By John H. Haley
Harmony Restorations LLC
It will come as no surprise to anyone to read the statement that Ella Fitzgerald had a very unusual voice. I have never heard one like it, in either popular or classical worlds. By nature, it was a wide-ranging light soprano voice, very flexible, and blessed with natural brightness and clarity. As she used it, over a career that lasted five and a half decades, it remained comfortably produced without undue effort, remarkably steady in tone, extremely sure in pitch, and at her best, what I would call infused with a warm, beguiling, honeyed color. That was a color that is associated with lighter female popular voices, but in her case it moved with the ease, purity and grace of a well-developed operatic singer, though not with the element of projection that an operatic singer must have. Like all 20th century pop and jazz artists since about 1930, she relied on a microphone for basic projection. But unlike most popular singers, she was capable of transfixing her listeners, placing us in a virtual trance, based upon the sheer, uncanny beauty of flowing tone she could serve up in a ballad. Her uncomplicated vibrato centered pitches perfectly, allowing her to sculp phrases as if etching them in the air. As much as we would like to be able to analyze and explain the effect of her singing, how she could induce such a pop-voice sound to carry out so successfully the duties more generally associated with a much differently trained classical voice remains partially a mystery.
Her remarkable control over her uncommon vocal instrument was married to an adventurous artistic sense that was even more unusual than her voice. She was the mistress of a very wide range of musical styles, easily encompassing pop, swing, jazz, blues and what is now called Great American Songbook standards, with added extras being her unique abilities to playfully scat sing, improvise both words and music on the spot, interject her performing with direct connections to her audience in the way that a good stand-up comic does—without breaking her musical stride, and employ extremes of range for expressive purposes. With clarity of diction and soulfulness of delivery, she further had available in her arsenal the great gift of simplicity of utterance, emphatically putting across the meaning of a song with total conviction, through completely musical means. More than one commentator has stated that she made you think that she knew personally what she was singing about, in making us understand and feel the emotional depth of sorrowful songs. This is of course the mark of a great artist, to make us believe that the performer (who is undeniably “acting” when portraying the essence of a song while performing it for us), is truly experiencing the emotions being portrayed.
Further, as a performer in front of an audience, she was completely fearless and at ease, happy to experiment and try unusual things seemingly without the slightest concern for possibly negative consequences. Audiences were understandably thrilled. Split-second adaptions to whatever was occurring in her musical surroundings were a given, and she did not hesitate to poke fun at herself, mid-song, where something had not gone as planned, instantly endearing her to her audiences. Her spectacular musical virtuosity was such that she could easily hold her own in the wacky world of bebop jazz artists, where a bunch of audacious instrumental geniuses would vie for dominance with astonishing presentations of display. Their rhythmic and harmonic complexities presented her with no obstacle—she had completely mastered their dense musical genre.
From a purely technical standpoint, Fitzgerald’s voice had an unusual structure. Her earliest recordings from the swing era, starting when she was in her late teens, display a “cute,” slender, girlish and rather immature sound, though sparked with vibrant personality and the rhythmic vitality essential for swing music. Her sound worked so well in such music that she became a star, rising from an unlikely personal background that included misery and poverty. That initial bright, girlish quality persisted to a large extent as she matured, as she added darker colors and a stronger, though still soprano-ish, lower range to her singing. Her initial inability to blast and belt harshly was undoubtedly a saving grace and one of the keys to her development—if she was going to expand her emotional range and her ability to encompass different kinds of material, she was going to need to learn how to employ means other than sheer force to accomplish these goals. At this point she obviously mastered the ability to use what she had without screeching or screaming, not relying on sheer volume or a booming sound to accomplish her musical goals. We will never know what effects she attempted and then abandoned because she could not make them work for her, in her particular voice. The result was a quite solid, virtually bullet-proof vocal technique, with her possessing full knowledge of what she could accomplish with her lighter voice and what she could not. Screaming did not end up in her vocal vocabulary.
Fitzgerald’s mature voice maintained the warm color that “belt-voice” pop singers have, but without the limitations of range that kind of sound generally imposes. This characteristic indicates that her predominant sound was an adaptation of her natural “middle voice,” employing a “heady” mixture that allowed her to sing higher without apparent strain. Female pop and Broadway singers who can belt very high, a virtual requirement today, are almost always sopranos, often lighter ones. Examples abound—Linda Ronstadt, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, etc. The most successful ones often develop this kind of “heady mix” that maintains the basic color while facilitating a higher range with greater comfort.
As with a number of what we consider great voices, though less often heard in singers employing a pop-style tone, the natural registers of Fitzgerald’s voice blended so well that seams were not obvious. She employed her light soprano chest tones to good effect at the bottom of her range, even producing a darker color suitable for darker material, but her shift to that register was held low, without the kind of braying that is heard from operatic sopranos. Most of her singing stayed in her well-developed, light-toned middle voice, which maintained its “pop” color while moving up the scale, with crispness and clarity dominating over depth of tone. On top of this extended middle voice, she had available surprising high notes, often touched in flights of fanciful improvisation but sometimes sustained. These upper notes continued to match up and integrate well with the rest of her voice, though not produced with the strength of an operatic singer. In middle age, she was still able to surprise us with flights as high as a soprano’s B natural off the staff. To my ears, the evenness of her registers remains one of the most surprising things encountered in her singing. The problems that often erupt over time in abused popular voices—harsh tone, unsteadiness, separation of registers resulting in obvious holes and breaks—are simply absent.
As Fitzgerald reached later middle age, her voice exhibited the natural darkening of tone that occurs in most female voices, and a certain light raspiness sometimes intruded into what had been that golden middle voice. Undeterred, she carried right on, making it just another part of her expressive arsenal. But even with her roughest tones, a tonal purity still lurked not too far in the background, making itself heard at key moments. In particular, as she reached the upper part of her middle register, the tone would often clear up and its natural beauty would reassert itself.
If one had to come up with a one-word description of Fitzgerald’s vocal art, it would probably be “complete.” The unusually wide range of her talents continues to fascinate us upon every encounter.
John H. Haley is an acclaimed audio restoration engineer who has worked in virtually all audio media. He is also a retired attorney who practiced as a commercial lawyer for 40+ years in New York and New Jersey. He holds a Bachelor of Music degree from University of North Texas with concentration in voice and piano, and while in college he served as a professional chorister for the Dallas Civic Opera, appearing on stage in the chorus with such operatic luminaries as Jon Vickers (Otello), Magda Olivero (Fedora), Elena Souliotis (Aida and Anna Bolena), Shirley Verrett (Aida) and many others. Since 1987 he has served as a Board Member of the Bel Canto Institute (www.belcantoinst.org), an organization that teaches bel canto opera style to young singers every July in Florence, Italy (except during COVID), serving as President of the Board since 2005. Mr. Haley served as the Editor of the Sound Recording Reviews section of the ARSC Journal from Fall, 2012 through Spring, 2022 and continues to serve as a reviewer. Published restoration projects include the acclaimed Marian Anderson: Let Freedom Ring!, presenting the first ever restoration of Anderson’s famous 1939 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, chosen by PBS as a bonus for donations (JSP Records); Jascha Horenstein conducting Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde live in Stockholm, released in hi-def audio by HDTT; The Catholic Girls: Rock n’ Roll School for Girls, a two CD retrospective of this outstanding New Wave girl-group rock band (JSP Records); two high-def releases devoted to recordings of great American cellist, Nathaniel Rosen, Schumann Complete Recordings for Cello and Piano and J.S. Bach Solo Suites for Cello (both HDTT); and multiple projects celebrating the centennial of Judy Garland, including the hi-def release Judy Garland:The Final Concert in Copenhagen (HDTT). In progress are restoration projects for unpublished and unknown live concerts of Ella Fitzgerald, to be released by HDTT in hi-def sound.