Vocal Heros: The incredible vanishing woman: 'She is a songwriter's dream: a singer who responds to imperatives in the songs.' Giles Smith celebrates the art of Ella Fitzgerald

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ELLA FITZGERALD, who has never had a music lesson in her life, doesn't bother to warm up her voice before a show. But then, evidently she is always singing or humming anyway, so why heat up what's already hot? 'All I want,' she has said, 'is for people to say, 'That lady sure sings those songs pretty'.' Which is not asking much.

She sounds like a clarinet, as if her vocal chords were made of polished wood, and all through her career, we have listened to the records and decided that she sure sings those songs pretty. We still don't know much about 'that lady', though. Fitzgerald is pop music's most uncanny disappearing trick. When Billie Holiday sings 'Stormy Weather', you are listening to a cracked piece of autobiography, insistently tense with a life beyond the performance. When Fitzgerald sings it, there is nothing in the warm grain of the voice to distract you from the song, and nothing about the experience seems private, nothing seems obscured. Her mission is not self-expression and her virtues are of a different order. She is a songwriter's dream: a singer who responds to imperatives in the songs, clicks a light on over their wit.

Very often, this is a matter of playing down rather than whooping up. Compare her version of the Johnny Mercer love song, 'Too Marvellous for Words' with Frank Sinatra's shot at it on Songs for Swingin' Lovers. Sinatra can't resist the allure of the supposedly useless adjectives the song makes its play on. He teases them out, exploits the vowels, noodles around with them: 'Glorious, glamorous and that old stand-by, amorous.' But Fitzgerald delivers them all as clipped triplets, which for one thing sets a speedy rhythm inside the easy swing of Nelson Riddle's arrangement, and for another, gets to the matter of the song. The point about these words is that 'they just aren't swell enough', so she doesn't inflate them.

It is not that she never stretches out. In fact, coming out of a context of concentrated propriety, it is always that much more surprising when she does. Her best place for cutting loose is on a repeated bridge. She'll cross it smoothly first time around: second time, she'll burn it. 'Too Marvellous' is a case in point (listen to the extraordinary scale she throws, out of nowhere, around the words 'Webster's Dictionary'). And 'Night and Day' is another where, for the second pass, she re-works the line 'There's an Oh, such a hungry yearning, burning inside of me', filling it with air and stray grace notes.

Not everything she sings lifts her up in this way. In the Fitzgerald repertoire, anything goes. This means we have to settle for some lapses of taste. Her first big hit, recorded on 2 May 1938, was the song 'A-Tisket A- Tasket' - a piece of verbal froth whipped up from a nursery rhyme. Fitzgerald co-wrote it, and it betrays the sweet tooth she has never lost. While signed to Decca (1935 to 1955), her repertoire grew fat on sugary consonants and marzipan vowels: she recorded 'Deedle-De-Dum', 'Chew Chew Chew (Your Bubblegum)' and (almost unbelievably) 'My Wubba Dolly'. Later, even when singing jazz and touring with the slick Illinois Jacquet Band, she would still feel the desire to throw in a quick burst of 'The Woody Woodpecker Song'. On her last visit to London, one interviewer found her seriously contemplating adding the theme tune from Neighbours to her song-list.

And yet this fascination with the saccharine and the childish does issue in something central to her vocal style. The burble and blather which is scat-singing (improvised, wordless vocal noise) is not really so far removed from baby-talk. Dizzy Gillespie's 'Ooo-Bop-Sha-Bam-a-Klook-a- Mop' is, in some respects, only 'My Wubba Dolly' writ large. Fitzgerald peppered 'Flying Home' (1947) with scat, and happened on a party trick with lasting value.

It is hard to imagine anything more scary for a singer than shooting out on a limb beyond both the tune and the lyric. Yet however daring Fitzgerald's scatting is, however unerring its execution, you would always rather hear her handle words, especially given that she had the best words to handle. Her most consistent records were made during her period with the Verve label (1955 to 1966), when she worked her way through the catalogues of the great American popular songwriters - Cole Porter, George and Ira Gerswhin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington - producing the Songbook series. The project had an almost academic rigour (the introductory verse- pieces which had fallen off many of these songs with wear, were faithfully restored), but Fitzgerald did much more than simply cover the ground.

Her most popular song with British audiences emerged from this period: Porter's 'Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye'. For ages the antipathy of radio programmers towards anything jazz- tinged kept the best part of Fitzgerald's repertoire off the airwaves. But 'Ev'ry Time' nipped under the wire and on to the Forces' request programme, Two-Way Family Favourites, where it was spun to exhaustion. The writer Stuart Nicholson calls it a 'We'll Meet Again' for the Cold War generation. But even after its over-exposure, you can still detect a key Fitzgerald moment. 'Ev'ry time we say goodbye, I die a little' says the lyric, and only Fitzgerald could sit back off the line and find the appropriate mood for that little death. Like the line, her delivery is a miracle of mildness. Contrast the version recorded by Annie Lennox for the pop Porter tribute album, Red Hot & Blue, where the song has become an excuse for a display of personal agony and hand- wringing quite contrary to its spirit.

This perpetual self-effacement in the songs carries over into her public life. When Nicholson came to write her biography (published this summer), he found himself working from scratch. His first duty was to relocate her date of birth, which is given in all the reference books as 25 April 1918, but is in fact 25 April 1917. Which means that when MCA celebrate her 75th birthday with a special record release next month, they've already missed it.

It's odd that we could be so imprecise about someone so precise. Essential to Fitzgerald's deliveries is pinpoint rhythmic placement. Take her version of Irving Berlin's 'Puttin' on the Ritz'. The verse calls for tricky, staccato leaps, to and fro across awkward intervals (fifths and octaves) but she flies between them and never misses cue or key.

And the precision persists right to the foot of her range (which is deep enough, incidentally, to handle an extraordinary Louis Armstrong impression: see the 1957 live album, At Newport). She sings Berlin's 'Let's Face the Music and Dance', and calls on a rounded tone which is perfectly attuned to the light melancholy at the song's heart. Let's live a little, says the song, 'Before they ask us to pay the bill'. In the civilised world described by Berlin's lyric, what goes for impending doom is a matter of paying the bill, rather than paying the price. It takes Fitzgerald to make that mildly- troubled glide come off, while at the same time nailing the F below middle C which is the verse's resolving note.

Fitzgerald lives secluded in Beverly Hills now. She uses a wheelchair and has bad eyes, but she still gives the occasional show. Early on, she would spend entire performances with her hands clenched behind her back. And right through her career, that self- conciousness has lingered, making her a nearly static figure, drenched in sweat, her face slightly turned from the microphone, eyes closed or down- turned, her mouth twisting the muscles in her face. Self-consciousness in a performer can spread through an audience fast and chill it. And yet the disappearing trick Fitzgerald has managed on record, she has pulled off in person, too. The audiences that watch her are steered to look beyond her, to the voice and the songs.

The Ella Fitzgerald Songbook series is available on the Verve label.

'Ella Fitzgerald' by Stuart Nicholson is published by Gollancz this June.

(Photograph omitted)