Look out, Fergie! Ella‘s coming! OK, so that’s a stretch, but Love Letters From Ella debuted at No. 97 on the pop Billboard 200 chart. The thought of Ella on the pop chart immediately made me wander over to my favorite online music store to see if the first track of the album was called “Ellalicious” or something similar. It’s not. I then looked for a rendition of “Glamorous,” but it’s not on there either and not only is there not a cover of “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” but Ella has the classic and opposite sentiment, “Cry Me A River,” as the second track. (No! Not Justin Timberlake‘s version. Now you’re just getting plain silly.)
So how can Ella Fitzgerald make a comeback to the pop charts after a 38-year absence, not to mention 12 years after her death? Can it simply be that you can’t keep a good voice in a vault? Or maybe the better explanation is that when you keep a good voice in a vault, you’re not making any money off it.
The endearing answer put forth by the record label as to why the album of never-been-released vocal recordings was made, is to celebrate “The First Lady of Song’s” 90th birthday. That sounds cool, except she was born in 1918, not 1917 and it’s 2007 not 2008. (I don’t get the math on that birthday explanation, but then again I haven’t read Danica McKellar‘s math book yet.) Oh, wait. OK, I get it. I get it. After her birthday in 2007 begins her 90th year. Whew, I feel better about the birthday explanation now. Hey, maybe the real birthday gift will be a Grammy Award for best Pop Album in 2008! I can see it now. Scantily clad female dancers crunking all over that stage as Ella busts out her most wicked Aunt Jackie move!
The real reason Ella debuted so high on the pop chart, which is based on record sales, is Starbucks. Starbucks has jumped into the music business with a vengeance. Ella is hanging out on their counters, and it is true that coffee and Ella Fitzgerald make for a wonderful Saturday or Sunday morning relaxing experience around the house. Some lament that Starbucks is taking over the world one cup of expensive coffee at a time. I tend to be one of those someones, especially when they branch out into even more global moneymaking ventures. In a way, Starbucks has become more pop culture than hairstyles, music and vernacular, but for now, that’s a blog for another day. Starbucks’ Hear Music label must have some real appeal for artists, though, because several noteworthy signings have occurred recently. Ella didn’t sign a contract with them from the grave, but she is one reason why I have very mixed feelings about Starbucks and their music promotions.
I’m a little biased here. My cat’s name is Ella Fitzgerald the Scat Cat, so let that serve as a warning of my bias about Ms. Fitzgerald. About jazz in general. It’s hard for me as an insane jazz lover not to enjoy the notion that Ella Fitzgerald has sold such a decent amount of albums in her debut week in the year 2007 that such a fact is newsworthy. I’m tickled by it.
There aren’t many reviews of the album yet, but it seems the content can be summed up nicely in this particular review. Frankly, unless the recordings were released on an old 8-track tape or Ella was singing while she was sick with the flu, it’s hard to say anything too hyper-critical about an Ella Fitzgerald recording. Even in her aging years or declining years, when her vocal range and strength were clearly not in top form, she was still Ella. As for this specific series of tracks on this album (which is pleasantly and surprisingly good for what it is), all I can say is that Ella’s previous rejects are better than most others’ best efforts.
It’s difficult to be disparaging about Ella Fitzgerald, in general. She was truly a grand figure. And if Starbucks is the reason for someone, anyone, to discover or maybe re-discover Ms. Fitzgerald, it’s difficult for me to be annoyed by that. How wonderful it would be if by buying Love Letters From Ella while waiting for one’s double tall latte, and taking it home and playing it, causes enough of a curiosity that one actually feels compelled to purchase some of the singer’s greatest songbook recordings. That possibility alone makes this Starbucks involvement worthwhile. For those unfamiliar with Fitzgerald, here is her official website and a nice bibliography written for the PBS Ken Burns Jazz documentary.
My favorite quote regarding Ella Fitzgerald comes from Ira Gershwin: “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” If Starbucks can help in any small way to bring Ella Fitzgerald back to life, then I say “I’ll take another frappuccino, please!”