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It's wasn't all sweet music for Ella

The name of the disc is "We All Love Ella: Celebrating the First Lady of Song" (Verve).

Here are some of the performers assembled by producer Phil Ramone to declare their love by having a go at the Ella Fitzgerald songbook: Michael Buble, Queen Latifah, k.d. lang, Stevie Wonder, Diana Krall, Diane Reeves, Linda Ronstadt, Etta James, Chaka Khan and Natalie Cole.

And why on earth WOULDN'T they love Fitzgerald? Hers, I think, was, in her prime, the most beautiful voice in the entire history of American jazz -- maybe ALL of American vernacular music. Never mind that several on that list were unlikely to have heard her perform live in that prime, which was from 1956 to 1966, according to jazz song historian Will Friedwald.

Fitzgerald recorded so much between, say, 1950 and 1966, and so much of it is among the greatest of all jazz songs that she is an enduring presence 11 years after her death. She will be, as long as recordings exist.

What is still little-known is how sad and even harrowing much of that life was. Drugs and self-destruction are an integral part of the legend of Billie Holiday -- the reason that she was turned into a movie starring Diana Ross (whose own life was fictionalized on Broadway and in the movies in "Dreamgirls").

The French have always set world records in their deification of singers' sadness and frailty in their virtually national adoption of singer Edith Piaf. (A well-regarded film about Piaf, called "La Vie En Rose," opens Friday.)

But Fitzgerald, even to those who know her music well, is all sunshine and swing and joy and entertainment, from the spot-on impressions she did of other singers in concert to her reputation as the one jazz singer who had temperamental difficulties singing the blues.

To think of Fitzgerald is to smile.

It used to be that way for me too -- until I reviewed her once in her later years at Shea's Buffalo and all that was left was her impeccable art and riotous swing. The voice was very different from the voice of her prime -- lower, rougher and with a big quavering and sad vibrato in the middle.

All those records and all those live performances in her prime had, in fact, taken from her the very instrument that was so much more beautiful than anyone else's. You can hear Fitzgerald from her prime do some things on record that are truly astonishing -- not just swing and scat better than any other singer has or ever will but, on some ballads, mute her voice without losing any dramatic intensity. This isn't the same as merely singing softly, it's muting her vocal chords and surrounding the sultry notes with air the way a great saxophonist like Ben Webster might do. The resultant sound is of such yearning beauty that once heard, it stays in your head forever.

She was, to put it bluntly, monstrously overworked by manager Norman Granz -- and herself -- in her prime, with results horribly injurious, almost fatal, to that voice.

Even worse, after her death, historians uncovered how terrible, even sordid some of her teenage life had been -- abused, homeless, probably assaulted. Until she was discovered as a teen at an amateur night at the Apollo ("American Idol" in Harlem), she was as much a bottom dog as American society has -- and every bit as much as Louis Armstrong had once been.

Bookending those early horrors was the end of her life, so ravaged by diabetes that she was near blind and worse.

Not long after her death in 1996, I happened to be in L.A. As a cab took me to the airport, I saw a cheesey sign on a small and very sleazy-looking shop on South Robertson Boulevard. It read "Ella Fitzgerald Estate Sale." Rugs, baskets and knick-knacks for sale were sloppily arrayed on the sidewalk.

As much as Americans always loved Fitzgerald -- and still do -- I can't help thinking that if we'd known more of what was going on behind those deathless discs, we'd have loved her that much more.


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