Ella Fitzgerald, Elusive as Ever

REVIEW: 'Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song' by Judith Tick

Ella Fitzgerald (William P. Gottlieb/Wikimedia Commons)
May 12, 2024

"With a voice like Ella's ringing out, there's no way the band can lose."

For a blind man, Stevie Wonder has always been enviably perceptive. When he sang those words in 1976, he expressed an unarguable truth: There has never been a more naturally delightful voice in American song than Ella Fitzgerald's.

Of course, Aretha Franklin had more power, Sinatra more bravado. Dean Martin swang with greater ease and Billie Holiday brought more gravitas to torch songs. But Fitzgerald's voice had a special ebullience, a uniquely sunny quality that could convert any lyric into an evocation of total bliss. On recordings like "It's De-Lovely" and "'S Wonderful," her vocals were somewhere between caramel and honey, a rich and warm confection drizzled over the turntables of mid-20th century America.

For more than a half century, she warbled and scatted her way through the Great American Songbook, recording definitive renditions of such essential standards as Rodgers and Hart's "Manhattan" and Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies." By the time of her death in 1996, she'd earned 14 Grammy Awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Yet despite this enormous professional success, the human being that lurked beneath Fitzgerald's outward façade has eluded critics and authors. On stage, she was regal and assured, a dignified pop star for an age of refined popular music. But in private, she was impaired by such shyness that her inner thoughts and the contours of her personal life were a mystery to most who knew her.

This extreme reticence has been a problem for Fitzgerald's prospective biographers. In interviews, she offered vague answers, and in moments away from the stage, she would sooner spend time alone than socialize with friends and acquaintances. Regardless of her significance to American culture, writing a book about a subject who'd have seemingly preferred to disappear completely seems a daunting task. But Judith Tick, a professor emerita of music history at Northeastern University, believes she's up to the challenge.

In her new book, Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song, Tick aims to produce a comprehensive account of Fitzgerald's life and legacy that devotes equal attention to her artistry, personality, and experiences as a black female performer in an era fraught with bigotry. The result is an ambitious and detailed work, written in occasionally stilted but mostly elegant and engaging prose. But even at nearly 500 pages, it manages to feel largely superficial, as though the deeper insights into Fitzgerald's psyche that Tick sought were stubbornly out of reach despite her best efforts to grasp them.

Tick appropriately centers the book on themes of "becoming" and "transformation." Like most famous achievers of the American Dream, Fitzgerald lived a life defined by self-invention. Born in rural Virginia in 1917, she spent her impoverished formative years in Yonkers, New York, but saw her future in Harlem as the neighborhood entered the waning days of the Jazz Age. In 1934, she was accepted into an amateur night at the fabled Apollo Theater. She planned a dance routine, unaware that her performance would follow a dancing group so talented that she'd be forced to sing instead. At first the crowd jeered, but as she sang the opening notes of Hoagy Carmichael's "Judy," they were quickly awed into silence. Fitzgerald won first prize.

Tick notes that the performance marked a turning point in Fitzgerald's life. She realized that the applause of an audience granted her a feeling of love and acceptance that eluded her at home. A career in music was inevitable for Fitzgerald, and Tick traces its progression from her breakthrough years with bandleader Chick Webb in the 1930s, to relentless touring and stylistic experimentation in the '40s, to international superstardom in the '50s and '60s.

Along the way, we're provided with a litany of tour dates, album track listings and chart placements, and television appearances. At first, Tick's granularity is impressive, but it quickly becomes exhausting. Pages are dedicated, for instance, to reprinting contemporary reviews of Fitzgerald's albums and concerts, many of which treated her work with sneering derision. Tick's goal is to challenge the "second-class status" that critics have typically affixed to vocal jazz in the wider canon of jazz history. But this point could be made in a handful of paragraphs and concentrated into an individual chapter; instead, it's reiterated endlessly. Tick emphasizes countless details that amount to little more than tedious filler and reveal nothing substantial about Fitzgerald that couldn't be conveyed in a few concise sentences.

Becoming Ella Fitzgerald is at its most compelling when Tick deconstructs Fitzgerald's most significant recordings. In 1956, Fitzgerald released Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book, the first in a series of albums on which she performed an extensive collection of songs by a particular composer. The Cole Porter Song Book became an instant hit and stands as a landmark in American pop, a consummate fusion of sophisticated arrangements, urbane lyrics, and sparkling vocals.

Tick explores the album's creation in fascinating depth, and here, her analysis never verges into the mundane. She leads us through the recording process and early conceptual discussions, examining how an album of more than 40 songs was recorded across only three marathon sessions. She describes how Fitzgerald approached the project with apprehension and slowly came to embrace it as she thought to sing the catalog in a classical style of "self-imposed simplicity" rather than infusing the songs with overblown dramatics. And she demonstrates how, by reinventing Porter's show tunes in the style of mid-century swing, Fitzgerald "laid the foundational stones for what would soon be known as the Great American Songbook." Other lauded albums such as Ella and Louis (1956) and Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife! (1960) are treated with similar rigor, and as we learn about Fitzgerald's creative process, she at last seems more like a human being than an illusion.

There's a wealth of information in Becoming Ella Fitzgerald, but too much of it is superfluous. For all the admirably thorough research Tick conducted—poring over newly digitized newspaper archives and interviewing Fitzgerald's friends and colleagues—she emerged with little to reveal about the inner life of her subject that isn't captured in the book's introduction. If the real Ella Fitzgerald was an unknowable enigma, then perhaps her listeners should only seek to know her through her music. And when Tick analyzes Fitzgerald through that lens, the book is compulsively enjoyable. Distilled into 200 pages, Becoming Ella Fitzgerald could have been as captivating as the Song Books it celebrates. As it stands, it's as sporadic and uneven as the average tribute album.

Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song
by Judith Tick
W.W. Norton, 592 pp., $40

Guy Denton is a writer based in Washington, D.C., and the cohost of The Wrong Stuff podcast with Matt Lewis.

Published under: Book reviews , Music