Mister Kelly's is excited to welcome our newest young guest-blogger, Historian Adam Carston: Simply put, there is American comedy before Richard Pryor, and American comedy after Richard Pryor. With his combination of fearless honesty, provocative language, streetwise cool, and political savvy, he separated himself from other stand-ups. In the process, he also inspired a generation of comedians and cut a new path for them to travel. But Pryor’s famous, challenging persona was not born overnight. It took years of hard work and experience, and a good measure of pain and go-to-hell abandon to fully define it. While there are multiple chapters in Richard Pryor’s emergence as a cultural icon, some key moments that would help shape his career, worldview and revolutionary comedic style took place at none other than Chicago’s entertainment hot spot on the forefront of political change: Mister Kelly’s.
Chicago Heights, South Side. It’s the fourth time comedians Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen have gone on stage as a duo. How does it go? Well, they realize this isn’t going to be easy when a guy from the audience puts a lit cigarette out on Tim’s face after the show, then tries to beat the hell out of Tom, who’d boxed while he was in the service— but the guy outweighs him by 100 lbs. Later, at the University of Illinois in the winter, another member of the audience goes outside and packs and ice-ball, comes back in, throws it on stage, hitting Tom in the face.
It’s Sunday, August 10, 1958, and hot as blazes in Chicago, with temperatures reaching triple digits. The streets are scorching, but people are still turning out in the latest suits, dresses, and their Sunday finest.
Inside Kelly’s, patrons to cool off while eating the best steaks in town and sipping the finest wines. What makes today especially magical is that the featured act is being recorded live, and those in attendance will be part of something historic— a special moment of glamor in the club. Only a handful of select artists get to record here, and this one is a beloved household name: Ella Fitzgerald. And today’s audience is about to watch her claim another little piece of immortality.
THE MAIN SET
The opening act, Marty Rubenstein, has finished his set, and Ella and company are setting up. There’s Lou Levy on piano, Max Bennett on double bass, and Gus Johnson on drums. After a huge round of applause, they begin with her recent hit, “Your Red Wagon.”
Her voice is soulful and exquisite as she transitions into the much slower George and Ira Gershwin tune, “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” She’s off to a great start, as she hits every note harmoniously, with ease.
From there it’s the pretty jazz standard, “I’m Glad There Is You,” showing off her softer side. There’s a deafening hush over the audience and they sit in a trance-like state during this ballad; each listener hearing the runs in her melodies. “Thank you very much, music lovers,” she says, as the audience applauds.
Shortly thereafter, we start to hear the whimsical side of Ella’s personality. Becoming livelier, she laughs playfully while singing Duke Ellington’s “Perdido.” It is during this song that her trademark scat comes through in great harmony, to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Went to Town.”
Her rendition of “Summertime,” the aria from Porgy and Bess, is one of the best tracks on this recording. At times her voice is high and raspy, then breaks into a slew of low runs. She ad-libs the lyrics, most likely to the delight of George and Oscar. “…But you don’t mind it because it’s summertime and the livin’s easy. So you say, ‘let’s go down and dig the real cool sounds at Mister Kelly’s. You come in Mister Kelly’s and you taste awhile. Yes, daddy, you drink awhile. And you drink. What do you get? The check.” The crowd roars at her ability to crack jokes. Her jovial ribbing receives raucous reactions on more than one occasion.
From there, she sings the popular Frank Sinatra tune, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” She comments that it’s too early to play this, but she doesn’t mind. Neither does the audience. They would sit through anything just to hear that soft and quaint voice, getting lost in their fondest memories while listening to her. Her final run is all ad-libbed and impromptu. She jokingly asks the band if they’re in the right key, pays homage to Dinah Washington, and asks whether the audience knows what she’s singing, all in perfect beat and rhythm.
She finishes this set with the jazz standard, “How High the Moon,” an audience request she happily scats to.
THAT FINAL SET
Ella would do several recordings of “How High the Moon,” making it one of her signature tunes. Her greatest performance at Kelly’s was photographed for the cover of LIFE Magazine, and she was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002.
The Kelly’s recording includes Ella speaking from the heart, expressing her deep admiration for all those involved at Mister Kelly’s. She also said that the audiences here were the quietest and most appreciative she’d had the pleasure to perform for in a very long time. “And for Oscar [Marienthal], I want to say you’ve been one of the nicest bosses to work with, and it’s been a pleasure. And all the help who pushed me along in my show time… I’m gonna miss everybody. This has been like a real big happy family.”
At Kelly’s the Marienthal brothers always made sure to always treat their performers like family, and in this instance, we have proof that the feeling was mutual.
Ella’s final set was much smaller than the earlier one, but just as good. She swooned, scatted, and ad-libbed in “Exactly Like You,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Stardust,” “’S Wonderful,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” and “Perdido” once again.
She performed three Frank Sinatra hits: “Witchcraft,” “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” and “My Funny Valentine,” before transitioning into her final song, “Anything Goes.”
She received a long, standing ovation from all in attendance as she said her final goodbyes, and parting from stage.
EVERYBODY LOVES ELLA!
Ella has just recently recorded “Your Red Wagon” as a single and at Kelly’s she did the debut recordings of “Witchcraft,” “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” and “Across the Alley from the Alamo.”
By the late 1950s, she was recording many live albums. Verve label head Norman Granz was involved in all of these, but the show at Kelly’s was different than the rest. With a smaller room capacity, she was able to have a more intimate connection with the audience, and the feeling of closeness made the recording more raw and real. At times the audience can be heard clinking their utensils on their plates, and in between songs, small talk and chatter were picked up, perfectly snapshotting the moment as it took place.
This would not be the last time she graced the Kelly’s stage. She would return early the next year, as documented in the Happy Medium Ventures archives, where there is a telegram sent to her from her dear friend, Duke Ellington. It reads: “Everybody loved you, but nobody loved you as much as I did because I had the best seat.” What a great piece of ephemera capturing Duke’s adoration for the First Lady of Song. We know how he feels!
Ella Fitzgerald is one of the top entertainers responsible for bringing America’s jazz heritage to the broader public. She won a total of fourteen Grammy Awards, and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967. Her other awards and honors include the National Medal of Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and tributes in the form of music festivals and theater namesakes. She stood high on that pedestal for 60 years before tragically succumbing to diabetes at 79. Since then, she has been honored by all the greats from today and yesterday, and continues to influence new generations of artists stepping into the spotlight.
If you are familiar with my guest blog posts (check them out here, here and here !) you know I’ve been writing a lot about the most iconic jazz entertainers who graced the stage of Mister Kelly’s and the London House in Chicago. There’s nothing as fascinating to me as an intimate looks at a great performance; these instances of sheer bliss that stand out as some of the finest hours in the careers of the visionary entertainment entrepreneurs George and Oscar Marienthal. April 25, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of Ella’s birth, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate her talents than to listen to her music.
Perhaps you own a copy of that famous Kelly’s recording, re-released in 2007 to coincide with the 90th anniversary of her birth. If that’s the case, then you should dust off that CD cover and pop it into your player; relive that moment when Mister Kelly’s was the most happening place in the country, and when patrons lined up to witness one of the greatest jazz artists sing her wonderful songs in their backyard. Press play as we remember another timeless moment.
If you were there, and have fond memories of Ella’s performance, feel free to share. Let’s all take the time to honor the First Lady of Song the best way we know how.