By Andrew Poretz …
Las Vegas-based singer Amanda King made a fine debut at 54 Below on May 19. Though she has appeared in New York before, this was her first solo show. Ms. King made a splash at last year’s Cabaret Convention as part of a tribute to Nat King Cole.
There have been countless Ella Fitzgerald tribute shows over the years, especially in the years surrounding the jazz legend’s centennial in 2017. They generally focus on Fitzgerald’s years as a jazz trailblazer in the 1940s and 1950s, with an emphasis on her scat-singing skills. In ELLA The Early Years, Ms. King focused almost exclusively on the period of the star’s development in the 1930s from teen phenomenon through her years with the Chick Webb orchestra. By interspersing a set of well-known and lesser-known songs with biographical stories and backgrounds, Ms. King presented a master class on how young Ella eventually became a beloved singing superstar.
Ms. King was the picture of elegance, wearing a lovely lavender dress imprinted with black orchids to which was pinned a large, pink and white floral corsage she made by hand.
The star was backed by drummer Jerome Jennings, bassist Noah Garabedian, and pianist Caili O’Doherty
Kicking off with a rousing “Stompin’ at the Savoy” (Edgar Sampson), Ms. King spoke of the young “Shake Hips Fitzgerald,” who initially wanted to be a dancer. Ella’s biggest early influences were Connie Boswell and Judy Garland, Ms. King explained, before performing a slow ballad arrangement of “Judy” (Hoagy Carmichael/Sammy Lerner).
Ms. King was a bit hesitant at first before finding her footing. She is a fine singer, if not blessed with Ella’s consistently perfect intonation. Though not at all a vocal impressionist, Ms. King’s voice has a sweet, light timbre reminiscent of Ella’s. Once she found her sea legs, so to speak, she was excellent. Her patter and history lessons were well-researched and written, though overly lengthy at times. She did not rely on any notes; however, the number of “and, um” pauses throughout the show slightly marred her delivery. This might be chalked up to some first-time jitters.
She was clearly feeling confident on a great rhythm number, “Everybody Step” (Irving Berlin). “The Dipsy Doodle” was done in the style of the early big band singers, where the vocalist would come in for just part of the song.
A mid-show highlight had Ms. King declare her “political platform”—fortunately, through music—with the 1936 swinger, “Vote for Mr. Rhythm” (Al Siegel, Leo Robin, Ralph Rainger). Amanda was at her strongest here, both vocally and rhythmically. Drummer Jerome Jennings showed off his considerable skills in this number.
Much attention was given to Chick Webb, Ella’s bandleader and mentor, who died in 1939 at age 34, ending their four-year partnership. The extremely diminutive (barely four-feet tall) Webb was crippled by spinal tuberculosis as a small child and took up drumming to gain strength and dexterity. Without Chick, Ms. King later asserted, there would have been no Ella, and without Ella, there would have been no Chick. Webb was a jazz drumming pioneer and a huge influence on such drummers as Buddy Rich.
In an unusual mid-show move, Ms. King gave the stage over to Mr. Jennings, who provided an informative, passionate lecture on Webb’s lasting importance. Jennings himself is a sensational drummer who summoned his inner Chick Webb for “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)” (George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin and Gus Kahn).
Some great fun came with songs from Ella’s “nursery rhyme” song period, including her earliest hit record, the 1938 “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which Ella wrote with Van Alexander. Surprisingly, Ms. King changed the adorable “I bought a basket for my mommy” to “I bought a basket for my mom,” which somewhat diminished the childlike charm of the lyric.
As the “early years” moved to their conclusion, Ms. King took more jazz chances. For “If You Only Knew,” a gorgeous song by Charles Beale and Chick Webb, she performed it Sheila Jordan-style, with only bass accompaniment from the outstanding Noah Garabedian. A hot, bluesy “Moonray” (Artie Shaw/Arthur Quenzer and Paul Madison) brought the set to its highest point.
Ms. King closed with “My Old Flame” (Arthur Johnston/Sam Coslow), which she sang with power and heart.
This was an excellent New York debut for Amanda King. Learn more about her at www.amandaking.com.
ELLA The Early Years took place on May 19 at 54 Below (254 West 54th Street between Eighth Avenue and Broadway). www.54below.org
Photos: Andrew Poretz