Thirty years ago this month — on July 26, 1984 — I sat down at the next table to Princess Margaret and her entourage in the ballroom of the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane. Not my usual company, but this was a special occasion: Ella Fitzgerald, making what I’m pretty certain was her final appearance in London, with an orchestra conducted by the great arranger Nelson Riddle.
It was a charity gig, the first of three nights in aid of the NSPCC, hence the presence of royalty and courtiers. But it was clearly something not to be missed, since it united two figures of great significance whose work together in the Gershwin Songbook series of albums — five LPs containing 53 songs, recorded over an eight-month period in 1959 for Norman Granz’s Verve label — remains a landmark of the genre and the era.
Ella brought her own first-class rhythm section: Paul Smith (piano), Keter Betts (bass) and Bobby Durham (drums). The rest of the large orchestra was assembled by Johnny Howard, the British saxophonist, bandleader and session contractor. It included Mitch Dalton on guitar and the young saxophonist Jamie Talbot, to whom I’d been listening in the very different environment of Clark Tracey’s hard-bop quintet.
Dalton had recorded with Riddle in London a few months earlier as part of another band put together by Howard for a Decca album called Blue Skies, in which Riddle’s orchestra accompanied the opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa. When I asked him about the gig with Ella, he responded with a lovely anecdote.
“My one abiding memory of the gig,” he told me, “is of rehearsing the overture — Nelson’s arrangement of ‘The Sheik Of Araby’. I was seated right in front of the conductor’s rostrum, no more than three feet from him. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Great Man had not necessarily committed his all to this particular commission, possibly because it might have been a last-minute (and inconvenient) request to provide Ella with an introduction. Anyhow, I was required to play the banjo in cod ’20s style. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a rhythmic feel which fitted the chart. Each time that we played it down I tried a different approach. During my third attempt to create something passable, Mr Riddle leaned across to me and intoned: ‘Ah, I see that you have an excellent ear for shit when you hear it!’ I’m not sure if his poker face and laconic delivery translate well off the page but I’ve never forgotten that phrase. It certainly encapsulates his modesty. An endearing trait in a genius, I find!”
And a genius he certainly was: a genius of popular music. He was aged 64 then, and taking time out from a tour to promote Linda Ronstadt’s What’s New, the first of three hugely successful albums they made together. He and Ella had recorded their final collaborative album, The Best is Yet to Come, two years earlier, for Granz’s last label, Pablo. Fifteen months after the Grosvenor House shows, Riddle would die as a result of problems caused by cirrhosis of the liver. Ella’s long-term health problems were about to become more serious; in and out of hospital throughout her last years, she died in 1996.
At Grosvenor House, aged 67, she was no longer in full command of the powers of vocal expression and agility that had made her such a great artist. But that didn’t seem to matter too much. Although I wasn’t taking notes that night (in those days, before Live Aid, there was a rather civilised convention that charity concerts were not reviewed), I have a clear memory of a wonderful recital, including a particularly lustrous reading of “Blue Moon”. And Princess Margaret, who liked a bit of night life herself, certainly seemed to enjoy it.
* The photograph of Ella Fitzgerald and Nelson Riddle is by Phil Stern and is taken from September in the Rain, Peter J Levinson’s excellent biography of Riddle, published by Billboard Books in 2001.