Excellence, Three Ladies of Song: Ella Fitzgerald’s Best of the Song Books, Diana Ross’s Blue, and Natalie Cole’s Leavin’

Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, and Nancy Wilson are singers whose works contain more than three colors in their palette, singers whose voices are capable of sounding more than tones of anger, lust, and pain, singers whose work is cosmopolitan, fresh, intelligent, sensual, and spiritual, singers whose work says Yes to life. Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Ross, and Natalie Cole are to be counted also among those singers. 

By Daniel Garrett

Ella Fitzgerald
The Best of the Song Books
Producer: Norman Granz
Verve, 1993

Diana Ross
Blue
Producer: Gil Askey
Motown, 2006

Natalie Cole
Leavin’
Executive Producers: Dallas Austin and Natalie Cole
Co-executive producer: David Munk
Verve, 2006

1.

Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, and Nancy Wilson are singers whose works contain more than three colors in their palette, singers whose voices are capable of sounding more than tones of anger, lust, and pain, singers whose work is cosmopolitan, fresh, intelligent, sensual, and spiritual, singers whose work says Yes to life. Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Ross, and Natalie Cole are to be counted also among those singers. Ella Fitzgerald’s The Best of the Song Books gathers together some of her many gems—elegant, light, sparkling: “Something’s Gotta Give,” “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” “The Lady Is A Tramp,” “Miss Otis Regrets,” “Love for Sale,” and “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” Fitzgerald’s “Something’s Gotta Give” has her racing through the song and yet not missing anything, her energy and tonal command impressive. In songs such as “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” and “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” Ella Fitzgerald makes being besotted by desire and love seem to be states that are natural, understandable, as opposed to neurotic symptoms or theatrical indulgences, which are always possibilities. “Miss Otis Regrets” about passion, murder, and a missed social appointment, is handled carefully and its ironies are delicate and piercing. Fitzgerald’s “Love for Sale” makes a situation that would seem quite sordid on a good day one that is nearly efficient, nearly an act of generosity. If Ella Fitzgerald is to be faulted—and this is no original thought, I know—it is for not bringing the full force of comprehension and torment to the lyrics; instead, Fitzgerald treats her songs as if they embody new experiences, and so her work never seems part of the past, and is not burdened by yesterday’s lessons, which can become today’s wisdom. Her interpretations never become clotted with mannerisms or sentiment, as sometimes happens with Sarah Vaughan, a singer I tend to prefer to Fitzgerald for Vaughan’s dramatic eloquence, passion, and sensuality. One is always rediscovering Fitzgerald and the songs she sings. “Something’s Gotta Give,” written by Johnny Mercer, is about the difficulty of resisting romantic temptation. George and Ira Gershwin’s “(Our) Love Is Here to Say” is sung as a ballad of confident hope. Fitzgerald deftly touches the lyrics of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” a Rodgers and Hart song in which intelligent attention and erotic fascination are married: analysis increases rather than decreases fascination—until it doesn’t, until a turn in the song, a turn that creates an interesting complexity. Fitzgerald gives an interpretation of Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” that is more about rhythm and energy than emotion (Fitzgerald, more than Billie Holiday, really was a singer of improvisational music: jazz, using her voice as a musical instrument). In “The Lady Is A Tramp,” there is something androgynous about Fitzgerald’s directness, something almost masculine, which allows for an indirect affirmation—that aids understanding—of the song’s message about a woman with an unaffected attitude that is misunderstood by others. In Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad,” Fitzgerald’s interpretation is serious without being painful or punishing (the horn accompaniment is more mournful than her voice). Passion breaks through manners but manners return in the lyrics of “Miss Otis Regrets,” about a society woman who kills her lover; and the first half of Best of the Song Books closes with the Gershwins’ “’S Wonderful.” Ella Fitzgerald and some of the twentieth-century’s best songwriters corroborated each other’s talents. Cheery ambivalence pervades Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” Fitzgerald never cultivated sexual availability as part of her image, something that makes her unique, so that her circumspection and decency stand apart from the erotic danger and coarsening vulgarity of the world, even in “Love for Sale.” A song about love and the triumph of memory, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” by the Gershwins, performed with strings, is given a ballad opening before going uptempo. Fitzgerald performs “Midnight Sun,” “Hooray for Love,” and “Why Was I Born?,” always serving the songs with clear diction, energy, rhythm, and sound, almost selflessly. The Ellington scat song “Cotton Tail” is all sound, no meaning, though it summons the image of cunning and dash, of an animal running. The collection The Best of the Song Books closes with Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.”

2.

Diana Ross’s work—albums such as Touch Me in the Morning, Baby It’s Me, The Boss, Why Do Fools Fall In Love, Swept Away, Stolen Moments, Take Me Higher, and Every Day Is A New Day; and film performances in Lady Sings the Blues and Double Platinum—are part of history as well as part of our common pleasure. The collection of song standards Blue features some of Ross’s best work: Ross is in good, strong voice, a voice of delicacy and range, and it is an album of elegant, pleasing mastery, with some very good songs. In the album’s first song, “What A Difference A Day Makes,” Ross’s enunciation is clear and relaxed as she introduces the first sung lines of the song, before moving into a higher—and purer—voice, and she switches back and forth easily between the two ranges. The music is jazz, full of nuance: nice saxophone and trumpet and light percussion, with shifting accents and details, in a song written by Stan Adams and Maria Grever. (I listened to the song many times and only once thought of Dinah Washington, a singer I like, and for whom it was a signature song.) “No More,” a falling out of love song by Toots Camarata and Sidney Russell is a song I was not familiar with, and the lack of familiarity—and Ross’s nearly austere care with it—give the song a special intimacy. Diana Ross’s take on Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” is beautiful, charming, intelligent: and Ross’s tone, rhythm, and intonation cannot be improved—this interpretation is greatly musical (I especially like her pronunciation of words beginning with the letter b, as in bees, Boston, and bowls). An uptempo, soulful interpretation is given to “I Loves Ya Porgy,” a song that I think is hard to sing—it comes out of musical theater and is a piece of fake folklore by the Gershwins with DuBose Heyward, but the dramatic situation the song suggests, that of a woman who loves one man but desires another, and also the song’s longevity, make the song an interesting challenge for singers, and I find that Ross’s interpretation is different from but as memorable as Nina Simone’s. Ross’s singing is expressive—even wailing. The album Blue was the idea of Berry Gordy, conceived after Ross’s selection to star as Billie Holiday in the film Lady Sings the Blues, recorded then, and only released more than three decades later. Diana Ross had always a sense of her own possibilities, but she was lucky to have a birth family that gave her solid values and encouraged achievement and then to have met Berry Gordy, the president of Motown Records, who loved, respected, and supported her, and helped to bring the world talents such as Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder. Berry Gordy’s faith in Diana Ross, an active faith that made him an equal partner in her early career, is not something to be criticized or resented, but rather is to be celebrated and emulated: it is the faith and support we all want, and all should have. It would be better for us to examine the reasons why we do not: why don’t the institutions of art, education, finance, industry, and social benevolence do a better job of giving us what we want and need? Diana Ross served her apprentice years with the Supremes, and performed the inventive modern songs of Holland, Dozier, and Holland, as well as those of Rodgers and Hart, Sam Cooke, the Beatles and various British groups, and also country and western music. Ross has grown as an artist and is a figure of musical reach, something that can be heard in the songs she has performed on her solo recordings Touch Me in the Morning, Swept Away, Stolen Moments, and Take Me Higher; and The Definitive Collection (Motown, 2006) assembles some of Ross’s best-loved work from her Motown and RCA years, including “I’m Coming Out,” “Missing You,” “Mirror, Mirror,” “Good Morning Heartache,” “My Mistake (Was to Love You),” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and “Endless Love,” and it includes “What a Difference A Day Makes” from Blue, a wonderful recording. On Blueis one of Ross’s anthems, Charlie Chaplin’s song “Smile,” and she illuminates it (she sounds as if she understands sorrow and its futility); and, also on Blue, Ross performs the Johnny Burke-Jimmy Van Heusen song “But Beautiful,” a consideration of the many sides of love in which Ross’s inflections are sharply effective. “Had You Been Around” is a song about how love might have inspired someone if the love had arrived sooner, and its rhythm arrangement is swinging, and Ross’s phrasing is natural, exuberant, thoughtful, and amused. It—a song written by Richard Jacques, Ron Miller, Avery Vandenburg, and Bernard Yuffy—is one of my favorite songs on Blue. (I was walking happily down the street one evening and realized that I had been walking in rhythm to my memory of the song.) “Little Girl Blue,” is another song I think of as a Ross anthem, and here it has a spoken introduction that brings us closer to the singer, who gives a sensitive reading of the lyrics (I still find her Stolen Moments performance of the song her best rendition of it). I wasn’t that fond of Ross’s version of “Can’t Get Started with You,” about a capable narrator—popular, successful—who cannot achieve a relationship with a desired other: it’s a somewhat melancholy song, though not lacking in lyrical amusement, and there’s nothing wrong with her singing of it, but it didn’t get to me. “(Our) Love Is Here to Stay” has a pretty melody, a seductive rhythm, and is a tribute to love with topical references, and Ross handles the song as if it were as natural as breathing. (Her version is, obviously, different from that of Ella Fitzgerald, whose tone is more obviously earnest and pace slower.) Ross sings also “You’ve Changed” and “My Man,” two songs closely associated with Billie Holiday. On the Leo Robin-Ralph Rainger song “Easy Living” Ross sounds intoxicated by love and makes sounds I don’t think I’ve heard from her before. “Solitude,” the Duke Ellington song, is also something I think of as difficult—for its unmistakable and poetic seriousness—and, without false sentiment, Diana Ross pays attention to its words and acquits herself quite well. The Blue collection concludes with two songs, “He’s Funny That Way” and a spirited, even theatrical, treatment of “T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do.” It says something about Berry Gordy’s confidence in Diana Ross, and in the richness of her career, that such a recording could be casually shelved. Diana Ross’s voice on I Love You (EMI, 2006, internationally; 2007, USA) is more aged and fragile than on Blue or Every Day Is A New Day (Motown, 1999), and suggests less energy too, but her performances on I Love You of songs such as “I Love You (That’s All That Really Matters),” “What About Love,” “The Look of Love,” and “To Be Loved” are quite good—with clear, dramatic, and genuinely expressive lyrics and feeling—and the collection’s song selection is generally impressive: featuring the work of Burt Bacharach and Hal David (“The Look of Love”), Lennon and McCartney (“I Will”), Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman (“This Magic Moment”), and Berry Gordy (“To Be Loved”). Ross performs a couple of songs of the most optimistic momentum, such as the Bill Withers song “Lovely Day” and Freddie Mercury and Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” On I Love You, Diana Ross has many high notes but uses more low notes than ever before: this may be a new stage in her career, or she is miming the original male singers of some of these songs. I think of Diana Ross as an intelligent singer, attentive to lyrics, but on a few I Love You songs that I have not noted her delivery was not what I would hope, songs in which she seems to bring effort but not interpretive imagination or involvement. (I am not fond of comparing the work of singers—each artist is unique—but Barbra Streisand’s 2005 Guilty Pleasures album and Gladys Knight’s 2006 collection of golden jazz-era standards Before Me are more impressive for vocal quality and consistent execution.) That the Ross I Love You album, produced by Peter Asher and Steve Tyrell, neither an ideal recorder of her voice, begins and ends with Harry Nilsson’s “Remember,” which suggests a kind of story-book atmosphere, a romance, is an indication that the assemblage is a celebration of memory and even nostalgia, of better days and best moments. Ross has said that she wants the songs to become part of people’s life celebrations. With fourteen songs, fifteen if the reprise of “Remember” is counted, this is a generous offering, with one of the last songs of the program, Rod Temperton’s “Always and Forever,’ given a particularly lovely—sensitive, thoughtful and pretty—interpretation. In performing two new songs—Fred White’s “I Love You,” and “What About Love” from contributing composers to the stage musical “The Color Purple,” Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray—Diana Ross gives her album I Love You two of its most enduring moments and also adds to the popular music repertoire. I am sure these songwriters are pleased by the company they keep and, now, their songs’ immortality.

3.

Natalie Cole’s Leavin’ is an album of popular “soul” and light “rock,” and Cole’s interpretations demonstrate variety: they can be intelligent or indifferent, wailing or merely pretty; and there is something mercurial and interesting about that. Natalie Cole, the daughter of jazz musician Nat King Cole, also a singer of popular standards, is a popular music princess, and can indulge her tastes and whims, making Leavin’ an engaging, worthwhile, though not entirely satisfying collection of songs. The strongest songs seem to be “Criminal,” “The More You Do It,” “Lovin’ Arms,” “The Man with the Child in His Eyes,” “5 Minutes Away,” and “You Gotta Be.” The writers of these songs include Fiona Apple, Marvin Yancy and Chuck Jackson, Tom Jans, Kate Bush, Dallas Austin and Chanz Parkman (with Cole), and Des’ree Weekes and Ashley Ingram. It is admirable that an established artist such as Cole considers and attempts such a wide range of music to interpret; and that her purpose seems not to startle but to entertain. (A long parenthetical: I have listened to the new music of Neko Case, the Decemberists, Bob Dylan, the Flaming Lips, the Strokes, and Tom Yorke, much of which has been acclaimed by others, and my immediate impression was that I did not like the sound of much of the music. How new was this new music? What was being acclaimed, the music or the profile or social scenes of the musicians? It is not that I could not recognize the intelligence, or the supposed idiosyncrasy, of some of those musical attempts, but that the music did not sound particularly good or original to me. I preferred to listen to Devendra Banhart, Bright Eyes, Howlin’ Wolf, Leela James, Wynton Marsalis, John Mayer, Frank Sinatra, Skye, and Lizz Wright. It is possible that I did not give Neko Case, the Decemberists, and the others much of a chance. For years I would listen to music many times before I came to a conclusion—I thought it fair, assuming the significant effort that musicians invested in their music, but recently—in the last six months or so—I have been less patient, less tolerant. I may be unfair, or strangely fair—giving the musical favorites of others the cavalier treatment some of my favorites have received. If music is distinguished in terms of sound, shouldn’t that be quickly apparent? That Natalie Cole seems inclined to entertain seems to her advantage: she is concerned not merely with her own experience or expression but with the listener’s pleasure.) Some people may see entertainment as different from serious artistic purpose, but I do not think there is always or even often a difference, as the most gifted artists achieve both, out of intention and talent. In music, I listen for sound—voice, instrumentation, melody, rhythm, and lyrics, which include logic, metaphor and imagery, philosophy, cultural references, and the extent to which basic human concerns are manifest. I think also that artifice can be as interesting as authenticity: artifice can fulfill dreams and express ideas that society has yet to make a place for; and, of course,some people can be authentically faithful to clichés and sincerely can believe and express hate and stupidity. Natalie Cole’s music assumes her own decency and that of her listener; assumes that insight and pleasure are possible and can be shared; assumes that music is part of having a good time. It is her expression of those assumptions that is not consistently satisfying. Natalie Cole does give a high-energy interpretation to her opening song “Criminal,” written by Fiona Apple, a song—direct and self-knowing—about a woman’s reckless behavior in love, with Cole accompanied by a vibrant horn and rhythm section: Will Scruggs on tenor and baritone saxophones, Wes Funderburk on trombone, Ken Watters on trumpet, Tony Reyes on guitar and bass, Dallas Austin on drums, and Chanz Parkman on keyboards. I’m not sure we needed another interpretation of Neil Young’s song “Old Man” but Chanz Parkman’s piano is a nice touch in performance of the song (Cole’s version makes me think better of Lizz Wright’s). Natalie Cole gives the great Aretha Franklin’s “Day Dreaming” a quick opening chorus, suggesting a devotion that nears obsession, and I can hear the lyrics of the song better in Cole’s version than Franklin’s, and although Cole’s version is less intimate, it’s such a good song that another treatment is not to be regretted. In Shelby Lynne’s “Leavin’,” there’s a spoken introduction about romantic disappointment, and the song’s lyrics are about coming to the end of one’s patience with a bad situation, but Cole did not make me believe in the described situation. It is possible Lynne pursued a different interpretive emphasis in the song. (Before listening to Cole’s album, I heard Destiny’s Child anthology #1s, a collection of successfully sold single songs, and going from that to Cole I thought of the difference between one generation and another in attitude, tone, and content—for one thing, one of Cole’s selections, Lynne’s song, talks about how little material goods mean and Destiny’s Child lists material comforts as a sign of personal accomplishments and independence. No matter how open a singer is, it is not always possible to replace the sensibility of youth with one’s good intentions.) There is a return to Cole’s own youth in her singing of her long-ago collaborators Marvin Yancy and Chuck Jackson’s song “The More You Do It.” A simple arrangement of Tom Jans’s “Lovin’ Arms”—featuring Cole’s voice and Tony Reyes’s guitar—actually generates more power than the busier (but not too crowded) arrangements of other songs, and “Lovin’ Arms” is a song of memory and longing. “Love Letter,” written by Bonnie Hayes, is about infatuation, and Natalie Cole’s singing is particularly soulful, and Cole worked on the rhythm and horn arrangements, which play well. The song describes a woman writing a love letter with her radio on—and Cole’s tone and seemingly improvised exclamations enliven the song. Kate Bush? Cole performs Kate Bush’s “The Man with the Child in His Eyes,” a song of imagination and love, which features strings and a choir in a wistfully dramatic production, and Cole’s girlish voice is very right for it (I think of Streisand’s interpretations of “I Don’t Know Where I Stand” and “Lazy Afternoon”). A song about finding love near to home after travel and experience, “5 Minutes Away,” which Natalie Cole co-wrote with Dallas Austin and Chanz Parkman, has a simple, pretty melody and Cole’s earthy attitude and apparent sincerity make this one of the most charming and convincing songs on the album. The Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Say Goodnight,” a seduction song, has a few new lyrics by Cole, but, for me, the song seems more romantic than erotic (that may be confusion of conventional male and female terms—as for many women, the romantic is erotic). “You Gotta Be” is a song that had its moment as a generational anthem; and it, written by Des’ree Weekes and Ashley Ingram, as performed by Cole is not significantly changed: Cole repeats its original charm and rhetoric, and that may speak to the durability of the song. The only reservation I have is, Does a mature woman believe—as the song says—that love will save the day? Natalie Cole’s Leavin’ ends with “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You.” In Sting’s (Gordon Sumner’s) “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You,” a song set after a loss of faith in progress, religion, and personal direction, with faith remaining only in a loved one, there is a line about politicians seeming like game show hosts that hasn’t lost its edge, and the song’s details make it hard to resist—and I suppose Natalie Cole still does believe in love. Despite my criticisms, I think Natalie Cole’s Leavin’ is an intelligent, relevant, and useful model for other singers of her generation—and even for those of subsequent generations: Cole’s song selection acknowledges that individuals of different ages and experiences and genres have something significant to say.

Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox. His commentaries on K.D. Lang, Cassandra Wilson, Luther Vandross, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Dianne Reeves, Lizz Wright, Sinead O’Connor and Al Green have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. “I remember liking Natalie Cole’s songs ‘This Will Be’ and ‘I’ve Got Love on My Mind’ and seeing her perform rhythm and blues and rock music on late night television years ago, liking her version of Springsteen’s ‘Pink Cadillac,’ and then enjoying Natalie Cole’s excursions in jazz and also her album Snowfall on the Sahara,” says Garrett. Daniel Garrett has written also about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.

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