Interview: Van Alexander (Part 2)
As noted yesterday, Van Alexander, 97, arranged Ella Fitzgerald's A-Tisket A-Tasket, recorded by Fitzgerald with Chick Webb's orchestra on May 2, 1938. Though the song may seem a bit of a novelty number now, the single was a runaway hit in late June 1938. By the then, the country was growing increasingly worried: Germany had invaded Austria on March 12 and Japan had invaded China on June 17.
In Part 2 of my two-part interview with Van Alexander, the pianist, arranger-composer and bandleader talks about the song—and more...
JazzWax: How did A-Tisket A-Tasket come about?
Van Alexander: In February 1938, Chick and the band went
JW: So you were pretty busy.
VA: Very. One day Ella Fitzgerald said to me, Gee, I have a great idea for a song. What if you did something with the nursery rhyme A-Tisket A-Tasket? I took in what Ella had said and went back to New York. But Chick kept giving me assignments and advances to get more work done. I was up to neck to finish songs that he wanted to place with publishers so they could get them on the air.
VA: It was definitely top of mind. The following week when I came up to Boston, Ella cornered me: Al, did you think about the song?" I told her that I hadn't had the time yet but that I would turn to it soon. When I came back to Boston the following week, she asked me again. When I told her that I hadn't done it yet, Ella said, Listen, Al, if you're not interested, tell me and I'll ask [arranger] Edgar Sampson to do it."
JW: What did you say?
VA: I told her, Hold the phone, Ella. Give me one more week." I went home to New York and burned the midnight oil. You have to understand, A-Tisket A-Tasket had been in the public domain since the late 1800s, so anyone could pick it up. There also wasn't much of a song to begin with.
VA: I put the children's tune into a 32-bar song, adding a release and bridge. I also wrote novelty lyrics, including the exchanges between Ella and the band. You know, the stuff where they ask, Was it red? Was it blue?" and Ella's responding, No, no, no, no."
JW: What did Fitzgerald think?
VA: We rehearsed the song when I came up, and Ella loved it. And she gave it her own flavor. Originally, I had written lyrics in the middle part that was pretty straight—that she was walkin' on down the avenue." Ella changed it to truckin' down the avenue"—to make the song more hip. She also changed something else, and we shared credit on the lyrics. A few weeks Chick Webb's band and Ella recorded it—on May 2, 1938, my 23d birthday.
VA: No way. No one knew what we had at the time. It was just another novelty song, and picking a hit is next to impossible. It just happens. We recorded it for Decca at World Transcription's studio. Dave Kapp was in charge. The song came out in early in summer, and by the end of the summer the song was No. 1 on the Lucky Strike Hit Parade. It remained at No. 1 for nine weeks.
JW: Did Webb love it?
VA: Oh did he ever. The song jump-started my career and Ella's and Chick's. Up until that point, Chick and Ella were certainly well known, but not on a national level and not as crossover artists.
VA: It was in terms of its jump and naturalness. You have to remember that when Chick recorded A-Tisket A-Tasket, it was long before stereo and echo chambers. Today the recording may sound dated, but back then it wasn't. It was alive and fresh. And that band had a certain spark and energy, and both came through on that song. Sadly, Chick didn't live much longer. He died in June 1939 when he was just 34 years old.
JW: What were your impressions of Ella back then?
VA: She was a sweet, shy little girl, and she was that way all her life to the end. Strangely, she never fully really realized how great she was. But she was a thoughtful person. She also had terrible jitters about performing and recording, and she was always perspiring. But once she got out there in front of a mike, she was fine. Until that happened, she was a mess.
VA: Writers always compared her to Billie [Holiday] and Sarah [Vaughan], who I thought were vocal stylists. As great as they were, I don't think they had the warmth, diction, intonation or projection that Ella did.
JW: Did you know Fitzgerald when she relocated to California?
VA: Oh sure. In the '50s I had a chance to write arrangements for her nightclub act. But Norman Granz, her manager at the time, didn't' dig me too much and didn't ask me to do one of her songbook albums. I could have gone to Ella, but I was so busy at the time with film and television work. I guess you know that Granz wasn't the sweetest man in the world.
VA: Chick was a pussycat. Not a strict bandleader. Some of those guys were monsters to their musician. Chick wasn't. He was sort of mild-mannered. The guys in the band were very protective of him because of his stature and ill health. He was a superb drummer. One of the great innovators. [Photo above, Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald]
VA: Absolutely. I remember a Battle of the Bands at the Savoy in 1937 between Chick and Benny Goodman. People started to line up at 4 in the afternoon. By the time the ballroom opened at 8, the line was around the block. The Savoy was up on the second floor, and when the place was filled with 3,000 people jumping up and down, as it was that night, you could feel the floor bending.
JW: How did the battle turn out?
VA: That night was so exciting. Benny opened up with King Porter Stomp and played for 15 minutes. Then Chick opened with his arrangement of King Porter Stomp. Of course, Chick had the reinforcement of Ella. When Ella sang, the place belonged to her and Chick.
VA: At the end, the consensus was that Chick had won. Even Gene Krupa said so. No one could have beaten Chick that night. Buddy Rich also said Chick had won. [Photo of Ella Fitzgerald by Carl Van Vechten, 1940]
JW: How much longer did you write for the band?
VA: Until he died the following year. During that time, most of the songs I arranged for Chick were pop tunes for Ella and many of them novelty numbers. I wasn't' doing too many band instrumentals at that point.
VA: That's what Chick wanted. He was as smart as a fox. He knew Ella was going to sell records for him. Chick and Ella loved each other, and Ella loved what Chick did for her. Chick's wife took Ella in hand and taught her how to drew and put on makeup.
JW: What did you do after Webb?
VA: Eli Oberstein, the head of RCA Victor Records, approached me. He wanted to start a stable of bandleaders who arranged. So he signed me, Larry Clinton and Les Brown. My contract was for $100 a week. It was a great opportunity for me to start and lead my own band, which I did from 1939 to 1944.
JW: How did you like it?
VA: Being a bandleader was exciting. It got me into show business and I got to meet a lot of people and accompany a lot of singers. I never really competed with the top bands of the day. I played piano, and I was never very prolific at it. I played an arrangers piano—chords and things. I didn't play clarinet or trombone, the big instruments then. So it was hard to compete. Consequently I never made it super big.
VA: Absolutely. We played all the great theaters. Rising on the stage out of the pit at the Paramount Theater was a thrill. I wanted to use Alexander's Ragtime Band as my theme, but when I did, I received a telegram from Irving Berlin telling me to cease and desist. He said he didn't' want anyone else to be associated with that song [laughs].
JW: How did your band end?
VA: During World War II, the draft pulled a lot of guys out. I was classified 1-A, but three days before I was to report, the enlistment was rescinded. At the time I was the father of two little girls so I got a defense job instead and worked the band at night.
VA: In New York they were great. But toward the end of the war, the Capitol Theater in New York scrapped its stage band policy and began showing just movies. Then the theater reactivated its band policy, and the first act it booked was singer Bob Crosby, Bing's brother. My manager was Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong's manager. He cooked up a deal so it would be Bob Crosby with the Van Alexander Orchestra. We went into the Capitol and had five wonderful weeks.
JW: How was Crosby?
VA: Great. Bob and I hit it off. He said to me, Ever think of moving to California?" I told him, Many times." He said, When I get back to California I want to put a band together. If you want to come out and be my contractor and arranger, let's see if we can work something out." I spoke to my wife Beth. We both saw the handwriting on the wall in New York. The band scene was deteriorating and so was the work. So we moved out there in 1945.
VA: Worked with Bob Crosby and then with Les Brown for many years into the '50s. I also began arranging for television, which was in its infancy. I got in early and worked on Kukla, Fran and Ollie, which was on the air for about 10 years. I also had a few friends out there who knew me from New York, so I was pretty well plugged in.
JW: You also worked with Mickey Rooney.
VA: Yes, I wrote and arranged original music for his first TV series. That was my first taste of scoring for television. I was fast in those days. Mickey and I hit it off, and I did five or six pictures with him.
VA: I did two films with Joan Crawford, B-pictures—Straight-Jacket (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965). I have a picture taken with Joan, kissing her at the end of the picture at a party [pictured]. My wife Beth later jokingly said, Did you have to kiss her on the mouth."
JW: Was she a good kisser?
VA: I guess she was.
VA: I never touched a cigarette or a drink in my life. I also never touched a woman until I was 11 years old [laughs]. My late wife Beth was the love of my life. We had two daughters and now have four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. I guess the key to a long life is to work hard, keep cool and laugh as often as possible.
JazzWax tracks: Van Alexander, as a leader and arranger,
Two more notable albums that Van directed and/or arranged:
Jack Teagarden—This Is Teagarden! (1956/Capitol)
Dakota Staton—The Late, Late Show (1957/Capitol)
JazzWax notes: Van Alexander's autobiography, From Harlem to Hollywood: My Life in Music, written with Stephen Fratallone, can be found here. For more on Van Alexander, visit his site here.
JazzWax clip: Here's a 1942 version of Ella Fitzgerald singing A-Tisket A-Tasket from Ride 'Em Cowboy with Abbott and Costello...
And here's Van Alexander's arrangement of Stealin' Apples, from his 1959 album, Swing Staged for Sound, with trumpeters Joe Graves and Shorty Sherock...