This year, the music world celebrates the centenary of the vocalist known as the “First Lady of Song”, the mighty Ella Fitzgerald – and it is entirely appropriate that Scotland should play host to a number of Fitzgerald tributes and events. Why? Because this is where she made her British debut in 1948; the first of a handful of visits over the years.
Born on April 25 1917, Ella Fitzgerald was a decade into her career as one of the most highly regarded singers on the scene when she arrived in Scotland in late September 1948. She had topped the charts and made her name in the late 1930s with the hit record A–Tisket A-Tasket, a swinging rendition of an old nursery rhyme which she went on to sing in the Abbott and Costello movie Ride ‘Em Cowboy. Her most celebrated admirers included Bing Crosby, who had said: “Man, woman and child, Ella is the greatest of them all.”
But her debut at the Glasgow Empire on Monday, September 27 seems to have been a non-event.
Accompanied by her new husband, the bassist Ray Brown, Fitzgerald had arrived off the Queen Mary at Southhampton a week earlier, to be told that the location of her British debut had been changed from the London Palladium to the Glasgow Empire – because boisterous Hollywood personality Betty Hutton’s Palladium run had been extended.
Fitzgerald said she was worried about her London appearance and welcomed the chance to make her debut in Glasgow instead. But according to the reviews, and judging by Fitzgerald’s own reaction, her debut performance – accompanied by pianist Hank Jones – was a bit of a damp squib.
“Enthusiasm was lacking” said one review. “Ella made the mistake of changing her act to cope with request numbers,” said another, “and the result was a fairly ragged presentation.” Among the songs she sang were Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me, A-Tisket A-Tasket, Woody Woodpecker and Nature Boy.
Apart from the fact that Fitzgerald was suffering from both a bad cold and a bad case of nerves, there was also the problem that – as was the case with all American jazz musicians at the time – she was appearing as part of a variety programme (below the top-billed Gracie Fields in London, for example, and with the Nicholas Brothers dance team, plus a comedian, in Glasgow) which was designed to cater for all tastes, rather than for an audience of jazz aficionados. And at this point, encouraged by Dizzy Gillespie and her newfound enthusiasm for bebop, she was starting to explore scat singing. Perhaps Empire audiences just weren’t ready for it.
Indeed, after the first show, Fitzgerald told one interviewer that she was a “rebop” (sic) singer. “You know what that means?” she asked. The reporter replied that he understood it to be a modern way of phrasing music. “You’re lucky,” said Fitzgerald. “I doubt if the audience knows. I don’t really know myself what it is. To me it is singing discords. It goes down well in America. I wonder if it will go down well in Britain.”
By 1964, when Fitzgerald returned to Glasgow, she was indubitably the queen of jazz; her recent series of classy songbook albums underlining the fact that she was at the peak of her powers. This time, she shared the bill with the Oscar Peterson Trio and trumpet ace Roy Eldridge.
Among those in the audience of the Odeon Theatre on Friday April 3, 1964 were two young singers who would go on to dominate the Scottish jazz scene: Carol Kidd and Fionna Duncan. Kidd recalls: “She walked on in silence – no announcement, and stood at the microphone with a big smile waiting for Tommy Flanagan to get his music together. Then she decided to go ahead anyway! She went straight into It’s Alright With Me at breakneck tempo, but by God she was spot on with the key. It took Tommy Flanagan a full chorus to catch up with her! She giggled all the way through the song which was obviously not rehearsed. I’ll never forget the impression that made on me – to be so sure that you can carry such a hiccup off and always be in key..
“Just to see her standing there in front of me took my breath away. I cried all the way through it. Her scat was just a joy because we never knew when she was going to run out of phrasing but she never repeated herself – not once!”
Duncan, meanwhile, was struck by how shy and self-conscious Fitzgerald appeared onstage. “She just just didn’t look comfortable at all – until she was singing. As soon as she sang, she was a different person. I was bowled over by her singing. I’d always been a fan; I loved how she grabbed the melody.”
It may have been a momentous occasion for many in the audience, but media coverage of Fitzgerald’s appearance seems to have been non-existent. That there were no interviews or photographs in the local press seems to fit in with Fitzgerald’s reserved personality. And a performance at the Apollo in Glasgow exactly ten years later drew as little coverage. Only one interview pops up and that was secured by a bold Daily Record reporter who bypassed her “people” and nabbed her when she returned to her hotel in Southport just before she came north to do her Apollo gig.
“Sure I’ll talk, honey,” she told him, over a slimline tonic. “I hear people saying I don’t give press interviews – and that kinda puzzles me. Because while I’m on tour I never see the press. I guess someone gets to them before they can get to me. There has never been anyone so great that they didn’t need the press. If you think that, then you have nothing left to accomplish.”
Asked about her repertoire and how it had changed, she said: “I’m always striving for something new, and nowadays we’re playing a lot of material by the young generation of composers. People like Carole King and Bacharach.”
Indeed, in Edinburgh the following year it was with Stevie Wonder’s You Are the Sunshine of My Life that she serenaded one adoring young fan. Singer Todd Gordon was a 16-year-old devotee of Fitzgerald when he heard she was coming to Scotland for Glasgow and Edinburgh dates with Count Basie’s Orchestra (at the Kelvin Hall and Usher Hall respectively).
Having heard her at the Apollo, he resolved to go one better the next year – so he turned up at the Caledonian Hotel, where she was lunching before her two Usher Hall performances, and presented her with 20 pink roses.
Gordon recalls: “Towards the end of the first concert, when Ella came to say thanks to the musicians, she added: ‘I’d also like to thank a young fan who gave me flowers earlier today. I haven’t been able to see you. Are you here?’” As Gordon waved from the organ gallery, a spotlight shone on him and Fitzgerald invited him to come onstage with her. After she had sung her song and Gordon was making his way back to his seat, she said: “Wasn’t that sweet? He spent his little bread on me – when he could have spent it on Elton John!”
Gordon, like Fionna Duncan, found Fitzgerald to be very shy but also “very motherly”. He adds: “She really put me at ease.” So much so that he went back to see her the next time she visited Edinburgh – when she was appearing with pianist Jimmy Rowles’s trio and the BBC Concert Orchestra in a concert later released as an album – in July 1981. This time it was the distinctly less impressive King James Hotel – rather than the elegant Caledonian – where this jazz legend was staying.
Perhaps this is where Fitzgerald was more comfortable. After all, she seems to have been quite a homely person, “a simple soul” – as Jean Mundell, another Edinburgh-born singer who spent a little time with her, remembers.
This, after all, is the woman who – at the end of her first-ever week performing two shows a night in Britain – took the time to hand-write a letter on Central Hotel notepaper to a couple who had, presumably by giving up some ration coupons, helped to make her visit to Glasgow more comfortable. This rare letter, which turned up on an auction website a couple of years ago, thanks Beth and George for “a lovely time”. Intriguingly, it adds: “It isn’t everyone who will give up there (sic) points so nicely, you see I’m a housewife also and I know what it meant.”
* Tina May & Brian Kellock are visiting Greenock, Glasgow, West Kilbride, Arbroath and Inverness with an Ella Fitzgerald & Oscar Peterson tribute show from May 10; http://www.tinamay.com
* Alison Burns & Martin Taylor – 100 Years of Ella Fitzgerald is at the Perth Festival on May 17
This article was first published in The Herald on Friday, April 21st.