It was 1938, and Ella Fitzgerald was bugging arranger Al Feldman to do something with the old nursery rhyme "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." So Feldman went home and fiddled. "I put the piece into a 32-bar frame. I added the release (middle section), the bridge, and wrote all the novelty lyrics, including the dialog between Ella and the band where they sang 'Was it red? No, no, no, no. Was it blue? No, no, no, no." Fitzgerald recorded the song on May 2, 1938. "I had no idea," Feldman says, "what to expect. Recording music is much like the game of roulette, using ten-inch 78RPM platters as the chips."
Al Feldman was born Alexander Van Vliet Feldman in Harlem on May 2, 1915. In 1936 he found himself arranging for the Chick Webb Orchestra, the house band at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Soon he received an offer to become a band leader himself, and he changed his legal name to Van Alexander.
His story is recounted in "From Harlem to Hollywood: My Life In Music" by Van Alexander with Stephen Fratallone ($19.95 in paperback from BearManor Media). Alexander writes me that the book is "a finalist for the 2010 Association for Recorded Sound Collections Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research."
Fratallone is a Chico writer and jazz aficionado who has ably translated Van's first-person reminiscences to the printed page. The book contains dozens of black-and-white photographs as well as a discography.
About that nursery rhyme. "Lady Luck was on our side. The record broke big. It became the nation's number one hit song that summer, staying at that position on the Lucky Strike Hit Parade radio show for nineteen consecutive weeks."
The book is plain fun to read. After Alexander moved to Hollywood he worked with Les Brown, the musical director of the Dean Martin Show. There are plenty of stories.
"I started off as an arranger," Alexander says, "then composer, and then band leader. If I had made any contribution to the world of music, I hope it was to bring credibility, respect, and importance to the task of helping to make a piece of music sound like it has a life of its own." A fitting goal, admirably realized.