How Ella Fitzgerald Changed My Life – With a Little Help From Frank Sinatra!


Preface

I became a fan of Ella’s music shortly after ‘discovering’ Frank Sinatra. I had been an avid Beatles’ fan as a young child, and loved music. One evening – I was 11 years old at the time – my mother said, “You’ve been listening to your music, I want to listen to one of my records” and she played one of the two Sinatra albums she possessed, “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!”. I can remember the precise, seminal moment: it was when I heard the track “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me” and the sublime Nelson Riddle arrangement that hooked me. I eagerly started to spend all my pocket money on my new record collection. Initially Sinatra recordings and, almost by osmosis, albums by Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Peggy Lee, Count Basie and Carmen McRae too. But that was just the start.

How Ella Fitzgerald Changed My Life

My first-ever visit to a major jazz concert was in 1973 to see Duke Ellington performing at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. My second was on April 11th 1974 to see Ella Fitzgerald at The Apollo in Glasgow. (Prior to that, my only exposure to jazz concerts was on television and once, when my father had taken me to see Carol Kidd a couple of years earlier when she had a regular gig at The Lorne Hotel, also in Glasgow. And I remember vividly sitting at the back of the room, thinking how wonderful it must be to sing with a band.)

The concert not only featured the great singer – she was backed by the Tommy Flanagan Trio and Roy Eldridge and Eddie Lockjaw Davis guested. The repertoire was captured on the album issued as “Ella in London” recorded by the BBC at Ronnie Scott’s.

My collection of Sinatra LPs had grown to in excess of one hundred, whilst my Ella records numbered around 20 including her latest release for the newly-formed Pablo label. Norman Granz, who had sold his well-respected Verve label to MGM in the late 1960s, auctioned his collection of Picassos to fund his new label which, suitably, was named after the artist. It was a lavishly boxed, 3-record set, entitled “Jazz at the Santa Monica Civic” and also featured the Count Basie and his Orchestra, Stan Getz, Ray Brown, Harry Edison, Oscar Peterson and the afore-mentioned Eldridge and Davis. Quite a line up. And boy, did I play it over and over… So the idea of, just a year later, seeing Ella in concert was incredibly exciting.

My father’s then-partner, Margaret, and two of her children were accompanying us. And I remember her saying, “Maybe we could meet her afterwards” and my father replying that the idea was fairly ridiculous! It was a significant comment in that it sowed the seed that maybe, just maybe, one could have the opportunity to meet Ella Fitzgerald!

Ella was in buoyant form, although, judging from live recordings made in 1974, her voice was harsher. Surprisingly, this rougher edge to her voice was unique to this particular period of her career. Her affection for the audience and the warmth she got from practically everyone in the auditorium was palpable. It was a wonderful evening that I remember thinking as I left the venue would remain with me always.

A year went by and I read with great excitement that Ella was returning to Scotland to play The Usher Hall in Edinburgh on November 2nd 1975 with Count Basie and his Orchestra. She was to perform two shows. I was one of the first into the booking office and bought tickets for each show. The 6.30pm concert in the organ gallery, immediately behind the stage (and where I had been a matter of three or four feet from the great man and his keyboard). The next show found me in the row second from the front, center section. I was all set.

I can’t remember precisely when I thought about trying to meet Ella. But approximately a month before the concerts, I made a decision. I was going to visit the venue and speak to the manager, asking if I could be allowed back stage to give her flowers.

One evening the week prior to the concert, dressed in my new (read: first) suit, I did just that. In context of where I was at that time – four years of serious absenteeism, lacking confidence and self-esteem, four months out of school, waiting to be admitted to a psychiatric unit – I still don’t quite know where I got the nerve or, no pun intended, verve to be so focussed!

There was a concert taking place and I remember being taken to meet the manager, and I explained what I hoped he could help me do. He was cool to say the least; after I’d said my piece, he said, “I’ll be given a list of everyone who gets back stage. If you’re on the list you’ll get back stage, if you’re not…” and with that, he shrugged his shoulders and walked away. His colleague, who had introduced me, looked at me apologetically, and said, “Listen, she’ll be here for a sound check on Sunday around 1.30pm – you should just wait for her at the Stage Door”. So, that became the plan.

One thirty past midday, Sunday November 2nd 1975 found me at the precise spot, clutching the 20 pink roses I’d purchased the day before (this was long before Sunday opening was commonplace). Mum had, predictably – and caringly, tried to let me down gently by warning me that there would be dozens of people who want to meet her, so I wasn’t to be disappointed if you don’t get near to her. Curiously, my mother – who was unwittingly the person who introduced me to Sinatra, Ella and the others in that genre – didn’t want to take up my offer of a ticket for the Fitzgerald-Basie concert.

Standing there, waiting, clicking my heels. Pacing a little. Looking at my watch… 1.50pm and no sign of anyone, let alone Miss Fitzgerald. A car appears. The driver gets out and asks me who the flowers are for. I tell him, and he informs me that he is her chauffeur and he doesn’t have to collect her until 5.30pm; she wasn’t going to be in the hall for a sound check. “But,” he added, “she’s having lunch in the Caledonian Hotel – go and give the flowers there; they love that sort of thing”. I wasn’t so sure. It was one thing waiting at a stage door, and quite another to intrude. Something then made me change my mind: it started to drizzle, and it was looking as though a downpour was on not far behind.

So I walked the 200 yards or so from the Usher Hall to just beneath one of the imposing arched windows of the Caledonian Hotel’s smart dining room. And, yes, there she was: Ella Fitzgerald, having lunch with her back to the window. Her road manager, Tony Edwards, who worked for MAM, the company handling the tour, saw me and told Ella who then turned around, saw me standing with flowers and made a gesture for me to come in.

Almost on auto-pilot I briskly walked through the hotel foyer, into the dining room where the entire Basie band were dining. The Maitre d’ tried to stop me to ask where I was heading but I just stormed passed him! Ella was wonderful; very kind and graciously accepted my bouquet and asked me if she could give me a copy of her new album. She asked which show I was coming to and, when I said both, she invited me back stage between shows. Ironically, my first thought was not: I’ve met Ella Fitzgerald, but rather, it was the fact that I had made it on to “the list”!

Needless to say, I was on cloud nine. I went home and told Mum, who I think wondered if I was exaggerating, what had happened. Then back to the Usher Hall to take my seat. Little did I realize it was a case of “the best was yet to come!”

The Basie band swung like only the Basie band can. Then, Ella with Basie. I recall “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Them There Eyes” and “Mr Paganini”. Then she sang with her trio: Tommy Flanagan, Keeter Betts and Bobby Durham, followed by a rousing crescendo with the full band again. Thanking Count Basie and the orchestra, she then acknowledged the members of the Tommy Flanagan Trio. And then it came: “And I’d also like to thank a young fan who gave me flowers earlier today. I haven’t been able to see you – are you here?”

I replied in a sort of stunned, meek way, “Yes”. Being in the organ gallery behind the stage, the next thing I knew was a powerful spotlight shining on me. Ella continued, “Do you mind if I sing him a song?” and she headed towards me, but the microphone cord wouldn’t stretch, so Ella asked me to come on stage with her!

Knees trembling – literally – and almost oblivious to the 2,000 people clapping as I walked towards her. Tommy Flanagan started playing, and Ella sang the Stevie Wonder classic, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”…

As I headed back to my seat, I remember an exhilarating roar from the audience, and Ella commenting, “Wasn’t that sweet; he spent his little bread on me when he could’ve spent it on Elton John!”

Someone tapped me on the shoulder as Ella was singing her final number. It was some friend or colleague of the Evening Newspaper writer, John Gibson, who wanted to see me for an interview. I told the fellow I wasn’t going anywhere other than to see Ella, so he scribbled down the journalist’s number and asked me to call him the next day. After the show ended, I remember fellow audience members smiling at me as I made my way back stage.

There was a hubbub going on as I was ushered through to Ella’s dressing room. I turned around and, standing in front of me, was Count Basie. He smiled, and said hello. Why is it at times like these, do words just fail people? I meet Count Basie and all I can do is smile at him! Taken into see Ella, she was drinking bitter lemon juice and eating some dainty, triangular, crust-cut-off sandwiches. (Now that I perform, I know how ravenous one can become after a show.)

We chatted briefly… I got a few short sentences out, mentioning how much I liked her “Jazz at the Santa Monica Civic” performance which I had brought along to ask her to autograph, which she did: “Thank you so very much. Fondly, Ella Fitzgerald.” I said how I wished I could sing and bring enjoyment to people. She said, “Well, if you got a voice, you go for it!” (It would take a quarter of a century for me to fully take her advice, but as least I can look back and think… Ella Fitzgerald told me to go for it!)

Walking back to the main auditorium, I passed long-time Basie band member and horn player extraordinaire, Eric Dixon, who congratulated me on being on-stage with Ella. “That’s a good press story – should be worth ten bucks at least!”

The second concert of course was over all-too-soon. She smiled at me a few times, and even incorporated my name during “Mr Paganini”. What a night!

I met the Evening News correspondent the next morning who, of course, saw a hook when he found out I was a “searcher of records” (legal documents). Wrong records, however, but he wrote a harmless little piece. Scotsman critic of the day, Conrad Wilson, was slightly more scathing referring to my encounter with the First Lady of Jazz as “a schmaltzy episode, but it was worth it for the song!”

I know photos were taken but, to this day, I’ve never seen one. Ironically, given his career in public relations, my father never pursued his contacts in the newspaper world to track down a snap shot for posterity.

Three days later, and I was back in the psychiatrist’s chair. The doctor was swaying to and fro on one of the chrome and woven cane Bauhaus-style chairs that seemed, at the time, to be a Habitat invention. “And what have you been up to this week?” he said, in a rather perfunctory manner. “Well, on Sunday, I was on stage with Ella Fitzgerald,” I replied. He practically fell off his chair! Initially, I am sure he thought that I’d cracked. But then he realized it was true, and that was the last time I ever went to a psychiatrist.

It took me more than twenty years for me to take Ella’s advice to “go for it” but after my first-ever performance in public in 2001, I started my relatively swift path to becoming a professional singer. In 2003, I was booked to open for Dionne Warwick during her UK tour which prompted me to give up my day job and, as the cliche goes, I have never looked back.

 

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