Today’s birthday girl is the greatest singer I know of, Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996). And Ella’s recordings of some of the cleverest songs ever written—the Cole Porter songbook—are some of the best versions ever of those songs, oft-recorded as they are. When I was in grad school, I house-sat at my advisor’s place one summer and he had both volumes of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook on CD. I became quite enamored of them that summer of '93.
Which song to choose for today? I picked “Love for Sale” because, while people may throw around the phrase “it gives me chills,” this song truly does. Begin with the fact that it’s a slow and sensual song, with wafts of late night melancholy stirring it here and there, though with plenty of Porter’s celebrated wit: the moon “gazing down on the wayward ways of a wayward town” so long “her smile becomes a smirk.” Then listen to how Ella draws out “Iiiiiii go oooo to work . . .”
Place this against any ditty sung by a teenage prostitute you can think of, or even any song celebrating young love, and see if the weary, wise and wry voice of Ella on this track doesn’t add something to your appreciation. And don’t forget this is “appetizing young love for sale.” “Who’s prepared to pay the price / For a trip to paradise.” The girl knows what she's got on offer, I’d say.
Because Porter is so wry, we don’t have to get all bathetic about this bit of stuff and her clientele. The point is that the singer knows of which she speaks: she’s “been through the mill of love,” she’s seen it all, knowing “every type of love” even better than the poets (or the songwriters). “Old love, new love / Every love but true love.” And that’s both Porter mocking her and her mocking the world of song. The “mill of love” might make us all, sufferers in that regard ourselves, sympathize, and, when we’re ready to pity her, perhaps, she tells us that every type of love does not include “true love.” Those of us who might think we have that are fools and those others who think they might yet find it are naïve. Our girl is neither.
All this is fine, as is the oh-so-sultry, “If you want to try my wares / Follow me and climb the stairs” (I’ll let each of you decide, in your own imaginations, what she’s wearing as she climbs those stairs ahead of you . . .). But let’s not just talk about the song, as it might be in anyone’s version. This is Ella’s version, and hers is a vocal that takes my breath away with its grace notes galore.
Listen to the way, the first time, she goes from “true love” to “love for sale”—it happens in a breath and that breath is all the difference between the two: your dream of true love and the speaker’s quid pro quo of “love for sale.” Then when she comes around again, listen to how she positively skips in glee (vocally speaking) over these things: “old love, new love, every love but true love.” Then when she glides into “love for sale” the horns start scorching, kicking her into that long fond goodbye that sounds like money well spent.
Ella has such a great low register too, with that huskiness that is so pleasing to my ears, as when she drops down to say “love for sale” the second time she utters the phrase, giving us a full-bodied, lazy-hearted, almost blue sense of it—and it’s not the “blues” of selling sexual favors. It’s the blues of no one buying. Of wanting, and not getting.