december 2011

The First Lady of Song, swingin' it at Christmastime

And A Swinging Christmas To You, Too

By David McGee

Ella Fitzgerald
Released: 1960; reissued, 2002

Remastered and reissued in 2002, the First Lady of Song's only album-length collection of secular Christmas songs ranks with the finest efforts of her gifted peers, such as those of her staunch fan and supporter Frank Sinatra, for one. The original 12-song LP has been augmented here by six bonus tracks. Three of those are alternate takes of songs on the album, but two--an absolutely haunting, and stately, medley of "We Three Kings of Orient Are" and a cheery holiday fantasy, "Christmas Island"--had previously been available only on a 45 issued in England, and the other, "The Secret of Christmas," was the B side of her 1959 single of "The Christmas Song." "The Secret of Christmas," soft and hymn-like in its somber tempo, delicate wash of strings and soft-plucked harp, is a real gem. Written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, it's addressed to a person who hasn't figured out that the Yuletide is about an ongoing generosity of spirit that manifests itself daily, not merely in December, and so has "turned away a friend." Singing gently and soothingly, being a sympathetic counselor, Ella croons: "So may I suggest the secret of Christmas/Is not the things you do at Christmastime/But the Christmas things you do all year through." The poignant Van Heusen-Cahn lyric gains added punch by dint of Ella's stance embodying the very quality she sings of--"the Christmas things you do all year through."

As per "The Secret of Christmas," Ella the ballad singer makes a spectacular showing on this album. She delivers "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" with a cool sultriness, but there's also heart-tugging yearning and even loneliness in her voice as well (note, too, how the song begins with the rarely sung verse), both moods further enhanced by a bluesy trumpet solo along the way. Supported by a gently shuffling arrangement punctuated by laid-back horns and frisky vibes, Ella caresses "White Christmas," making of it the dreamiest sort of holiday greeting.

Ella Fitzgerald, ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?’: performed with cool sultriness, but there’s also heart tugging yearning and even loneliness in her voice as well… Arrangement by musical director and conductor Frank DeVol.

"Jingle Bells," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Frosty the Snowman" hardly seem like songs capable of challenging Ella, but she tackles all those and more with great spirit and her typically witty lyrical flights. Right off the bat she charges into "Jingle Bells" at a furious pace, with a piano pounding behind her and the rhythm section hurtling ahead; she bends the rhythm, spars vocally with the background singers, and editorializes along the way, singing "Love that vibration, syncopation, of a one-horse open sleigh" ahead of the first chorus, as the singers answer her. Like "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" has an obscure verse, but Ella rolls it out with feisty energy, again taking editorial liberties with the lyrics, shouting before one chorus, "Look at that crazy red suit!" and adding at the close, following a stop-time figure, "It's in the bag!" During the laid-back break in a warm, horn-rich rendition of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," she croons the melody of the folk song "Tom Dooley" and sings to her outcast protagonist, "Hang your nose down, Rudy/Hang your nose and cry." And on the high-stepping alternate take of "Frosty the Snowman," yes, that's Ella singing in a high-pitched, reedy, child's voice, all spunk and attitude, sounding not at all unlike the vivacious 11-year-old Brenda Lee singing "Christy Christmas" in 1956.

As Ella works her way through this repertoire she's given note-perfect support by her music director on this project, Frank DeVol, who had made a name for himself by arranging Nat King Cole's 1948 hit, "Nature Boy." He had gone on to do good work for a number of the great pop singers of his day, including Rosemary Clooney and Tony Bennett, before joining Ella for several remarkable albums, including Hello, Love; Ella Sings Sweet Songs for Swingers, Like Someone in Love, and others. As he did on those recordings, so did he here in encouraging Ella's more sensitive side with low-key arrangements marked by gentle rhythms, interesting colorations courtesy vibes and the harp, whimsical flourishes such as the flutters of woodwinds heard at unexpected moments, and not least of all, romantic, swoon-inducing strings keening and, as on "The Secret of Christmas," seeming to sob when the lyric is at its most plaintive. Always a reliable partner for his artists but never attaining the stature of contemporaries such as Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins, DeVol proved his mettle on the Fitzgerald albums, providing an indisputably great vocalist with spacious arrangements and evocative atmospherics, the better to encourage her improvisational instincts and to set a mood for her compelling balladry. A film composer with more than 50 motion picture scores to his credit (including Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Dirty Dozen, Cat Ballou, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Pillow Talk, among many others) he is best remembered today--in those quarters where he's remembered at all--as the deadpan leader of Happy Kyne and His Mirth Makers on the satirical '70s sitcom, Fernwood 2-Night. Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas is unquestionably a testimony to a great singer's unerring way with a song, but DeVol made sure to fashion a backdrop that engaged the high art of the voice with inspired work by gifted musicians and supporting vocalists. It's a combination, and an album, that can't be beat. 

Ella Fitzgerald’s A Swinging Christmas is available at

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