Entertainment » Music

Ann Hampton Callaway Recalls the Ella (as in Fitzgerald) Century

by John Amodeo
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Sep 12, 2017

In these divisive times, one singer, Tony Award nominee and MAC Award winner Ann Hampton Callaway, has found a way to unite our disparate society by bringing the universally loved music of Ella Fitzgerald to the masses. "She could connect between jazz and pop, black and white, rich and poor," Callaway says of Fitzgerald. "She pulled people together."

An acclaimed interpreter and champion of the "Great American Songbook," Callaway has done tributes to so many of our great singers, such as Sarah Vaughan, and Barbra Streisand. But this year, in celebration of the centennial of Fitzgerald's birth, Callaway pays tribute to the "First Lady of Song" with her new show, "The Ella Century" which she is bringing to Scullers Jazz Club this Saturday, September 16.

This isn't the first time Callaway has paid tribute to Fitzgerald. In 1996, the year of Fitzgerald's death, Callaway released her recording "To Ella, With Love," which was so well received, she adapted it into a show and took on the road.

Callaway has personal reasons for singing the praises of Fitzgerald. "I learned to scat when I was two years old, singing to her records. She was my introduction to vocal jazz," recounts Callaway. "My father was such a huge fan. My dad would scat sing to Ella. I grew up as a baby listening to Ella on our family turntable mornings and nights."

Iconic vocalist

Fitzgerald is one of the most iconic female jazz vocalists in the history of American jazz, and in many ways set the standard for generations of singers to follow. Her life, which she kept very private, wasn't always easy. Orphaned at 15, Fitzgerald was raised at various times by relatives and in orphanages, eventually getting mixed up with nefarious characters. Her first big break was when she entered the Apollo Theatre Song Contest at the age of 17, winning first prize. She went on to become the girl singer for Chick Webb's big band, which helped launch her recording career. After years of success recording with Decca during the swing era of the 1940s, Fitzgerald switched to Verve in 1956, where, with the help of her visionary manager Norman Granz, she revolutionized the recording industry when she began doing her songbook series. This series, for the first time, made available to the public whole albums devoted to the songbooks of individual songwriters, such as Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hart, and Duke Ellington (with the Duke himself conducting the orchestra).

While Fitzgerald's recording and concert career was soaring during those Verve years, Callaway was growing up to her music, especially those recordings from the songbook series. "They were extremely important to me as a singer." declares Callaway. "These songs are the greatest songs ever written, and Ella put her stamp on them with her instrumentality. Her ability to tell the story of the song musically and as an interpreter was a delight."

However, it goes beyond that. To Callaway, these songbook recordings offered a unique opportunity for the general public to delve deeply into the oeuvre of the great songwriters. "To put them all on one recording, was such a gift," proclaims Callaway. "You could learn about the writers, and what the character of those songs were." Callaway goes further to say, "No home was complete without the complete Ella Fitzgerald Songbook Series."

A more mature singer

Callaway also admires the depth of Fitzgerald's vocal technique and jazz knowledge. "She learned with the greatest jazz instrumentalists, and she learned how to become a great jazz artist with the company she kept. Ella became better with that company," explains Callaway. She also thinks that working on the Songbook Series helped develop Fitzgerald 's interpretive skills. "It made her a more mature singer when she tackled these songs, Callaway notes. "They went beyond her novelty songs. That took her singing to a new level."

At this point, I opted to play devil's advocate, stating that I had often felt that Fitzgerald didn't appear to be connected to her lyrics, preferring to focus on the musicality of the song. Callaway was thoughtful for a moment, considering the validity of this challenge, and offered her very well considered perspective. "Ella was not a great actress. She didn't approach the songs with an acting sensibility, like Billie Holiday, whose life went into every song," Callaway concedes. "Holiday personalized those songs from the tragedy of her life." Not about to throw her heroine under the bus, however, Callaway offered a novel perspective. "Ella used a light touch with interpretation, to leave a little bit for you to add to it. That is a meaningful approach to offer listeners," countered Callaway. "Ella was a private person, but there is always a subliminal subtext. She was always smiling through her tears. She wanted to make people feel good."

Still, Callaway, herself, doesn't subscribe to that approach. "For me, I want to put my heart on my sleeve when I sing," confesses Callaway. "The lyric is always more important to me when I sing. I always ask myself what does my life history bring to those words."

A theatrical belter

It is this commitment to her work that has brought Callaway ongoing acclaim. Her shows and recordings have garnered numerous MAC Awards from the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs, as well as awards from Backstage Bistro and BroadwayWorld.com. Of her show "The Streisand Tribute," Stephen Holden of the New York Times gushed, "A wholehearted commitment is required to turn kitsch into gold and to loft a cri de coeur like 'A Piece of Sky,' the Michel Legrand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman ballad from 'Yentl,' into the stratosphere. As Ms. Callaway walloped it out of the ballpark, I reflected on how far she has come in the three decades since she was a polite piano bar entertainer newly arrived from Chicago. She has cultivated a jazz side modeled after her other singing idol, Ella Fitzgerald, and become a theatrical belter, with all the body language that goes with it."

Not only do the pundits praise her, but so do her peers. Her recent gig at Dizzy's in New York drew such theatre and cabaret luminaries as Betty Buckley, Marilyn Maye and Michael Feinstein. Feinstein and Buckley later appeared at 54 Below, and from the stage praised Callaway's show at Dizzy's. "It was an honor to have them speak about my singing in that way," blushed Callaway.

Social concerns

Like Fitzgerald before her, Callaway supports social causes through her music. Her father, John Callaway, was a serious television journalist in Chicago, and it was common for news stories, however grave, to be discussed at the dinner table in the Callaway household. Definitely her father's daughter, Callaway carries this social conscience into her work, particularly her songwriting.

Though better known for writing the whimsical and witty theme song to the hit television series "The Nanny," which starred Fran Drescher, Callaway's stirring anthem to the human spirit "At The Same Time," has been a quiet but powerful sensation. A number of popular singers have recorded it, and Streisand herself has recorded it twice. Written in 1991, the song still resonates today. Wanting to use the song to help heal some of the division in the world, Callaway has run photo and video contest, where the submissions are intended to visually demonstrate the song's themes. Over 500 submissions from 25 different countries poured in. Callaway plans to produce and distribute a video with clips of these photos and videos set to her song to demonstrate the power of love and unity.

Though she was speaking to me from the hospital where her mother, Shirley, once a highly sought after pianist and vocal coach, lies in critical care, Callaway remains infinitely hopeful and optimistic. Like Fitzgerald who sang through her tears with boundless joy and enthusiasm, Callaway too finds music as a source of joy and good in the world. "I'm so glad that sometimes some of the things I write can inspire and uplift people," contemplates Callaway. "Music can be the voice of hope and dreams and love. I will keep dreaming and hoping and loving as long as there is music."

Ann Hampton Callaway sings "The Ella Century" at Scullers Jazz Club, 400 Soldiers Field Road, Boston, MA 02134 on Saturday, September 16, at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tickets are $40. For Reservations, call 866-777-8932 or visit Scullers website.

For more on Ann Hampton Callaway, visit her website.

Watch Ann Hampton Callaway sing the Gershwins' "Someone To Watch Over Me":

John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.


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