By Ron Forman, Cabaret Scenes
Ella Fitzgerald had the title First Lady of Song, and Natalie Douglas lovingly explained in words and music why that title was well earned in the latest of Douglas’ Tributes series at Birdland. She combined interesting, amusing, touching, and sometimes sad stories taken from Fitzgerald’s life with her always on-the-money vocals. The set list incorporated songs from Fitzgerald’s legendary Songbook series for Verve records, hit singles, live performances, and a few rarities that I had never heard. She was backed by a swinging trio led by music director Billy Stritch (piano), Jonathan Michel (bass), and Mark McLean (drums), all of whom were given an opportunity to display their talent with solo turns.
Douglas opened with a swinging “Too Darn Hot.” She then performed “How Long Has This Been Going On,” including the rarely heard verse, as Fitzgerald did in her George and Ira Gershwin Songbook. Reminiscing that her dad used to sing it to her, Douglas did a fun-filled “Cow Cow Boogie.” After telling how Fitzgerald met Duke Ellington at a battle-of-the-bandsevent that he had with Chick Webb, Douglas sang his “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” (lyric Paul Francis Webster) including the verse, which I had never heard. A super-fast performance of Fitzgerald’s biggest hit record “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” had the audience singing along. Stritch joined Douglas for “Can’t We Be Friends.”
The show was performed on Martin Luther King Day which led to Douglas reminding us of Fitzgerald’s commitment to the civil rights movement. Fitzgerald wrote “It’s Up to You and Me” immediately after Dr. King was assassinated, and Douglas’ moving performance of it was memorable. After mentioning that Ella was always hip, Douglas did “Can’t Buy Me Love.” The Rodgers and Hart Songbook is my personal favorite of the songbooks that Fitzgerald recorded, and Douglas did a soft and very effective “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” from it. She closed the show telling how Fitzgerald’s son hired a band to play outside her house when she was dying, and Douglas movingly closed the show, almost tearfully, with Fitzgerald’s favorite song, sung immediately after her passing, Billy Strayhorn’s, “Something to Live For.”