Frank & Ella: The Concert That Wasn’t
NOT MANY PEOPLE at a Pops concert titled “Frank & Ella” will be asking “Frank and Ella who?” or why pairing them makes sense. Their careers ran parallel. Sinatra was born in 1915, Fitzgerald in 1917. New York, NY, was in both of their DNA. Frank sang at Carnegie Hall for the first time in 1944; Ella in 1947. They worked with dozens of the same musicians and arrangers; played the same venues; and recorded many of the same songs. They both had the “household name” status that network television conferred from the mid-to-late 1950s through the 1960s. You’d expect there to have been some iconic joint recording along the way, but it didn’t happen, and even joint appearances were few and far between.
Two dates during that period offer a glimpse into the vibrant scene they shared. April 25, 1956 was Ella Fitzgerald’s first appearance on The Steve Allen Show, right at the time the show was transitioning from late-night local New York TV into The Tonight Show on the full NBC network. “This Could Be the Start of Something Big”, written by Steve Allen, was the show’s theme for as long as Allen was host. Sinatra’s first appearance on the show was also in 1956, but he was stricken with laryngitis, and could only watch while Allen, hilariously, lip-synched to Sinatra’s recording of “A Foggy Day”. Fitzgerald would return to the show six more times between 1963 and 1976. Sinatra became a frequent guest, including guest-hosting the show in 1977. TV show appearances followed for Fitzgerald in a steady stream—Nat King Cole, Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, Dinah Shore, Jo Stafford, and also, twice, on The Frank Sinatra Show, in 1958 and 1959.
Those two appearances likely paved the way for a fleeting live appearance together. The date was January 19, 1961, and the event was US President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural gala, produced by Sinatra. Performers included Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, Ethel Merman, Gene Kelly, Jimmy Durante, and Helen Traubel. Fitzgerald sang “Give
Me the Simple Life”. Sinatra weighed in with “You Make Me Feel So Young”.
Perhaps the most compelling argument in favour of them performing and recording together in a major way was the top arrangers, Quincy Jones and Nelson Riddle, with whom they both worked. Riddle arranged eight albums for Fitzgerald, commencing with Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book in 1959, and more than
20 Sinatra albums between 1954 and 1966, along with a handful of TV specials between 1954 and 1966. And yet, despite all this, one primary thing, among a host of systemic others, kept them apart—the implacable territoriality of the rival record labels they were signed to (Verve and later Atlantic for Fitzgerald; Reprise and Capitol for Sinatra). All the more reason, then, to sit back and enjoy this concert, imagining what might have been.