April 16, 1938: First Time! Ella Sings a Classic
On April 16, 1938, Ella Fitzgerald, with the Chick Webb band, introduced a new song, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” to the crowd at the Flamingo Room in Boston.
Boston, April 1938: in the ballrooms were Gene Krupa at the Cambridge Hotel Continental, Art Shaw with Billie Holiday at the Roseland-State, and Glenn Miller at the Raymor. In the clubs were Eddie Deas at the Club Congo, the Alabama Aces at Little Dixie, and Chick Webb with Ella Fitzgerald at Levaggi’s. This was a surprising amount of activity. Webb’s band had even been held over, a fact noted by Lillian Johnson in her column “Strictly Jive” in the Afro-American: “Chick and his band, and Ella, of course, will be held over four more weeks, and maybe longer, in Boston, where ordinarily, about the only thing that holds over is winter.”
Jack Levaggi’s Flamingo Room was in the Gardner Hotel, 199 Mass Ave at Norway Street, two blocks from Symphony Hall. Levaggi’s was a high-end nightclub, and whereas the Roseland-State or the Raymor charged 75 cents for admission on the weekends, the Flamingo Room charged $2 and up, sometimes all the way up to $5, which was a lot of money in 1938 (one 1938 dollar equals about $16.50 today). But the bands were good, including Casa Loma, Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey, and for a long stretch in 1938, Chick Webb.
Ella Fitzgerald was trying her hand at songwriting, working with Webb’s composer and arranger, Al Feldman. While in Boston, they came up with an arrangement for a nursery rhyme, and Ella sang it for the first time at the Flamingo, allegedly on this day. (George Simon, the big-band historian, made the claim for April 16, but I’ll be darned if I can find the reference right now.) The Webb band recorded the song in May. “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” sold a million copies and spent ten weeks at number one on radio’s Your Hit Parade in 1938, and the song was money in the bank for Ella ever after. Critics have dismissed “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” as lightweight, but in spite of them it was an undeniable success.
Here are two versions of the signature song. First is the Webb band’s 1938 version. Second is a clip of Ella in the 1942 Abbott and Costello film, Ride ‘em Cowboy. If it makes you cringe, ignore the video and focus on the singing. The two are quite different.