”
Granz shrewdly set the Songbook cycle in motion, following an inspired formula for the three-octave singer — take the best vocalist, give her the best material, hire the best musicians and arrangers, adhere to a budget (many of the Songbook’s recordings were done in one take) and don’t get in the way.
The arrangers were key players that Granz carefully selected: Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Paul Weston and for the Duke Ellington project, the Duke himself along with Billy Strayhorn.
Because the songs were not recorded to be released as singles, the arrangers playfully included the introductory verses not normally heard — the final product, according to critic Whitney Balliett, became “the definitive” recordings of many of the works.
Between 1956 and 1964, Fitzgerald issued eight Songbooks. Artists given consideration were the elite composers/lyricists of a golden era in music: Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer. In 1981, Fitzgerald added an Antonio Carlos Jobim to this Cooperstown collection of virtuosi.
The albums received unprecedented critical and popular support. In total, they were nominated for eight Grammy Award nominations and won six times.
Music historian Dr. John Edward Hasse had this opinion of the series: “Ella Fitzgerald possessed a warm, lovely voice, flawless clarity, perfect pitch control, buoyant phrasing, elastic rhythms…her emotionally transparent performances enabled the lyrics to sparkle.”
The Gershwin Songbook is often cited as the crowning achievement in the set. It was the first time Fitzgerald worked with Riddle, the masterful arranger and orchestrator who will forever be remembered for his long collaboration with Frank Sinatra.
The magic Fitzgerald and Riddle made on the 59-song Gershwin package resonated — it was, and is, considered groundbreaking.
Perhaps, the greatest encomium came from Ira Gershwin: “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.”
When asked about her favorite composer, Fitzgerald was usually cautious, diplomatically evasive. She would always mention Ellington, Porter, Rodgers and Hart, even John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Ella Fitzgerald had one of the longest and most successful careers of any jazz artist — she recorded more than 250 albums, won 14 Grammys, and numerous other awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
First Lady of Song, Mama Jazz—these were the titles conferred upon her by loving fans. Both are a perfect fit.