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Ella Fitzgerald: 1917-1996
Ella Fitzgerald: 1917-1996
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by Vance Garnett

It was 1974.

I was living in this mortuary out in California when I read in the L.A. Times about the spectacular coming to Caesar's Palace in Vegas. Immediately I determined to see it. I hopped a ride with this woman acquaintance who worked as a backup singer for Frankie Laine ("That's My Desire") at the Desert Inn. She was driving back to work from San Bernardino.
spaceWhen we got to Caesar's I procured a ticket for that night's dinner show. When that show ended (I'm jumping ahead here) I knew I had seen the greatest show I would ever see in my life. It's twenty-two years later now, and that assessment still stands.
spaceFirst came a nice dinner. That followed by the
aforementioned show: when the curtain opened, on stage was the complete Count Basie Band. And they wailed in that inimitable Basie style with that "splank, splank, splank" piano signature that caused Sinatra to nickname Bill Basie "Splank." (Earlier, when I had seen "the Count" meandering through the lobby of the hotel, wearing his trademark captain's cap with his nautical shirt opened to give his beer belly breathing room, I ventured to say, "Hey, Splank." He took it without obvious resentment, semi-smiling.)

That was also the day I "broke" Mr. S's code, by the way... I noticed that there were an inordinate amount of pages in the casino for someone with the unlikely name of Frank Iris. "Iris!" -- "Old Blue Eyes!" the rather recent Sinatra sobriquet. I was convinced that if I picked up a house phone and asked to have Frank Iris paged, I would find myself talking to Mr. S....or Jilly Rizzo...or to the fish at the bottom of the Las Vegas Ocean. I could always try my Dean Martin impression. Naaw, I thought better of the idea and didn't pick up the phone.

After the Basie Band finished wailing its 4th number, who was introduced? None other than my all-time favorite female vocalist, Miss Ella Fitzgerald. Ella was, well, Ella. Warm, unaffected, sweet, sincere, and she sang a bit. Just enough to blow the rafters off the Palace dome. She sung and she swung! First a couple of songs with the Basie Band, then a smaller group took the stage and backed her to purr-fection on a mess of fine ballads.
spaceLady Ella sang all the classic songs I could hope for, sang for a solid 50 minutes, then did an encore. I had caught Ella before, of course, with the Oscar Peterson Trio and in other settings. But this night had a magic about it. When she heard the audience's applause and wild approval, she reminded them that "The records are still for sale, you know." (The world of CD's had not even been born yet, creating all the renewed sales that that would generate.)

Next on stage came comedian Pat Henry to do about 15 minutes with lines like: "Fill this orchestra pit with water and Frank will walk on it. I wish they would make Frank the Pope, then we'd only have to kiss his ring."
spaceAnd then...the man himself. In front of the Count Basie Orchestra! Mr. Sinatra was in great form that night. He wanted to perform. There was no mistaking that. Anyone who has followed the man and his music can tell when he's giving a perfunctory performance, rising to the occasion, or truly wants to be on that stage singing, "Is it an earthquake or is it a shock?"
spaceHis voice and delivery were top-notch and so was his disposition, complete with a 20-minute monologue halfway through the hour-long segment of the show. He did lines about Rhona Barrett and other media people he currently held in distain; but he did it with humor and style. And when he ended the show and headed off stage, the crowd was on its feet as one, calling for more.
spaceThe spotlight stayed their on the stage-left wing, the band vamping. But no Frank. "Darn," I thought, "don't tell me that after putting on such a great show, he's going to spoil it now by not even coming out for an encore or even a bow." More vamping. And then . . .(for those of you who are thinking "this isn't about Ella"). . .out walks a beaming Frank Sinatra. And in his left hand is...the right hand of a beaming Ella Fitzgerald. The crowd is doing backflips by now.

And over the pandemonium, Mr. Sinatra announces in his favored "Kingfish" voice: "Guess who gonna sing a duet."
spaceAnd then this living-legend pair, these never-to-be-topped singing icons--these all-time best male and all-time best female vocalists, pop music's two greatest exponents--launch into "She gets too hungry for dinner at 8..." and sing a warm, dynamic version of "That's Why the Lady is a *Champ*."
spaceThat's right, when Frank's lines came, he sang "Champ." I felt then, and like to believe now, that it was more than a nod to "political correctness," that the Chairman of the Board wanted to be clear...that he wanted there to be no mistaking his words ...that the one thing he wanted there to be no misunderstanding about was his love and admiration for The First Lady of Song...

  Miss Ella Fitzgerald.

spaceVance Garnett
Washington, D.C.

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