Ella 101: When I Get Low (Day 13 of 101)

May 7, 2018

"My fur coat's sold,
Oh, Lord, ain't it cold
But I'm not gonna holler
Cuz i still got a dollar,
And when I get low..."

So let's reach way back and talk about this weird anomaly from early in Ella Fitzgerald's singing career. Ella made her name singing in drummer Chick Webb's big band before striking out on her own in the late '40s.

On April 7, 1936, the band recorded this strikingly jaunty ditty about a female drunk or junkie--it's hard to tell for sure, because back then, "high" was also a synonym for "drunk." (See the lyrics from Bessie Smith's 1928 "Me and My Gin," also covered by Dinah Washington 30 years later, for a clear example of this.)

Um...there's not a lot to say about this song. It's a real oddity, especially for Ella, and the jubilant, bouncy arrangement and the melody's syncopated, "Puttin' on the Ritz"-style stutter step suggest wildly fun times, but the lyrics are dark and also somewhat violent and the subject of the song is an impoverished, addicted lowlife who probably won't live much longer.

There's not really much to say about the vocal, either, because the brevity of the lyrics and the snappy tempo don't really leave Ella anything to work with. It's just really strange and for that alone, it stands out in her catalog.

There are a handful of other, really left-field singles from very early in her career that don't fit at all with what came during her more famous years, but heard together, they begin to form an interesting picture. Keep that in mind; we'll touch on some of those other tunes down the line.

Fiona Apple, by the way, has performed "When I Get Low" at live shows for years, going back to her 2007 acoustic tour with bluegrass group Nickel Creek. It's a much better fit for her style and persona, and you won't hear me say this often about a cover of something most famously done by Ella, but in Fiona's hands, it's a much better song.

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.