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the otto files

where the classics never go out of style

The first thought that comes to mind when I think of both Ella Fitzgerald and Carol Burnett is, “It doesn’t get any better.” These were two women who were at the absolute top of their fields of entertainment. If I want to swing and listen to music that I know will make me happy and make me smile, I crank up the Ella Fitzgerald on my stereo, or iPod, if you will. If I want to laugh until my sides ache, I go put some old Carol Burnett shows in my DVD player and have a ball.

Yesterday, April 25th, would have been Ella’s 99th birthday. We lost her in 1996 but her music is as fresh and alive today as it was when she was at the top of the jazz world. Mel Torme called her “the First Lady of Song,” and I would tend to agree.

The first Ella Fitzgerald record I remember owning was the double Cole Porter Songbook album. My mother or I must have purchased it at a garage sale because I know I didn’t get it new. Her bell-like tone had to cut through the crackles and hiss of the used album’s surface. Prior to that album, I had never heard “Always True to You Darling In My Fashion” or “Miss Otis Regrets,” and while I may have heard “Ridin’ High,” I certainly had never heard Ella’s version which, to me, remains the standard against which all others must be measured.

I defy you to watch and listen to this clip and, like Ella and Benny, not snap your fingers or tap your toes.

As amazing as that clip is, here’s Ella’s recording from “The Cole Porter Songbook.” It’s a little cleaner than the live version and I post this version so you can experience the full power that was Ella. She was simply incredible.

And here’s that album cover that I remember so well.

The only criticism I have ever heard about Ella Fitzgerald is that she wasn’t as proficient singing a heart-wrenching ballad as she was when swinging the classics. That may be true since no one tops her on the swingers but I also believe what people are really saying when they make that observation is “she couldn’t sing the sad songs the way Billie Holiday could.” Well, the recorded versions that most people are thinking about from Lady Day were after life had beaten her down pretty well. The truth is, Ella didn’t have it too easy either but she, luckily for all of us, she didn’t allow herself to fall down the same tragic rabbit hole that Billie Holiday did. I think Billie was the master of the sad ballad for women in the same way that Sinatra was the master for male vocalists. However, just because Sinatra was the master of what he liked to call “the saloon song,” doesn’t mean there weren’t certain songs that I felt Crosby or Joe Williams could sing better than Sinatra. In that same way, when it come to jazz swingers, no one tops Ella. That said, she could tug at your heart strings when the material called for it.

I’m certain Carol Burnett must have been part of my life before even Ella. The Carol Burnett Show was must-see TV for me from my earliest days. I was born in 1964 and Carol Burnett began her variety show on CBS in the fall of 1967. Carol, in the way that only TV stars can do, always felt like a part of our family. My mom and I, in particular, just loved watching her every week. My sister always loved Lucy (Lucille Ball) but, to me, Lucy was a one-trick pony whereas Carol could do it all. She was a great Broadway-type singer, she was and is a tremendous actress, and she is, as far as I’m concerned, the greatest female comedienne in our history. She turns 83 today.

When it came to her show, she was also brilliant in the same way Jack Benny or Johnny Carson were brilliant. She was always willing to let others get the laughs. That’s not to say she played straight all the time but she was always happy to let Tim Conway or Vicki Lawrence grab some of the glory as well. That’s a rare trait in a star as big as Carol Burnett.

Carol Burnett portrayed a variety of characters during the 11-year-run of her variety show. I think my favorite of them all, would have to be Nora Desmond.

And although I never liked soap operas, I was a fan of “As the Stomach Turns.”

And then, of course, there was “Mrs. A-Wiggins.”

And, oh yeah, like I said, she could sing too!

Really, how many entertainers do we have today who could pull of duets like these?

And how about one more from Ella?

These two women were, and are, gifts from Heaven. The hours of joy they’ve given to their audiences are incalculable. I’m just grateful they were here to make my life that much happier.





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