As I have written before, as the youngest of four children I was the only one living at home with my parents during the several years leading up to when I went off to Saint Grottlesex. We had recently moved to Connecticut from Washington, D.C., and into a beautiful, albeit glacial, modernist house at the end of a winding road on the top of a steep hill, with few nearby neighbors. My parents' marriage had taken a serious turn for the worse by then, and they were barely on speaking terms. They were often away, and I spent many evenings and weekends alone in our house. Even when my parents were present physically, more often than not they were not present emotionally. They had other things in their minds, I was later to learn.
If you've seen the film Ice Storm you'll have a fairly good idea of what my home life was like at the time.
At thirteen, then, I found myself rudderless in a strange new world where everything had suddenly gone haywire, and I was in a state of shock. I had been very happy in Washington, where we lived in a rambling house in a neighborhood full of children my own age, and I had loved the country day school I attended there, where I was popular and had a close knit group of friends. Now I found myself living in a strange modern house with parents who no longer spoke to each other in a strange and remote New England suburb where I knew no one, and I was attending a strange, decidedly mediocre school full of strange people who weren't all that interested in welcoming a newcomer into their ranks. I felt awkward and alien, as if I'd been dropped there from the sky. Given the physical isolation of the house where I lived and the fact that neither of my parents were at all inclined (or available) to shuttle me about to promote my social life, it was challenging for me to make any friends. Besides, it was assumed that I'd be leaving for boarding school in a year or two, so why bother?
Nonetheless, it was a damnably solitary and lonely existence for Reggie, and he didn't care for it one bit.
But that's not the point of this story, Dear Reader. No, it is the context for it.
Reggie is a resourceful chap, and he isn't one to sit around bemoaning his fate, crying into his lukewarm, curdled milk. No, when things don't work out for Reggie as he planned, he finds a way to do something about it. Which is exactly what I did.
I discovered Ella Fitzgerald.
|The album that started it all . . .|
One evening when I found myself, yet again, alone at home, I opened the door to the cabinet containing my parents' record collection, to see what I could find to amuse myself. Both my parents were jazz aficionados, and I grew up listening to albums by Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane, and also Peggy Lee, Anita O'Day, and Miriam Makeba. My father was also a fan of Frank Sinatra's Come Fly With Me era recordings, and he loved Benny Goodman's later, jazz records, too. Flipping through the albums that evening I came across Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook. I didn't recall ever listening to it, and so I put it on the turntable of our KLH stereo sound system to give it a try.
|It was on a KLH stereo sound system like this one, ca. 1966,|
that I played the records that changed my life
Image courtesy of furnishmevintage.com
I've never been the same since.
I instantly fell in love with Miss Fitzgerald's lovely, rich, crystal clear voice, along with Nelson Riddle's lush arrangements, and I was transfixed. I couldn't get enough of it! I found half a dozen more of her recordings on the cabinet's shelves, and over the next weeks and months I played them over and over until I knew every word of every song, and I could sing along to Ella's marvelous and impeccable phrasing without missing a beat.
I soon found my way into the bins at record stores searching for more Ella Fitzgerald albums, and I amassed several dozen of them to add to my parents' collection. I bought many of the other Great American Songbook albums that she recorded, including most of what she made under the Verve label, and also earlier albums she recorded under the Decca label.
While other thirteen year old boys I knew at the time were obsessed with the music of Cream and Jethro Tull, I was swingin' to the musical beat of Miss Fitzgerald, far away in my own little world. I soon broadened my listening to include her peers, including Frank Sinatra, Keely Smith, Julie London, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, and I also developed an appreciation for the horn-filled Big Band recordings of the great bandleaders of the 1940s. This was the music that came to define my teenage years and that I continue to enjoy today, along with more contemporary fare.
I consider those few lonely years I spent in Connecticut as a lad as fortunate ones, for it was then that I was introduced to—and took to heart—the sublime music and superb vocal performers of the pre-rock and roll Great American Songbook. Listening to it transported me away from my solitary existence into a sophisticated, grownup world of swell nightclubs, swinging orchestras, vocal champagne, the shimmer of romance, and the glorious singing of the incomparable Miss Ella Fitzgerald, the most talented popular female vocalist of the twentieth century.
|This is my absolute favorite Ella Fitzgerald album.|
I play it at least once or twice a month
My love affair with Ella Fitzgerald has been a life-long one, and has continued unabated since I first came across that Cole Porter songbook album more than forty years ago. I was fortunate to see Miss Fitzgerald in concert three or four times, first as an undergraduate at Yale in the nineteen seventies, when she was still relatively in her prime, and last at Carnegie Hall in the nineteen nineties, when she was a very old and fragile lady. I will always treasure the memories of those concerts.
Thank you, Miss Ella Fitzgerald, for befriending a young Reggie all those years ago, and for giving him so much pleasure then, and ever since.