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Ella 101: Cry Me a River (Day 31 of 101)

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

In yesterday's post, I discussed Ella Fitzgerald's involvement in the Jack Webb film Pete Kelly's Blues, and shared her two musical numbers from the movie. I've also discussed in a few posts Ella's career-long desire for a big pop hit she never found.

A third song was written for Ella to sing onscreen, but didn't make it into the film. As a result, it ended up becoming a major hit for another singer.

In 1953, actor and jazz aficionado Jack Webb was knee-deep in planning for Pete Kelly's Blues, a Prohibition Era gangster drama set mostly in the jazz clubs of 1927 Kansas City. In fact, 38 jazz songs are either fully or partially performed during the film. Webb hired Ella Fitzgerald for a small role, and her two songs are the biggest highlights of a mostly mediocre movie experience.

During production planning, Webb was nearing the end of his marriage to failed actress Julie London. When he decided he wanted Ella and the film's other major jazz singer, Peggy Lee, to sing some original tunes and not a soundtrack of standards, London reached out to an old high school classmate she remembered for his songwriting talent. She located Arthur Hamilton, her senior high school prom date, and asked if he was still writing music.

"I was," Hamilton later said, "but I was writing them on the backs of prescription blanks, working as a delivery boy for a prominent drugstore chain."

London and Webb asked him to craft some new musical material for the picture, and out came three songs: "He Needs Me" and the now commonly known "Sing a Rainbow" (both introduced in the film by Peggy Lee, who received an Academy Award nomination for her performance), and one for Ella called "Cry Me a River."

"I had never heard of the phrase," Hamilton said of the title, which is now a oft-heard sentiment in ironic situations, "but it sounded like a good, smart retort to somebody who had broken your heart."

Webb, however, was a stickler for verisimilitude, and insisted everything in the film be true to the setting. Which meant, to him, audiences wouldn't believe a black woman in 1920s Kansas City singing the word "plebian" in the bridge of a song. He asked Hamilton to change it, Hamilton refused, and the number was dropped from the film.

Two years later, it was 1955; Pete Kelly's Blues had come and gone from theaters, Webb and London had been divorced for a year, and London had found a second career as a jazz singer with the encouragement of her new boyfriend, pianist/singer/songwriter Bobby Troup (composer of Nat King Cole's "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66" and Little Richard's "The Girl Can't Help It").

Hamilton played the song for London, and she immediately fell in love with it, and saw in it something of her past relationship with Webb. She asked to record it, Hamilton agreed, and she did as a last-minute time filler at the end of a recording session with bassist Ray Leatherwood and guitarist Barney Kessel, a frequent accompanist for Ella Fitzgerald.

The recording is a knockout, a masterpiece of chilly, smoldering defiance. Released the same year as Pete Kelly's Blues, Julie's recording of "Cry Me a River" was a top 10 hit, staying on the pop chart for 20 weeks.

Ella finally had her way with the tune six years later, recording it on June 23, 1961, accompanied by frequent sidemen Lou Levy (piano), Herb Ellis (guitar), Joe Mondragon (bass), and Gus Johnson (drums). Released on that year's Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! (which also included our Day 7 selection, "A Night in Tunisia"), the record opens with a very similar feel to the original recording, particularly with Ellis' guitar strumming - but Ella enters with almost ghostly howling that chills right to the bone, like a heartbroken lover's anguished wail in the night. It instantly establishes a mood of loneliness and suffering, before she's even said a word.

But after the first moments, Ella and the band wisely veer in a blues direction, with a swaggering beat and a satisfyingly tart vocal approach that makes it uniquely her own.

Keep scrolling below for a live performance from the '70s, and studio recording from the same era that didn't see the light of day until 2007.

Ella returned to the song in 1975 with Joe Pass, a guitarist who became a frequent duet collaborator with Ella in the '70s and '80s. Note Ella reading the sheet music; the song never became a regular part of her repertoire, so before deciding to do it with Pass that year, she probably hadn't sung it in a long time.


That same year, Ella and Pass took it into the studio, but the track ended up in a vault somewhere until 2007, when a number of archival and tribute albums were released in honor of Ella's 90th birthday. Concord Records' Love Letters From Ella was produced by Gregg Field, who served as her drummer in 1985 - 86, and included unreleased studio material from the 1970s with Count Basie, Andre Previn, and Joe Pass.

In an interesting twist, much of the Joe Pass material was overdubbed with a full rhythm section for most of the tracks, and his accompaniment on "Cry Me a River" was replaced with a new backing arrangement played by the London Symphony Orchestra.

"I thought that was a great idea," Field said. "Ella, to my knowledge, never recorded with a major symphony. For me, the London Symphony is as good as it gets. Early on, I thought that would make this record an event."


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.

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Duante Beddingfield, a Dayton native, has hosted Equinox since 2018; he now records the show from his home in Michigan, where he works as arts and culture reporter for the Detroit Free Press. Previously, he served as jazz writer for both the Dayton Daily News and Dayton City Paper, booked jazz acts for area venues such as Pacchia and Wholly Grounds, and performed regularly around the region as a jazz vocalist; Beddingfield was the final jazz headliner to play Dayton's legendary Gilly's nightclub.