There are a handful of Ella’s albums for Verve that more obscure or forgotten than the rest, and These Are the Blues from 1964 is one of them. Some of them, ironically, include some of her best work, such as the Whisper Not collection, but this blues album doesn’t fall into that category. It finds her in a small-group setting, led by Wild Bill Davis on organ.
The organ is the first of the issues with the album. As with the later with-organ album Lady Time from the late 1970s, it fails to give her the rhythmic drive that a piano-led combo or full big band can. It may be fitting for the blues, but it’s not fitting for Ella Fitzgerald. But then, for the most part, neither are the blues themselves.
The impression one gets when listening to the album is that Fitzgerald doesn’t really know what to do with these songs. She was fine with throwing in a blues song into an album project or a concert, but here she’s faced with ten of them. She was not a blues singer in the first place, although she successfully included them in her live shows from the ’50s onwards (maybe before). But in those cases, she took a blues number and moulded it into something that fit her. In the case of this studio album, she does almost the opposite in that she tries to fit the songs, and she often loses all identity. For a good third of the album she sounds more like Pearl Bailey than Ella Fitzgerald – check out the spoken “this house is surely getting raided” at the beginning of the LP for proof of that (and here how uncomfortable she sounds saying it). Elsewhere she sounds more like Dinah Washington, and she also sometimes seems to be channelling Bessie Smith. She was doing party-piece style impressions of Dinah and Pearl as part of her live shows around this time (normally in her version of Bill Bailey), and that can be fun – but it doesn’t work when she does it for a full song and in a serious number (and probably doesn’t realise she is doing it either).
In concert, even without the impressions, she could be remarkably impressive on a blues number. Check out her version of “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” that was the encore for her concert at Montreux in 1975. It is stunning. The same is true when she launched into what she often referred to as a “Joe Williams Blues,” a fast blues that she would ultimately turn into a masterclass in improvisation. But those are more about improvisation than blues.
On These Are the Blues, she occasionally does use the song as a launchpad for improvisation, most notably on Trouble In Mind when the faster tempo kicks in. But the song loses all meaning. This eight bar blues is essentially a song about suicide – but Ella can’t help but give it a happy ending. On the uptempo repeat of the verse with the lyrics “I’m gonna lay my head on some lonesome railroad line/Let the 2.19 train ease my troubled mind” she changes them to “I’m gonna lay my head on some lonesome track/But when I hear that whistle, I’m just gonna pull it back.” But at least the song DOES sound like an Ella number, unlike some of the others. Elsewhere she works through something like See See Rider at something of a snail’s pace, and with no obvious awareness of where it’s going. Even St Louis Blues, which she often sang in concert so brilliantly, is disappointing, sung at a slow pace and with Ella seemingly making up verses as she goes along, with half of them not making any sense – and for over six minutes.
The irony here is that there was a blues album in Ella. In 1996, a blues album was pulled together from her studio and live albums at Pablo, with whom she recorded from 1972 through to the end of her career nearly twenty years later. There, on a label with no intentions of bowing to commercial interests (check out the covers!), Ella worked entirely in the jazz genre, with Norman Granz placing her in various combos and bands. So on “Bluella” (as the compilation is called), we get her wonderful version of Fine and Mellow from 1974, sung with a combo; Basella, Duke’s Place with the Duke Ellington orchestra, and a stunning ten minute C Jam Blues with Count Basie and his band. If you want to hear Ella singing the blues, then that’s the place to go. These Are the Blues is out of print on CD – and, for once, that might be for a good reason.