Before it became commonplace for today’s entertainers to label themselves with just one appellation — a la Madonna, Cher, Adele — there was a singer of such extraordinary talent, that even though she went professionally by her full first and last name, everyone referred to her by just one — Ella.
Ella Fitzgerald was perhaps the greatest jazz singer ever to have graced the airwaves — and still is to this day. Her voice was effortless, her range vast, her phrasing impeccable. The result: perfection.
Dubbed the “First Lady of Song,” Fitzgerald, who would have turned 100 on April 25, made history as the first African-American woman to win a Grammy.
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While she had already been singing for years, a career that was set in motion from a first-place win at a talent competition at the Apollo Theater, her first real taste of fame came with the No. 1 hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” a song which she actually co-wrote, in 1938.
“It’s one of her most famous songs,” says Philly-based singer Paula Johns, who will headline a show of the same name with The Tom Adams Trio 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 26, at Clancy’s by the Bay in Somers Point. “She wrote it when she was about 16 years old. It’s a cute and funny song.
“Who’s not going to know it? If I do a show called ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket,’ who won’t know it’s about Ella? You have to know.”
Johns, who, like Ella, also has a nickname — hers is La Chanteuse de Jazz — created this special Ella-centric show a few years back, but is really excited to perform it now “since it’s her 100th birthday.”
Johns grew up in a musical household; her mother was an opera singer and her father a church organist. She and her three siblings were “brought up on Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.” She loved to sing growing up, but was unsure as to what genre to perform, having only been exposed to classical music.
Her first exposure to jazz certainly didn’t sway her in that direction.
“My brother brought home instrumental jazz albums,” she recalls. “I thought it was crazy. I couldn’t hear a melody.”
It wasn’t until “an older gentleman” escorted Johns to a jazz club with singers that she “fell in love with it.”
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“I was attracted to the music of the sax player and I’d follow him around, and one day I went to hear him and he asked if anyone wanted to come up and sing,” says Johns of her first on-stage experience. “I got applause and thought, ‘I really like this.’ So I followed him around more and just kept singing.”
Since then Johns has sung in a variety of clubs in Philly, New Jersey, “whoever calls me, I’ll be there,” she laughs.
Frequently, listeners have likened Johns’ voice to that of Ella’s.
“A lot of people always thought … and I don’t know how to say this without sounding weird … that my voice sounds like butter. Ella was criticized for having a sweet voice, too,” she says. “Some critics didn’t like her voice because of that, but they didn’t listen to her all the way. She could swing from the rafters.”
“A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” Johns assures, is more than just an Ella tribute — it’s an education.
“The show is not geared only to people who know Ella. It’s more about her music,” Johns explains. “Ella was known as a great scat singer, so I’ll explain that and give examples. She also sang with Big Bands so I’ll explain those. And her repertoire stemmed mostly from the Great American Songbook, and I’ll explain what that is.
“Everything will be explained. And the music is just so great, everyone will enjoy it.”