TOPICS > Nation

Remembering Ella Fitzgerald

June 17, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELLA FITZGERALD SINGING: The way you wear your hat. The way you sip your tea. The memory of all that, no, no, they can’t take that away from me. The way your smile just beams. The way you sing off key. The way you haunt my dreams. No, no, they can’t take that away from me. We may never never meet again on that bumpy road to love. Still, I’ll always, always keep the memory of the way you hold your knife, the way we danced till three, the way you changed my life, no, no, they can’t take that away from me. No, they can’t take that away from me.

JIM LEHRER: For more, here is Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles.

JEFFREY KAYE: Joining me now to talk about and to remember Ella Fitzgerald is singer Mel Torme. Mr. Torme, thank you very much for joining us.

MEL TORME, Singer: (Los Angeles) It’s a pleasure.

JEFFREY KAYE: You have described Ella Fitzgerald as the greatest singer on the planet.

MEL TORME: Absolutely.

JEFFREY KAYE: Those are powerful words. Why?

MEL TORME: Well, because she encompassed the kind of singing that dealt with jazz, that dealt with singing the popular song as only she could, and I felt that male or female, male or female, she was it. She was the best singer on the planet.

JEFFREY KAYE: You, as we were talking before, tell me that you pay tribute to her in every one of your shows. Why? Why do you do that? What has she meant to you?

MEL TORME: Well, she’s a path finder. She’s the leader. She recorded a song called “You Showed Me the Way.” And I think that’s a perfect epithet for her, the fact that she showed not only me but virtually every singer of worth that I can think of, she showed them the way.

JEFFREY KAYE: Meaning what?

MEL TORME: Meaning that she pioneered scat singing, she pioneered the kind of ballads that she sang with great heart, with great warmth, with great maturity, and consequently, we all leaned on her, we all said, okay, we’re following in your footsteps. You lead us on.

JEFFREY KAYE: Now, you say she pioneered scat singing. I hate to have to do this, but I’m sure there are some in our audience who may not know what scat singing is.

MEL TORME: Well, scat singing is the alter ego of what instrumentalists play–a tenor saxophone player, a trumpet player–when they improvise on their horns, scat singing is the implementation of the voice singing extemporaneously. And that’s what Ella did better than anybody ever.

JEFFREY KAYE: But she also had this tremendous versatility, didn’t she? I mean, jazz and blues and scat and pop and Beatles and country and western, and–

MEL TORME: Oh, yeah.

JEFFREY KAYE: –everything else.

MEL TORME: Ella could sing anything. She was at home singing any form of music, and she sang with great authority, which is kind of interesting. In other words, she never fumbled when she sang that kind of music.

JEFFREY KAYE: You first met her when?

MEL TORME: I met Ella when I was about 17 years old, and we’ve been friends ever since. I was, I was absolutely crazy about her. It was devastating to her about her passing, even though we all expected it, because she was quite a sick woman for a long time. But, you know, the actual news of her going is, is heartbreaking.

JEFFREY KAYE: Mm-hmm. How did she change professionally over, over the years?

MEL TORME: You know, she didn’t change a lot. Ella had a very wonderful quality. When she sang rhythm songs or scat, she had a kind of little girl quality. When you listened to her even in her fifties or sixties, Ella sounded like she was fourteen years old. And that was charming, charming. But she also turned around and when she sang the ballads, as I said, again, at the risk of being, uh, of repeating myself, she sang them with great authority. She sang them with great understanding, with great warmth, so she was a two-headed coin that way. She was a little girl/woman.

JEFFREY KAYE: Would you consider her a seminole figure? Did she influence others? I mean, she obviously has tremendous qualities, herself, but to what extent did she contribute to the form?

MEL TORME: Well, I can only tell you that she influenced me greatly. I mean, from the very beginning, when I started to sing seriously, jazz, Ella Fitzgerald was the role model. She was the person upon whom I looked, and, uh, I do think that she influenced a tremendous amount of singers, although there isn’t a singer today who has come along who can follow in her footsteps. I can’t point to one girl and say, ah, well, this girl will take up the banner and, you know, go through the field now that Ella’s gone.

JEFFREY KAYE: But when you say influence, what do you mean? You listened to her records and tried to ape her, tried to do what she did, or–

MEL TORME: Some people tried to ape her, although that was very difficult to do. I think mostly because of the approach that she took to singing that many girl singers said, I want to follow in those footsteps. Now that may be specious on my part. I may not be telling you precisely what they were doing.


MEL TORME: But they were from the standpoint of intonation–by that I mean singing in tune–from the standpoint of her swinging quality, uh, so many reasons that girls, girls particularly aped Ella–I’m not sure they aped her. I think that they merely hooked onto her and gleaned from Ella. They gleaned the good stuff from Ella.

JEFFREY KAYE: Good. And I guess we’ll be gleaning good stuff for years to come.

MEL TORME: Oh, boy, absolutely, absolutely.

JEFFREY KAYE: Mel Torme, thank you very much for joining us.

MEL TORME: Thank you.