Goldmine spoke with author Geoffrey Mark about his new book Ella: A Biography of the Legendary Ella Fitzgerald and its 2 CD companion set, sharing stories from his time with her, her work with Louis Armstrong, her admiration of The Beatles, Karen Carpenter and Toni Tennille, and the truth behind the classic Memorex commercials.
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By Warren Kurtz
GOLDMINE: In the book, you cover Ella Fitzgerald’s very humble beginnings, leading to her optimistic and inspiring philosophy, “It isn’t where you come from, it’s where you are going that counts.”
GEOFFREY MARK: Ella believed that. She had confidence without ego or being a diva. She started out young and worked her way up.
Goldmine: So young that she had to hear her first record on the jukebox outside of lounge window.
Mark: They sold liquor, she was under 21, so she gave a guy a nickel to go in and play “Love and Kisses” on the Decca label, while she stood outside that night in Philadelphia in 1935 and heard her record on the jukebox for the first time.
Goldmine: You write about Ella being influenced by The Boswell Sisters. I know their 1934 song “Rock and Roll,” two decades before the official rock and roll era began.
Mark: They were a sister harmony group. Ella liked Connee Boswell’s voice. Connee sat at a piano, due to a physical impairment, while her two sisters hovered. The Boswells worked in into the ‘50s. Connee provided a musical inspiration to be more of a shading in Ella’s voice.
Goldmine: You introduced me to “Sophisticated Lady” in the book, with you writing that the song had a jazz violin. I put the book down at the end of the chapter and searched for the song online. Jazz violin is a sound that I love, but one that I discovered outside of the jazz world, in the ‘70s through Papa John Creach with Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship and Hot Tuna, and Sid Page with Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks.
Mark: Great tastes. Yes, that was Snuff Smith playing violin on this sad Duke Ellington composition. Ella never wanted ordinary arrangements and always wanted to service the song.
Goldmine: You mention Duke Ellington. Another jazz great you write about with Ella is Louis Armstrong. Our daughter Brianna says with their version of “Summertime,” you get three different aspects with Ella’s voice, Louis’ voice and then his trumpet.
Mark: Your daughter is right and very profound, and Ella and Louis aren’t singing in the same key either. Those first three notes are the highest ones in the song. Ella draws upon the musical Porgy and Bess for her part. Louis brings in weariness and then his trumpet captures irony. It is amazing to hear three different approaches to a song in one recording. I think their best duet is “Can’t We Be Friends,” which I included on the first CD. This is wonderful jazz. Louis looked upon Ella as a younger sister and would tease her.
Goldmine: They both released 45s of “Hello Dolly” in 1964. Louis’ broke The Beatles’ streak of three number one singles in a row that spring, which ended with “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Then Ella recorded “Can’t Buy Me Love” as the flip side of her version of “Hello Dolly” that summer. What a lively version of that song, like what we would hear on an MDA Labor Day Telethon show. Thank you for including her Beatles cover on the CD.
Mark: Ella was in London two to three times a year, got to know The Beatles and loved them. “Can’t Buy Me Love,” from the Hello Dolly album, became popular. It is Ringo’s favorite cover of it. She recorded “A Hard Day’s Night” in Hamburg and later she recorded a version of “Hey Jude.”
Goldmine: Another ‘60s single that you write about is Ella’s tribute to Martin Luther King, “It’s Up to You and Me,” which she wrote the lyrics for.
Mark: She was a huge supporter of Dr. King with donations and sharing a friendship. She went to marches but didn’t publicize it. With the lyrics, she wanted people to carry on his legacy, the way he did it, in a non-violent way.
Goldmine: At the end of the decade, you write about the Richard Perry produced album Ella with two more Beatles songs, “Got to Get You into My Life,” “Savoy Truffle,” covers of Motown songs including her final charting single “Get Ready” and “Ooh Baby Baby” written by Warren “Pete” Moore and Smokey Robinson.
Mark: The Ella album on Reprise was wonderful. I love it. The Rolling Stones were listening to her in the studio. My favorite song on the album is “Open Your Window,” written by Nilsson.
Goldmine: I saw Ella live in 1976, for my wife Donna and my first concert when we were dating. Her drum teacher recommended the show at the Palace Theater in downtown Cleveland, almost indicating its historic significance with a lineup including Ella with Count Basie, Joe Pass and Joe Williams. I was amazed by Ella’s “little girl” voice, sounding so innocent yet you knew she had decades of experience by then.
Mark: I can imagine the arrangements from the most recent album at that time on the Pablo label. “Too Close for Comfort” was probably the opening number. She enjoyed Basie a lot. She received praise from her jazz contemporaries. In the book I quote Tony Bennett saying, “Her voice is her instrument…clear and fresh as a silver bell, with flawless, note-perfect phrasing, tremendous power and range, and often astounding delicacy.”
Goldmine: When I talked with Toni Tennille about that 1976 concert, she was in awe and told me a story about Joe Williams calling her to congratulate her and sing “Do That to Me One More Time” to her over the phone when her Captain and Tennille composition reached number one. Toni also said that Ella Fitzgerald was her favorite guest on her television show.
Mark: Toni was working with pianist Paul Smith, Ella’s old friend. They sang “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” and “Stormy Weather.” Ella’s last TV appearance, in a relaxed, seated duet style, was with Toni. With Ella, everybody was a peer. She liked Toni. She also liked Karen Carpenter. I was lucky enough to spend time with Richard Carpenter, who showed me all the footage of Karen and Ella doing “This Masquerade,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Ain’t Misbehaving.” Karen really didn’t enjoy singing in front of a live audience but Ella loved Karen’s voice.
Goldmine: You also wrote about a famous ‘70s commercial for Memorex tape, where the TV version asks, “Is it Ella or is it Memorex?” changed later to “Is it live or is it Memorex?” You include an old print photo of a Memorex ad and so many wonderful photos in the book. My favorite photo deals with another promotion, one with Continental Airlines.
Mark: Ella was happy to make extra money. She did Kentucky Fried Chicken ads, too. When she was known as “The Memorex Lady,” the truth in advertising regulations were taken seriously. There were attorneys present to verify that the glass did shatter when Ella sang and when the Memorex recording of her voice was played, too. To make this work, the glass was specially blown thin. Ella had to hit a pure note and it had to be amplified loudly, and the glass did shatter. With Continental Airlines, in the next decade, it was a genius publicity gimmick to get people to fly first class and attend a concert. Ella and a jazz trio, with Paul Smith playing a keyboard from his airplane seat, played “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and other songs from Chicago to Denver and then from Denver to Los Angeles.
Goldmine: As an author, you did a great job of entertaining me, teaching me new songs to enjoy, bringing back memories, and putting a smile on my face. Then, with your conclusion, with Ella’s son Ray’s final moments with his mother, Donna and I both got choked up.
Mark: Oh, I cried when I wrote it. This is the only written version of that day. There is no editing. I wanted the reader to feel just like how I felt and just like Ella would have felt.
Goldmine: Stevie Nicks said that the contribution to the biggest Fleetwood Mac album Rumours, which she is most proud of is the sequencing that she provided, selecting the song order for its flow.
Mark: Sequencing was also important to Ella. I bring in chronology and variety to the two CDs and cover seven decades of music, with 20 songs on each CD. You can hear big band power on “Undecided,” tenderness in Ella’s voice on “Misty Blue” and swingin’ scat on “Them There Eyes.” The second CD opens with an exciting version of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” features a great melody on “Satin Doll” and reflects beauty on “Angel Eyes” and “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.” I sing Ella’s songs in my shows, as I now am celebrating 45 years in show business. I sing to Ella’s original arrangements and do twelve to thirteen songs a show along with sharing stories. The audiences enjoy it.
In addition to his live performances, Geoffrey Mark has written other books dealing with the entertainment industry including The Lucy Book, Ethel Merman: The Biggest Star on Broadway and The Family Affair Cookbook.
To win the book Ella and its 2 CD set, all you have to do is put your email address in the box below by August 15, 11:59 p.m. You will immediately be entered in the Giveaway and as a bonus you will receive Goldmine’s informative weekly eNewsletter (collecting news/tips and exclusive articles and interviews with your favorite classic artists). We will randomly draw a winner from the entrants.