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Liner Notables: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and Hart Song Book

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Why, it seems like only yesterday [cue harp and wavy, out-of-focus visuals] when you could pore over an album's liner notes and not have to squint to garner an embarrassment of riches and a treasure trove of tidbits…  

If you asked them, they could write some commentary…

And so, in the original album and the recent CD issue of 1956’s Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and Hart Song Book, some incisive quotes from Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and music critic William Simon were garnered from other sources to make up the liner notes. Up close and personal contributors like these can’t help but offer up first-hand and intimate perspectives on subjects such as the brilliant lyricist Lorenz Hart and how in later years “he seemed almost to substitute warmth for wit,” the work habits of Rodgers as “a planner and a builder,” and Ella Fitzgerald — though never actually having been instructed in vocal technique — as “a musician with ear, instinct and training” comparable to Heifetz.

The expertise Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Simon possessed is unsurpassed, complex, and hard won. Remarking upon the 24-year partnership with Hart, possibly the oldest in the history of the theater at the time, Richard Rodgers paints himself as the disciplinarian who was continuously “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” by his partner, but knows it was worth the alliterative ailment and affliction to coral the wildly spirited Hart, who hated work but loved it when it was done — that is, if he could be found, locked up in his room with hopes of suitably fired-up inspiration. At which point:

    His pencil would fly over the paper and soon the most difficult part of all would begin: the material had to be edited and he loathed changing any word once it was written down. When the immovable object of his unwillingness to change came up against the irresistible force of my drive for perfection, the noise could be heard all over the city. Our fights over words were furious, blasphemous, and frequent, but even in their hottest moments we both knew we were arguing academically and not personally. I think I am quite safe in saying that Larry and I never had a personal argument with each other.

Oscar Hammerstein II, Rodger’s new collaborator after the decline and 1943 death of the alcoholic Hart, understood how important words were to the “emotional eloquence” music attains and, by extension, what it evokes as — he might have paraphrased — it swells “With a Song in My Heart.” “We are made,” he does go on to say, “sad or happy, romantic, thoughtful, disturbed or peaceful by someone else’s singing heart.” Moreover, Hammerstein understands what his role is as the lyricist in the composition of music for plays which need to depict story and character: Rodgers “composes in order to make words fly higher or cut deeper than they would without the aid of his music.”

Furthermore, Hammerstein sees Rodgers’ work in his “chosen field of light dramatic music” in a no-nonsense manner — never hesitant, indefinite, or too sentimental in the case of the song of love (the "self-deception that believes the lie," as the wonderfully acerbic "I Wish I Were in Love Again" puts it). In an almost utilitarian, square-peg-to-square-hole approach, “Each melody adheres to the purpose for which it was put into a play. It is romantic, funny, or sad according to the situation for which it was written and the character required to sing it.”

Hammerstein places Rodgers’ successful earlier teaming with Hart in this witty and well-written tradition of drollery and drama: “Any contemporary must feel grateful to Rodgers and Hart for all the joy they have given us. This is a group of lovable songs…”

Indeed it is, but backtracking from Ella Fitzgerald’s 1938 million-selling swing time nursery rhyme “A Tisket A Tasket,” the 20 years leading up to the album of lovable songs under discussion (the second entry in Verve’s Song Book series, after the Cole Porter Song Book), had — as William Simon outlines her bumpy road of bop, swing, scat, jazz, blockbusters, covers, revivals, and mediocrities for other record labels — amounted to an inconsistent recording career for Fitzgerald. As such an indiscriminate waywardness may indicate, “Few people made as many records as Ella, and nobody recorded as many bad songs.”

But by the time of the Rodgers and Hart Song Book, Simon notes, Fitzgerald was back on track with larger audiences and “the better songs.” She was also in tune and in technique with the greater sensitivity such craftsmanship — in interwoven word and tune — the 20th century American pop standard called for in general, and the Rodgers and Hart song demanded in particular:

    She is constantly maturing, as evidenced by her increasingly profound understanding and projection of lyrics. Tonally, she commands greater variety — she can slip easily from an intimate huskiness to a clear bell tone and back. When she sings a slow blues or ballad, there’s a trace of melancholy in her sound that stems directly from the tradition of Bessie Smith…

    …Ella still can do those rope-skipping tunes with her old sassy bounce, but she can also handle nuances of grown-up wit and humor — certainly one of the prime requisites with Lorenz Hart lyrics — by turns satirical, sardonic, sexy, sophisticated – and then, sweetly simple.

In other words — in Mr. Hart's own words, to be precise — “Thou swell, thou witty, thou sweet, thou grand!” Thou said it.

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