TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Jazz and pop singer Ella Fitzgerald was born 100 years ago today. She started out winning Harlem talent shows as a teenager. She had her first hits with Chick Webb's big band before going out on her own in the 1940s. The composer songbook she recorded for Verve starting in the mid-1950s are definitive recordings of vocal standards. Fitzgerald toured the world for decades and died in 1996. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Fitzgerald at her best is as good as it gets.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU SHOWED ME THE WAY")
ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) You showed me the way when I was someone in distress, a heart in search of happiness. You showed me the way. My skies were so gray. I never knew I'd feel a thrill. I couldn't dream of dreaming until you showed me the way.
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Ella Fitzgerald at 19 singing with Chick Webb's big band. She'd started her career with the orchestra who backed her on her breakout hit the adapted nursery rhyme "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." But she sang more adult material, too. Even later when Fitzgerald had been headlining for years, writers would harp on her girlishness as if she'd never matured. But Ella Fitzgerald kept growing as a singer. In the 1940s, she was the rare swing star to embrace the new rhythms and harmonies and artful quotations of bebop.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH, LADY BE GOOD")
WHITEHEAD: Ella scat-singing in 1947. Back then, she recorded for Decca where she cut a lot of novelties like the "Calypso Stone Cold Dead In The Market." But her dozens of Decca sessions covered a lot of ground, and one project pointed the way for landmarks to come, an all-Gershwin program with Elvis Larkin's on piano.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEBODY TO WATCH OVER ME")
FITZGERALD: (Singing) I'd like to add his initial to my monogram. Tell me where is the shepherd for this lost land. There's a somebody I'm longing to see. I hope that he turns out to be someone who'll watch over me.
WHITEHEAD: By 1950, when that was recorded, promoter Norman Granz had been featuring Ella on his concert tours, where her pyrotechnics were a crowd-pleaser. Granz became her manager, and she began recording for his Verve label in 1956. By then, Fitzgerald's voice had fully ripened into a glorious instrument with a full, pleasing tambour from top to bottom. Her timing was incisive and her pitch unerring. She could improvise or sing a song straight. But she still did some frivolous tunes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE AN OLD SMOOTHIE")
FITZGERALD: (Singing) You're an old smoothie. I'm an old softie. I'm just like putty in the hands of a boy like you. You're an old meanie. I'm a big boobie. I just go nutty in the hands of a boy like you.
WHITEHEAD: Ella Fitzgerald's songbook series, with individual volumes devoted to composers like Ellington, Gershwin and Irving Berlin, is a bit uneven but collectively strong, a great introduction to the "Standards" repertoire. Some folks talk as if Fitzgerald brought everything to a song except real emotion, raising that old canard about her stunted growth. But Ella had her heartbreaks to draw on and could put more feeling into a lyric than she got credit for. Here she is in 1960 from the terrific "Harold Arlen Songbook."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MAN THAT GOT AWAY")
FITZGERALD: (Singing) The road gets rougher. It's lonelier and tougher. With hope, you burn up. Tomorrow he may turn up. There's just no let up the live-long night and day. Ever since this world began, there is nothing sadder than a one-man woman looking for the man that got away.
WHITEHEAD: Fitzgerald did about a hundred studio sessions for Verve between 1956 and '66, not counting her many live recordings. She all but exhausted the "Great American Songbook," having recorded some classics more than once. But producers at other labels were eager to get hold of her, hoping to update her image. That didn't always work out.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS GUN DON'T CARE")
FITZGERALD: (Singing) I don't like the way you touch my baby. If you're smart, you turn him loose. Unless you crave danger or you're crazy 'cause this gun don't care who it shoots.
WHITEHEAD: By the 1970s, Ella's perfect instrument was deteriorating and her vibrato got wider. This is also when she became a freakish cultural icon, shattering glass with high notes in TV ads for Memorex tape. In those later years, her activities included a companionable duo with guitarist Joe Pass. In that quiet setting, she didn't have to strain or learn dubious new material. They'd just improvise on familiar tunes. Ella Fitzgerald's greatest years were behind her, but she wasn't about to retire. Singing was her life.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EASY LIVING")
FITZGERALD: (Singing) I never regret the years I'm giving. They're easy to give when you're in love. I'm happy to do whatever I do for you, for you.
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and TONE Audio and is the author of "Why Jazz?"
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Frank Rich, an executive producer of the HBO series "Veep" that satirizes American politics. Season six is underway. Rich is a former New York Times theater critic, who also had a Sunday column about the intersection of politics and popular culture, a subject he continues to write about in New York magazine. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.