“Tonight, this is The Savoy Ballroom,” begins Amanda King, swinging into Edgar Sampson’s “Stomping at the Savoy.” (The Savoy 1926-1958 was “a building, a geographic place, a ballroom, and the ‘soul’ of a neighborhood.” -Barbara Englebrecht) King exudes warmth. Wielding a resonant back of throat hum/vibrato, the vocalist seamlessly connects and savors lyrics. Never still, she makes rhythm and her pleasure of performing infectious.
Fitzgerald (1917-1996), King tells us, was endemically cutting classes when she got arrested for truancy and incarcerated in The New York State Training School for Girls. “Those of color” had a very tough time. She ran away, living on couches and the streets; running numbers and acting as a lookout at whorehouse doors. About eight months later, the 17 year-old performed on Amateur Night at the Apollo. Nicknamed “snake hips” for her street dancing, she planned to dance until watching the Edwards Sisters excel just before her.
On the spot, the gutsy teenager switched to vocals in the style of her mother’s favorite singer, Connee Boswell. One of the numbers was “Judy” (Hoagy Carmichael/ Sammy Lerner): If her voice can bring/Every hope of the spring/ That’s Judy, my Judy… The rarely performed song is cozy, affectionate, very much of its time, and well served.
Eight months later Fitzgerald had her first credited hit with “I’ll Chase the Blues Away.” (Edgar Sampson/ Ken Harrison) King bounces, dances, grins. The lady knows how to moooove. Gesturing hands extend spirit. Piano jitterbugs. “Fronting the Chick Webb Orchestra as one of the first female band singers, she went from living on the street to making $1200 a week,” King tells us. Webb, his wife and the band taught her deportment and style. The two collaborated four formative years. “Everybody Step” (Irving Berlin) and “Vote for Mr. Rhythm” (AI Siegel/Leo Robin/Ralph Rainger) arrive peppy and bright.
King then turns the stage over to drummer Jerome Jennings who tells us that Webb influenced every fine percussionist of his time. “Liza-All the Clouds Roll Away” (George and Ira Gershwin/Gus Kahn) showcases the musician’s formidable chops; hummingbird speed and finesse. (Melody is unrecognizable.)
“You Showed Me the Way” (Bud Green/Ella Fitzgerald/Teddy McCrae/Chick Webb) might’ve expressed Fitzgerald’s gratitude to her mentor: The moment you found me/The shadows around me/( King’s head tilts up, eyes close), Just disappeared from view. Satin phrases slowly unfurl. Brushes ripple beside light cymbal. Bass muses. The song lands as softly as a drifting leaf. Fitzgerald’s signature “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” (Ella Fitzgerald/Van Alexander) introduced in the Abbott and Costello film Ride’m Cowboy, is hap-hap-happy.
The evening ends with a tender “Moonray” into which King puts her whole self (Artie Shaw/Arthur Quenzer/Paul Madison) and “My Old Flame” with molasses phrasing – as if the vocalist tastes memory. (Arthur Johnson/Sam Coslow)
Amanda King is a charming personality with appealing vocal timbre, apt stylistic choices, polished diction, and a beguiling feel for the era. Absent scat, there are nonetheless many similarities between the vocalist and early Fitzgerald. King is worth seeing and hearing.
Small caveats: There’s a bit too much loose exposition. Also, cabaret audiences are not, like jazz fans, drawn to shows with so much time allotted to instrumentals. They’ve come to hear vocals.
Note: Amanda King dressed for the occasion raising the tone of the evening. Would that more performers would follow suit.
Amanda King: Ella – The Early Years
Bass-Noah Garabedian, Drums-Jerome Jennings, Piano-Caili O’Doherty
254 West 54th Street