ELLA FITZGERALD: Making Stories
Southern Music Issue Number 10
“Sunshine of Your Love” (Live) 
Written by: Jack Bruce, Pete Brown, and Eric Clapton
Sunshine of Your Love
(Verve, 1970); reissued in 1996
Musicians: Ella Fitzgerald (vocals),
Tommy Flanagan (piano), Frank de la Rosa (bass),
Ed Thigpen (drums), Allen Smith (lead trumpet),
the Ernie Heckscher Band (horns)
“I’ve had some wonderful love affairs and some that didn’t work out. I don’t want to dwell on that and I don’t want to put people down, but I think all the fabulous places I’ve been, the wonderful things that have happened for me, the great people I’ve met – that ought to make a story.”This year, as winter was ending, I saw an ex-girlfriend in Manhattan. On a frozen Tuesday night, on a quiet block in the Lower East Side, we met up like old lovers in a ballad. She’d chosen the spot, a late-night lounge with enough brown liquor and candlelight to generate intimacy. Leaning and waiting against a parked car outside the lounge, I spotted her as she stepped up out of the subway, but she didn’t recognize me and walked past. Thinking this to be a sure sign that the meeting was a mistake, I hesitated to call her name.
The last time I had seen her was in a bitter-cold Washington, D.C., winter in 1999. We had gone to Blues Alley to hear Mose Allison. The blues were in order that night, because over the course of the show, all the love between us seeped away, notes in diminuendo. After the set, we parted in near silence at a Metro stop, no hugs or kisses, unwilling, or unable, to explain the sharp wedge forcing us apart.
Breathing in the icy New York night, I felt that heavy silence again, the weighty memory of affection lost. For me, the best memories of our affair will always center around the time we fell in love in the springtime in Central Virginia, which was verdant and awash in honeyed light. Our nights were lush with wine and we lulled ourselves into love with Ella on the front-room stereo. Nostalgia and sentimentality about old romances are clichés, but how else do we understand this thing called love?
Though many listeners point to the genius collection, The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Song Books, as the apex of Fitzgerald’s career, her best individual album is Like Someone in Love, released in 1957. The album is a major aesthetic statement: On such tracks as “There’s a Lull in My Life” and “Midnight Sun” (where she’s buoyed by Stan Getz solos) and the title cut, Ella elaborates her subtle skills of interpretation and rhythmic agility at the height of their powers. On the fourth track of the record, Fitzgerald spins an ethereal version of Irving Berlin’s “I Never Had a Chance,” stretching out over lyrics about painful realization: “I knew we’d have to part / For I could always reach your lips / But I could never reach your heart.” A similar understanding came to me at the Metro stop in D.C.—the lovely cocoon of romance we’d lived in before had broken away; we weren’t kids in love any longer.
On that breezy Lower Manhattan street corner, when I finally spoke her name nervously, she stepped toward me. As I shook her hand, even after years and lives apart, I felt, and could see in the depths of her brown eyes, an awkward sensation of joy and excitement. I wanted a song to narrate the moment, give it some modernist poetic reality. But so many jazz ballads remark on love consummated or love in recession; we needed something about the love of a friendship reborn.
Of all the adjectives attached to Ella Fitzgerald’s quintessential ballads, reticence is not among them. But what fascinates me about Fitzgerald was her ability on some numbers to be the vocal measure of swinging beauty and, simultaneously, emotionally distant. When singing about romance in decline, Ella’s allure is the almost aloof elegance of her style. But when singing about love in ascension, the light-headed feeling of overwhelming desire, Fitzgerald is both joyous and regal. You can hear these elements on her cover of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.”
In the late 1960s, trying to stay on the pop charts, many jazz vocalists recorded rock songs. Fitzgerald’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” cut in 1968, was an attempt to answer the challenge of keeping a fifty-one-year-old, black, female jazz singer relevant at a cultural moment when the likes of the Rolling Stones, the Four Tops, the Beatles, the Supremes, the Beach Boys, Aretha Franklin, and Cream were dominating the charts and squeezing high-quality jazz and pop singers like Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, and Andy Williams off the scene.
On Cream’s classic Disraeli Gears, “Sunshine of Your Love” is the crossroads, a song that prophesizes the sound of 1970s rock while detailing in miniature the powerful influence of the blues and postwar jazz on popular music. Like so many ’60s British rock bands, Cream’s sound was built on the foundational pillars of electrified Chicago blues. And though Ginger Baker has been lauded for his jazz-influenced drumming, it’s Eric Clapton who’s always improvised with true jazz imagination. Listen closely: Slow Hand builds his precise, articulate, beboppish solo on “Sunshine of Your Love” from a slick quotation of “Blue Moon,” slicing the line with smooth Sonny Rollins–like “in the cut” timing.
When Ella Fitzgerald recorded “Sunshine of Your Love,” she couldn’t exactly return the improvisational favor to rock & roll. Instead, she had to remake herself into a scat-singing rock-music earth mother. The band blows the Clapton riff as if it were a James Bond movie theme: shaken, vodka-tipsy, but swaggering and ebullient. You can hear Fitzgerald searching for the edge in the lyric, that place where she can mine whatever is urgent or sexy or essentially bluesy about the song. When she wails over the second chorus of the song, she’s merely straining to be hip. But then a magical thing happens in the bridge—the band, which seems bored, begins its own wailing, answering Ella’s. As she vamps the lyric, whooping and screeching, Tommy Flanagan’s trilling piano fills behind her, and she suddenly seems to be directing the band, charging them to loosen up, to romp, to play with joy.
Sitting in the bar on Ludlow and Rivington with my former girlfriend, I wanted to start humming lines from the ballad “What’s New”: “What’s new?/ How is the world treating you?” But then she said, “You look the same,” and we spent the next hours laughing, exchanging family news, reminiscing. We drank until closing time, moments before dawn took over the city, and stumbled to the wobbly downtown train to Brooklyn and the sleepy-slow uptown run to Harlem. Parting at the subway stop, I couldn’t help recalling our last painful separation at the D.C. Metro in Foggy Bottom, or those even older times in Charlottesville and Bloomington, when, longing to stay together, we had to let go. Watching her descend the steps to the platform, I wanted to call out, say something corny but romantic, like “I’ll always be lost in a fog without you.” But I stopped myself from that. She turned with a smile, waving goodbye one more time, and I stood again, for a moment, in the sunshine of her love.