Saturday, February 15, 2014

Ella Fitzgerald Saved My Life

In my early teens I spent a lot of time by myself, alone.

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.

53 comments:

  1. Your opening paragraph reminds me of Running with Scissors.

    Apart THE voice Miss F looks so nice ...I bet she would have loved knowing you too

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    1. Thank you smr -- I am confident that Miss Fitzgerald was a lovely person, in every way. RD

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  2. "Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
    To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
    I've read, that things inanimate have mov'd,
    And, as with living Souls, have been inform'd,
    By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound."
    -William Congreve, The Mourning Bride

    Please tell the young man that you once were that I am sorry for his pain.

    xo

    Andie

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    1. Thank you, Andie, that is a beautiful poem. Rgds, Reggie

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    1. Thank you Michael, it took me a while to get the tone right. I don't intend for this to be a misery blog! Reggie

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  4. Beautiful story, Reggie! I saw myself every step of the way. I always felt myself not so much transported as falling inside Ella's songs -- and always attempting in vain to sing along with her. My family knew to give me Ella albums for Christmas from the time I was a teen.

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    1. Thank you, Polly! Also, thank you for sharing your own stories on your marvelous blog of attending one of Miss Fitzgerald's concerts and meeting her backstage. I encourage my readers to click over to Polly's blog and read them! Rgds, Reggie

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  5. The notion that your early teen experience was anything like the ice storm is a melancholy one indeed. It makes one sad for a moment…until one sees how far you have come. Another sad item is that Ella and Frank and Nelson Ridddle are fading as the younger set in large part has no interest.

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    1. Thank you MLS. Fortunately my own particular Ice Storm didn't involve a hit and run fatality! The other parts of the film were remarkably on-target, though. As I wrote in my "Saint Grottlesex Made Me the Man I am Today" story, boarding school was a lifeline to me out of that world, and gave me the tools to move beyond it, for which I am most grateful. As to the listening habits of the younger set, I have been pleasantly surprised to come across two or three of them (in their 20s and early 30s) who are great fans of the singers of the GAS, much to my delight. Many thanks, RD

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  6. I can remember coming to the conclusion, after hearing recordings of Cole Porter singing his own songs, that I preferred Ella Fiztgerald's versions.

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    1. Dear TDC: I certainly agree with you on that. However, what I would give to find myself in a time warp at one of Mr. Porter's cocktail parties in the Waldorf Towers (as decorated by Billy Baldwin, no less) with him at the piano singing the naughty private lyrics he wrote for his songs. I understand they were quite something else. Well, even the published lyrics were often rather naughty as it is...Thnaks, RD

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  7. Another Ella Fitzgerald fan here, except as a kid, I had her on cassette, not vinyl. My sister and I played Blue Skies until the tape broke.

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    1. Hello MW: Ah, yes, cassettes! I mainly used them to make party tapes and to play in my Walkman, another obsolete entertainment device! Rgds, Reggie

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  8. Years ago...her home where she lived for years and passed away in Beverly Hills came up for sale quietly...I was called to come and see it as a possible new home. A beautiful Spanish with a 2story Entry and tiled risers adorning each step in different patterns from the famed Malibu Potteries. Wonderful mirrored dressing room off her bedroom...a real time capsule of glamour, where one could see Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra smoking, singing and sharing cocktails while the piano on the Living Room tinkled.
    We passed on it, someone bought it...and stripped all the beauty out. Now several owners later...it still stands but the glamour left with the Legend that once lived there!

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    1. Hello Swan, thanks for your comment and this interesting story. I love the visual images it conjures up. Sadly so many houses in such places have been "improved" into oblivion. Not that it should be a museum, certainly, but what made it special should at least be appreciated. Ah, well. Thanks, RD

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  9. So funny, as I clicked this open, I am listening to the Cole Porter CD in the background, with one of her songs on it.

    Beautiful piece, Reggie. xo

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    1. Hello Meg, what an interesting coincidence! I shouldn't be surprised, I suppose, given that we are such good friends. Rgds, RD

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  10. Thanks for sharing this memory, it sent me on my own trip into my early teens when I first fell in love with my parents old swing jazz albums particularly Ella Fitzgerald and Tommy Dorsey (they had been marvelous dancers and often danced on our patio when they thought we weren't looking.) I took a few of these records to school with me (I was in boarding school at 13) and a girl walked into my room while I was fairly blasting a Sinatra album and said, hey, that's my dad's album. Turned out to be Nelson Riddle's daughter, and we remained fairly close all through our teens.

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    1. Hello LR: Thank you for your comment. What a fun story you tell, I would have been thrilled to count Nelson Riddle's daughter as a friend. I think Nelson Riddle and Frank De Vol were, hands down, the greatest arrangers of the Great American Songbook vocalists, notably Miss Fitzgerald, Mr. Sinatra, and Miss Clooney. RD

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    2. I agree- and he and Ella were an amazing pair! although I didn't realize that until I was older, and I still adore the way he could swing a tune. Mr. Riddle even composed a "fight song" for our senior class. I am sad to say we weren't a rah-rah bunch and rarely tried to sing it, but it was an honor to have something original. His daughter was and is extremely bright and accomplished and I am reminded now I should get in touch.

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  11. I would have been very happy with your parents record collection and have some of the same albums as you mentioned. I still have the stereo system (very similar to yours) that we bought in the early 70's, and I still play those ancient jazz albums from time to time. Love Ella, Monk, Brubeck, etc. They make the world go 'round.

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    1. Helo kenju, how wonderful it is that you held on to your turntable and records. I long ago gave up mine, which at times I regret. Now even CDs are old fashioned! RD

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  12. What a beautiful post on so many levels. I think you got the tone just right, Reggie. You're not asking for pity - you had to set the stage just this way for us to "get" how very significant her influence was on you. Imagine having the glorious talent to affect somebody's life like she did yours and evidently so many others. This post is a gem.

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  13. Dear Reggie, My mother was also a devotee of Miss Fitzgerald and used to go to Blues Alley in Georgetown to hear her perform. Toward the end of my mother's life, we would play her Ella Fitzgerald records both at home and by her hospital bed. That music reached her when little else did. Like magic. So glad to know you're still listening.

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    1. Hello Anon: Thank you for sharing this moving story of your mother's love of Ella Fitzgerald, and for the love that you exhibited her by playing Ella's music for her in the hospital. Rgds, Reggie

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    2. Dear Anon & Reggie Darling, Thank you for beautiful posts. For so many reasons I cannot articulate well here, bless you. It helped this woman in her day more than my words could express.

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  14. OMG Reggie, I could have written that article except for the fact that I had loving parents and was at the time in my freshman year at boarding school where I was lonely, homesick and downright miserable. I don't remember how that album got into my hands but I had the same reaction and followed the same trajectory as you did. Every song, every word. it played every afternoon after class and it opened the doors to all the other albums you mentioned and more. Jeepers, do you think there might be more of us Ella Fitzgerald's, Cole- Porter- Songbook- changed- my- life junkies around? we could have our own FB page!

    On a separate note, Ice Storm was filmed in New Canaan, where I lived in the 80's. know exactly the place (Jaws music playing in the background...)

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    1. Dear Roxie -- The more I learn of our common experiences, shared interests and views, the more grateful I am that we have become friends through this marvelous medium of the Internet. RD

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  15. Amazing! I intimately relate to your "context"--my particular version pushed me into creativity and rock and still is. Thanks enormously for sharing.
    Mary

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  16. Not at all veering towards misery blog at all! Quite the opposite effect in fact. Perfectly pitched. I feel like listening to some Ella now in fact...

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    1. Dear CSW -- Whew! I am glad of it. I have been playing Miss Fitzgerald continuously since I wrote this piece. If you haven'y listened to "Ella Swings Brightly with Nelson" I highly encourage you to. I love it. RD

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  17. Music is such a soul-soother through so many stages of life. We had a "record player" just like that. KLH. I remember. And I, although I did love the Rolling Stones, listened to Billie Holiday over and over at my decidedly alternative California boarding school. I can see you so vividly, as a boy, resourceful but lonely, finding a way to soldier on. xox.

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  18. Hello Reggie, what a touching post. I fully appreciate the benefits of being lost in music. It is a wonderful escape. I did not discover the inimitable Ms. Fitzgerald until much later in life. My parents did have a record player but I preferred to do as others of my age did - tune into Radio 1 and listen to all the up-and-coming bands every Sunday on the Top 40 playlist.

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  19. Reggie,

    I have thoroughly enjoyed this post. Ms. Fitzgerald is smiling from above - a new fan has discovered her music. One of the great things about modern blog technology (as opposed to a standard newspaper column) is the ability to link to other blog entries, web sites, etc. I was able to read the other posts that you referenced here, which led me to others and others....just fantastic.

    P.S. I am a Baltimore native and loved your report on visiting our fine city.

    Cheers,
    David P

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  20. Dear Reggie,

    Hello. Good evening. This is such a beautiful, heartfelt post. Your declaration of your love affair with Ella Fitzgerald struck a chord with me as I also adore her voice and it has the most soothing quality whether she sings up tempo or slow ballads. I have quite a lot of her albums that I listen very often at home. You said you like her Cole Porter's Songbook album (a great choice!). My favourite is her 1968 album called "30 by Ella", arranged by Benny Carter.

    In this album, there is one song in particular that I just love listening over and over. It's called "Goodnight My Love (a popular song with by Mack Gordon and lyrics by Harry Revel, published in 1936). Before I heard Ella's beautiful rendition, I (like many people in this country) associate this sumptuous ballad with another English singer called Gracie Field. But ever since I heard Ella performed this song, it becomes a definitive version for me. Gracie Field sang it like a torch song whereas Ella sang it more like a lullaby - quiet, elegant and marvellously restraint.

    Thank you so much for this beautiful & thoughtful post.

    Best wishes,

    ASD

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  21. Reggie, this was a great post giving us a window into your life, both the sweet and the bitter. We do take from each a measure and when applied appropriately, each can ultimately give us balance. I too love Ella and find her soothing as I play selections from a set of CDs given to me several years ago by my college age son. It was quite the surprise given that he loved hip hop at the time. I love listening to Ella when I cook. She seems to bring energy to my kitchen. Perhaps better food was what my son had in mind all along.

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  22. Well, I'm creating a new Spotify playlist of Ella Fitzgerald to enjoy (and to broaden the musical horizons of the little ones around here). Thank you for this lovely post!

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  23. I play Ella for my small children on Sunday mornings because it a church of its own.

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  24. Similarly when I was in high school we moved to a small town in Nebraska and I discovered big band music and Frank Sinatra and the popular standards performed by opera singer Kiri te Kanawa thanks to my grandmother sending me a cd every month. I still listen to "blue skies" at least once a week before bed by TeKanawa where she sings with the Nelson Riddle orchestra. It always calms me down.

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  25. Just now read this post. Wonderful. Intimate, poignant and transcendent. My Austrian mother loved opera, musicals and cabaret. I spent some lonely teenage years listening to her record collection of Edith Piaf, Lotte Lenya and Ella Fitzgerald. Many thanks for sharing.

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  26. David O Russell told Terry Gross on her Fresh Air progtram "Duke Ellington saved my Life" gee whiz. I thought of you..... perhaps the Movie American Hustle would be a thought provoking time well spent .

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  27. Your wonderful post sent me diving into my old albums. And there they were with my maiden name on them. Ella Fitzgerald sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song book Volume four and five arranged by Nelson Riddle. I was sixteen when I got my first stereo and I have no idea how I obtained the albums but while I cannot remember my grocery list of one day, I can recited every line in those songs. The Bernard Buffet covers were very distinctive and I was intrigued by them. So thank you so much for reminding me of those wonderful albums.

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  28. Music heals the soul, especially when sung by Ella's heavenly voice. I thank God that she was there for you. I know that you do not seek pity, but my heart goes out to the boy that you were, Reggie.

    I, too, had a childhood where I was emotionally estranged by parents who were dealing with their own brand of crazy. Somehow, we made it through to become stable adults. Music was a godsend, and it helped me through many trying times.

    When I had my own son, I made a point to be emotionally and joyfully there for him. When he was small, I would play Big Band music, and delicacies such as Ella Fitzgerald. I would take him up in my arms and we would laugh as I danced us through our home.

    To my delight, when he was four years old, he put a Big Band CD in the player. He climbed up on my bed and held out his hands. "Come on, Momma-wamma! Let's dance!"
    Standing on the bed, he was tall enough to actually dance with me, and we laughed as he turned me in a spin.

    My son is twenty-four now, and he still dances with me. I am so glad that I gave him the gift of the joy that music brings. Now that I think about it, dearest Reggie, inadvertently, your parents gave you this gift, too.













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    1. Thank you Hoot Owl Gal, for your lovely, moving, and heartfelt comment. It brought tears to my eyes, of pleasure and happiness. You made my day. Reggie

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  29. Great post, Reggie! Two of my favorite channels on Sirius XM are 40s on 4 and Siriusly Sinatra. I often listen to them when I'm driving. One of the high schools near me just performed Cole Porter's "Anything Goes". I had hoped to see it, but I heard about it too late and was unable to get tickets.

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    1. Hello Anon: We both share an appreciation for these two stations on Sirius XM. Just the other day I was listening to Nancy Sinatra's show on Siriusly Sinatra. I loved it!

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    2. She does have a great show! I've enjoyed listening to it many times.

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  30. Obsessed with Ice Storm! Such a classic!

    Eddie

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