I admit I struggled at first to find a voice I’d happily yoke myself to for all eternity. My research, a jaunt to the ‘shuffle songs’ option on my mp3 player, uncovered many red herrings and false trials, songs which all seemed a l’il too glib, and a bit too modish; more exhilarating one-night-stand than well-worn conjugal right. I’d happily sleep with the voice of Brendan Benson, and the voice of that girl from The Noisettes could make for an interesting ride, but damnit, I just couldn’t commit.
So I did something very uncool and went way back in time. To a rokey cokey world awash with big bands and bebop beats, a world where our Ella, “The First Lady of Song” was queen. There was rationale behind this. After all, if cheesy US teen dramas have taught me anything – apart from how to mispronounce the word “clique” – it’s that romance ‘n’ stuff is best conducted against a backdrop of peach coloured wallpaper, candlelight and jazz. Jazz, of course, being one of the handful of new musical genres that helped redefine black American identity in the post-Emancipation era, and also turned out to be quite handy for illustrating the made-for-TV tribulations of sappy six-stone white girls.
Ella Fitzgerald was fluent in this kind of romance: an OK songwriter and a passably interesting celebrity personality, it was her love-crushed, life-weary voice that made her amazing. Ella had a vocal range that crept through three octaves - where Billie Holliday made do with one - from raspy whispers to high notes so powerful you could use them to bulldoze an elephant. Black Coffee is one of the saddest songs to ever be defiantly belted out, a mixture of vocal force and emotional fragility that would certainly make a nice advert for Nescafe.
The best thing about Ella, though, was that she let her voice go to crazy extremes while her heart and head stayed level. From Billie Holliday’s heroin habit to Nina Simone’s habit of shooting people who disturbed her concentration, Ella lived in an age of insanity that makes Pete Doherty look like a curtseying Catholic schoolgirl. Unlike dear Pete though, Ella let her voice, not her personal life, do the talking. Flying High, released in 1945, skips and scats all over the place, outlining a perfect chart of post-war emotion that soars up and dives down as randomly as the lives of Ella’s contemporaries.
words: Ruth Emmett