I have worked with literally hundreds of great performers over the course of my career, and I often get asked the question, “Who was your favourite of all time?” Without hesitation my reply is always, Ella Fitzgerald. So it is only fitting that I begin the “Royal York” series with my first experience with the iconic singer.
I had just started my contract when Ella was booked to appear at the Royal York in September of 1974. As you can imagine, I was excited. When I read her contract, one of the requirements was for an 18-piece band (double the size of our house band). I also noticed that instead of the usual 2 ½ hours of rehearsal, she had stipulated that we must have four. Her charts were tough, and I heard that she had been less than happy with the previous bands she’d worked with. Ella always felt that her audience deserved a first rate performance.
On the afternoon of her arrival, we anxiously awaited the downbeat at rehearsal. Ella always travelled with her trio, and on this day, they were the first to arrive on stage. Tommy Flanagan was her music director, with Keter Betts on bass and Bobby Durham on drums. (My band later told me that Durham’s playing was so dead-on, they didn’t even need to count rests.) The trio ran through a few charts with us and then Ella’s manager brought her down from her suite. She walked straight to Flanagan and they began a private dialog. (It is customary for a music director to let the performer know what they are up against.) I couldn’t hear what they were saying because they were speaking in lowered tones, but as he spoke I could see a smile come across her face. That was a good sign.
Ella had us run through all the charts with her– which took under two hours. Just when I expected her to start at the top and do it all again, she said, “That’s fine, boys. We won’t need to run through them again.” Everyone was dismissed to go home. We had met her approval and didn’t need the four hours of rehearsal after all. I was very proud of the band – they were some of the finest musicians in the country.
That evening after the guests had finished dinner, the band set up to play a half hour of dance charts. These were pops charts that I’d written, and they were intended to get the audience up dancing before the headliner. The crowd that night was younger than the regular Imperial Room clientele. The big band/jazz singers – like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson and Peggy Lee – always brought in a younger crowd. As you might expect, the place was packed!
Everyone was abuzz with anticipation when the moment finally arrived and Ella was cued to enter. She appeared classy and elegant in a long, beaded gown. There was no need for elaborate lighting or extravagance – her mere presence was enough to fill the room. When she sang, her voice was captivating. She could really make you feel the mood of the song. She had flawless intonation and a wonderfully broad range. She hit every note without the slightest hint of effort. She was sensational.
Her show ran for two weeks, and we were fortunate to have her appear five more times before she retired. Each time she returned I got to know her better. I’ll be sure to add more stories about these shows in later blog posts.
If you have a memory of Ella Fitzgerald, please feel free to share it in a comment below.