Saturday, September 11, 2010

Ella Fitzgerald, a picture book and Ride 'Em Cowboy (1942)

The Best of Abbott & Costello, Vol. 1 (Buck Privates / Hold That Ghost / In the Navy / Keep 'Em Flying / One Night in the Tropics / Pardon My Sarong / Ride 'Em Cowboy / Who Done It?)It was very common back in the day for established musicians to grace the silver screen with a cameo in a motion picture. There are a few notable appearances among Jazz greats in classic films. Examples include Louis Armstrong in High Society (1956) and Pennies from Heaven (1936), Duke Ellington in Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in Cabin in the Sky (1943), Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne in The Man with the Golden Arm (1959), Chet Baker in an Italian-movie-you'll-never-see-because-it-was-destroyed, etc. Musicians appeared in the popular Abbott and Costello films including The Andrews Sisters, Dick Powell and someone I didn't quite expect to find: Ella Fitzgerald.

Let me start by expressing my love and adoration for Ella Fitzgerald and her music. There isn't a song of hers that I don't enjoy and my iPod/iPhone is filled with Ella's music including some of her duets with Louis Armstrong. There is a sense of joy in her music that always seems to be cut in turn by sadness. It's as though she's elated to be belting out these tunes but they come from a place that is melancholy at best. Her songs are heartfelt and they sound and feel that way. And then some of her songs are just downright sexy! My favorite of her songs include: April in Paris (from 1956), I Let a Song Go out of My Heart, How About Me?, All the Things You Are, Just One of Those Things, From This Moment On, The Man I Love, I'm Beginning to See the Light, Love You Madly, and I'm particularly enamored with her Dream A Little Dream of Me duet with Louis.

I enjoy the opening lyrics of How About Me?. And the way Ella sings them just about breaks my heart:

It's over, all over - And soon somebody else - will make a fuss about you - but how about me?

For those of you who are not already aware, my day job is at a children's book publisher. I've been in the book business since I was 17 (which is ::mumble:: years now) and as a classic film fan I'm really happy to see that the book industry and my hobby find many ways to connect with each other. However, it doesn't happen often at my work.

Back in December, I near fell out of my chair when I found out that we were publishing a picture book about Ella Fitzgerald. It's called Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald written by Roxane Orgill and illustrated by Sean Qualls. There are so many wonderful things about this book. Orgill, who writes picture books about historical figures (including one on Fred and Adele Astaire!), is a fabulous writer and Qualls' illustrations are rich and lush (I can't stand faded pastels that are so common in kids books these days).

I was trying to figure out something unique to call out the title on the company's Facebook page. So I took a moment to read the inside flap of the dust jacket to learn more about the author and illustrator. The company tries to include quotes from the author or illustrator about what inspired them to write or illustrate the book. This is the quote from Orgill:

"Although I'd known Ella Fitzgerald's singing for ages, I didn't 'get' her until I saw a film clip of her singing 'A Tisket, A Tasket' standing in the aisle of a bus. She was both guileless child and determined adult, a combination I had never encountered. The image plus the sound was like opening a door."

Film clip? Film? What film? A classic film? Wait what? A clip from a classic film inspired this picture book?!

I immediately did Google searches and found the following clip from the Abbott and Costello film Ride 'Em Cowboy (1942):

Lyrics to A-Tisket, A-Tasket

A-tisket, A-tasket
A brown and yellow basket
I send a letter to my mommy
on the way I dropped it

I dropped it, I dropped it
yes on the way I dropped it
a little girlie picked it up
and put it in her pocket

She was truckin' on down the avenue
with not a single thing to do
she was a peck peck pecking all around
when she spied it on the ground

She took it, she took it
my little yellow basket
and if she doesn't bring it back
I think that I will die

Oh dear, I wonder where my basket can be?

Oh gee, I wish that little girl I could see?

Oh why was I so careless with that basket of mine?
That itty bitty basket was the joy of mine.

A tisket, A tasket
I lost my yellow basket
won't someone help me find my basket
and make me happy again

A-Tisket, A-Tasket was a very important song for Ella. She wrote the song, based on an old nursery rhyme, while she was traveling with the Chick Webb band. It was the first song that became a major radio hit for the band and put Ella Fitzgerald on the map in 1938. Four years later, she would sing the song again in her very first appearance in a motion picture.

I posted the clip of Ella singing "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" on Facebook almost immediately after finding it on YouTube. What better way to pitch the book than by showing the film clip that inspired it's creation? Then I e-mailed my good friend and co-worker Frank who just happens to be an Abbott and Costello enthusiast. I had never seen Ride 'Em Cowboy, nor any other Abbott and Costello film for that matter, and I didn't even know Ella Fitzgerald was ever even in a movie! Frank lent me the The Best of Abbott & Costello, Vol. 1 which contained the film so I could see it for myself.

Ella Fitzgerald doesn't just have the "A Tisket, A Tisket" scene, she has a minor role in the film as Ruby, a member of a traveling rodeo. That's rodeo pronounced "row-day-oh" not "row-dee-oh". She has one other musical number singing "Rockin' and Reelin'" with The Merry Macs. You can watch that clip here.

If you are a fan of Ella Fitzgerald, make sure you check out both Ride 'Em Cowboy (1942) as well as Orgill & Qualls picture book!

P.S. There is a giveaway on Goodreads for a copy of the book. I highly encourage you to sign up for the contest if you are a Goodreads member! The contest ends on Monday so hurry up.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald (Hardcover) by Roxane Orgill

Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat

by Roxane Orgill

Giveaway ends September 13, 2010.
See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win


  1. Ella was by far the best. No one ever can touch her. Another fun cameo is Louis Prima singing "I'm an Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande" in Bing Crosby's Rhythm on the Range.
    Great site.

  2. I'd known about Ella's appearance in Ride 'Em Cowboy since childhood, but then I have pretty much seen every single Abbott and Costello movie ever made! While Hope and Crosby may have been bigger names than Abbott and Costello, I think Abbott and Costello had more musical talents in their movies!

    Anyhow Ella was truly great. She endowed every song she sang with emotion of which only a few singers were capable. She was fantastic.

    BTW, I didn't know you had been in the book business for only a year. *grin*

  3. Wonderful post about one of the greatest singers of all time! The idea of presenting classic stuff to kids this way is genius! Let's hope someone makes a colorful book about the early talkies some day. I'm sure it would work.

    My first encounter with Ella Fitzgerald was an old 78 from 1937 I got when I was about 10. Holiday In Harlem, Ella was 20 and not yet famous, singing with Chick Webb. Her timing is simply superb even though her voice had yet to mature.

    The eight song-book sets, starting off with Cole Porter in 1956 and ending with Johnny Mercer in 1964 is probably the best work she ever did. My favorite is the wonderful Gershwin set from 1959. Ella is at her absolute peak vocally and Nelson Riddle's arrangement of But Not For Me is one of the most beautiful renditions of this song ever recorded.

    The world needs more Ella!

  4. What a fun clip! I admire Ella Fitzgerald's singing too, but hadn't known she appeared in films--especially not row-day-oh films with singing cowboys!

  5. I enjoyed your post! I'll have to look for that Abbott & Costello film. I love that there is a children's book on her; I've seen the one on the Astaires, but had no idea this was coming.

    I have many Fitzgerald albums -- my favorite has always been the Rodgers & Hart Songbook. Her rendition of "With a Song in My Heart" inspired us to have it sung at our wedding. My other favorite track is "Dancing on the Ceiling."

    Best wishes,

  6. That book looks so neat! I love the illustration.

    My favorite Ella Fitzgerald song is "Once Too Often" ... it's regularly on "repeat" on my ipod :-)

  7. Great post. I love how everything ties in, the film, the music, the children's book, and your exploration of all three.

  8. FlickChick - thanks for stopping by!

    Mercurie - You always know how to flatter me! :-)

    Jonas - The world DEFINITELY needs more Ella. And it would be better for it.

    John - It seems strange to see Ella without her fitted evening gown, with braids, cowgirl boots and cowgirl clothes!

    Laura - Thanks for your comments. The company I work for publishes the one on the Astaires. :-)

    Kate - I don't think I've ever heard of "Once Too Often". I'll have to check that out based on your recommendation.

    Jacqueline - I love when things all tie together. Something about that makes me so happy!

  9. Great clip - but oh, it would be so fascinating to know how that scene was received by audiences in 1942 when African Americans had to sit at the back of the bus in Southern states. I wonder how a scene of her confidently wandering up and down the aisle while the white passengers looked on happily would have gone down! I can imagine that for some black viewers, it might have been quite a powerful, empowering image? And maybe the scene was even cut out of the film in some areas, because I know that that did happen with some of Lena Horne's scenes in other movies. Be really interesting to know.


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