Ella 101: Just A Closer Walk (Day 14 of 101)

May 8, 2018

Another unusual, unique entry in Ella Fitzgerald's extensive recording career, this is likely the sexiest version of "Just a Closer Walk" you'll ever hear, but before we get into that, a bit of history.

1967 marked the end of Ella's peak period as both a recording artist and a vocalist as she entered her fifties and departed from the Verve record label, where she'd spent more than two decades scoring triumph after triumph on vinyl. Her celebrated voice had begun to show small signs of wear, and over the next eight years, she would hop from label to label, recording nine largely lackluster albums for five different houses.

Capitol, Reprise, MPS, Atlantic, Columbia - no one seemed to have the slightest clue what to do with one of the most beloved singers on the planet as jazz, Tin Pan Alley standards, classic Broadway musicals, and the Great American Songbook fell out of favor, eclipsed by the mighty Motown sound, the Beatles' increasingly adventurous material, and the rise of psychedelic rock. The glamour days of the Rat Pack, cocktail music, and bebop frenzy were for people's parents (or grandparents!), and many jazz musicians would soon find themselves forced to take new directions in their records or fall back on touring - and many of the genre's most famous bands were forced to hang it up.

Even Ella Fitzgerald, a legend at age 50, was floundering. Her longtime manager/producer, Norman Granz, had left Verve after steering her biggest successes (he continued to manage her touring), and she needed to find a new musical home. Capitol must have seemed like a natural choice; in the past decade, it had played host at one time or another to a starry roster of her big-name contemporaries: Nat "King" Cole, Peggy Lee, June Christy, Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, Dinah Washington, Mel Tormé, Julie London, Lou Rawls, Louis Prima, and Lena Horne, plus Frank AND Sammy AND Dean. Some of the finest 'singers-and-standards' records of all time had been crafted in the Capitol Records tower. If Ella couldn't be at Verve, Capitol made sharp sense.

And yet, the four albums she released during her brief, two-year stay present a downright *baffling* slate of material. In 1967, the queen of jazz kicked off her Capitol residency with two back-to-back gospel albums, because apparently several people with money and power got into a room together and decided that made sense.

So the world was given Brighten the Corner, 14 tracks of tried-and-true hymns from "The Old Rugged Cross" to "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" - and boy, is it a miserable affair. With only the exception of the track posted here, no attempt whatsoever appears to have been made to mold these classics to suit Ella's talents or showcase her instrument - everything is done turgidly straight, ploddingly slow, and devoid of the originality, sparkle, and soul evident in her Verve work.

Worse still, the album that followed it (a deathly dull collection of religious Christmas hymns, despite the fact that she'd recorded a fabulous album of secular holiday music seven years prior) was handled in exactly the same fashion.

Ella was a woman of deep faith and surely must have felt some connection to the material, but it doesn't really show, and her vocals are mostly snoozy and free of innovation or risk, and both albums (as do almost all of the albums she recorded for each label during this struggle period) also drown her out with the sort of heavy, ponderous choir backup that was so ubiquitous during that era.

These two religious albums may be the biggest question mark in her catalogue. Why did they happen? Why did they have to happen this way?? There is just no good reason these two albums couldn't have taken standard church music and repackaged it as something accessible to all; if Sister Rosetta Tharpe (the godmother of rock and roll - Google that name!) could do it, if Elvis could, Ella could too.

Case in point: this song, which recasts the old spiritual in the mold of a bluesy torch song with a jazz trio and a little bit of barroom piano reminiscent of Bill Miller or Cy Coleman. Ella gives the reverent lyrics a surprisingly steamy reading. It's really something to see how much she does with very little; the lusty approach is tempered by great restraint, like an extended tease. You can almost imagine someone leaning against a piano in a half-lit bar, cigarette smoke curling upward. It feels kind of smashing and revolutionary and a little dangerously naughty.

And yet, it's far from perfect: the damn Ralph Stanley Choir keeps thudding in like a lead brick and stomping all over the groove (it really only works if you try to tune them out).

And, again, Ella's voice was at the start of what would be a steep decline over the next decade. The infallible Ella stumbles on the very first note of the song (and, amazingly, they chose the take anyway!), and a careful ear can hear her struggle a little in one or two more spots. Her vibrato had also begun to widen with age; this compared to, say, something from The Cole Porter Songbook shows a fairly notable difference just in that element alone.

But she makes it work, and the arrangement lets her show a little flavor and hue. So why was the rest of this album, and the next one (and most of the flat-out bad ones that follow) so stodgy and bland? We'll never know.

That eight-year label jumping period is a real loss and waste among her studio work. By the time Granz founded the Pablo label in 1975 and took her under his wing once more, her voice was a very different instrument and we'd lost precious time in which she could've squeezed out a few more truly great albums.

Ella continued to record into the early 1990s (winning yet another Grammy for her final album), and she remained a formidable live performer, but her studio records never again found the level of quality she had at Verve.

Ella 101 is a daily look at 101 essential recordings by Ella Fitzgerald, who was born 101 years ago this month. Tune in to Equinox, Monday nights from 8 - 11 p.m. on WYSO, to hear Ella and more great jazz with host Duante Beddingfield.