“Detour Ahead” (1959) Ella Fitzgerald

“Detour Ahead”

Composed by Johnny Frigo, Lou Carter and Herb Ellis. (* see below).

Recorded by Ella Fitzgerald with Herb Ellis, guitar, on March 25, 1959 for Verve in Hollywood.

The story: By the time this recording was made at the end of the 1950s, Ella Fitzgerald (at left, mid-1950s) was well on her way to international stardom as the “First Lady of Song.” Since the mid-1930s, when she was the featured singer with drummer Chick Webb’s band (which she had a great deal to do with lifting to national recognition), she had been one of the hardest working artists on the swing/jazz/pop music scene.

Despite Ella’s enormous talent as a singer, her career through the 1940s and into the early 1950s had been directed by people whose view of how that talent should be showcased was based on 1930s ideas. That meant lots of one-nighter tours, as many radio broadcasts and recordings as possible, and stands at theaters, usually as a part a vaudeville-style series of acts.This method of management, which by the end of the 1940s was essentially on autopilot, was never seriously questioned by Ella.

Decca Records, the label on which Ella made her first recording as a singer with Chick Webb’s band, had continued their relationship with her throughout the 1940s and indeed into the mid-1950s. Despite the considerable efforts of Decca producer Milt Gabler, Decca used Ella largely as a pop singer to record evanescent pop tunes.

In 1949, for various reasons, the dynamic 31 year-old jazz impresario Norman Granz booked Ella for the first time as a part of what had by then had become a very successful series of package tours of jazz performers called Jazz at The Philharmonic (JATP).(1) Granz had admired Ella for a long time, but had never thought her to be in the same league as Billie Holiday as a singer and jazz artist. But the incredibly high quality and consistency of Ella as an on-stage performer, and her undeniably powerful effect on audiences on that first JATP tour changed his mind. Much like Louis Armstrong (and unlike Billie Holiday), Ella always wanted to perform, and (unless incapacitated by illness) was always prepared to perform at optimum levels. In addition, she was quite capable of standing beside the best jazz musicians in the world, and by using her voice wordlessly to sing (scatting), improvise along with them. Audiences invariably loved her singing, her scatting, and her pleasant, modest stage personality. Almost immediately, she became a big audience draw for JATP.

Norman Granz (shown at left-mid 1950s) surveyed Ella’s management team (and her Decca recording contract), and found them to be lacking. In 1951, he attempted to buy out the remainder of her contract with Decca, but was rebuffed by Decca’s head Dave Kapp, brother of Jack Kapp (1901-1949) who controlled Ella’s recording activities at Decca, and understood that Ella had been an annuity for Decca since the mid-1930s. In addition, Ella’s personal manager, Moe Gale, who had represented her since the 1930s when she was with Chick Webb (and who had her power of attorney), when he sensed what Granz was attempting, hurriedly renewed her contract with Decca in October of 1951 for another five years. (One wonders what consideration Gale might have received from Decca for doing that.) Gale had refused to sign her with Granz’s own labels Norgran/Clef (later Verve) (2), because he thought Granz was just another upstart in the record business (there were many in the late 1940s and into the 1950s), with no track record. (Decca, by contrast, was one of the four major labels then, along with RCA Victor, Columbia and Capitol.) These actions by Gale and Kapp, which Granz suspected were collusive, as well as their generally dismissive and arrogant attitudes toward him, greatly irritated and frustrated the hard-driving Granz. Nevertheless, he maintained his cool, bided his time, and continued to use Ella on his JATP tours. By 1953, she was grossing more that $50,000.00 annually just off JATP (multiply by at least five to get value in dollars today), and Moe Gale was receiving his agent’s commissions off these earnings in exchange for essentially doing nothing.

In the fall of 1953, Norman Granz began having serious discussions with Ella Fitzgerald about becoming her personal manager. Her long-term contract with Moe Gale was about to expire in December of that year. Despite the fact that Ella was dissatisfied with Gale’s representation in many respects, she was still afraid to leave him, and reluctant to sign with Granz. Norman then proposed that he represent her, with no contract and no commissions, for one year, as a trial. When Ella’s contract with Gale terminated, she did not re-sign with him, and associated herself with Granz. (As a parting gift to Ella, Gale did not pay the taxes due on her JATP earnings. Granz, as an additional consideration to Ella, paid those taxes.) Granz took over her personal management, and immediately began working to increase Ella’s profile as a great singer, and increase her asking prices. He was very successful in doing both. He remained Ella’s personal manager for the next forty-plus years, never having a written contract with her. (Above right: Norman Granz and Ella Fitzgerald-early 1950s.)

Despite the major improvements in Ella’s performing career engineered by Granz through 1954 and 1955, she was still contracted to Decca Records, with the term of that contract running until October of 1956. Her relationship with Decca did not improve after Granz became her personal manager at the end of 1953. This was a source of continuing frustration for both of them because Granz was planning to launch a new record label, Verve, which would use Ella as its prime attraction, but he would not do that without Ella.

Then something happened that provided Granz with not only the golden key to free Ella from Decca, but also a large measure of schadenfreude, especially toward Decca’s Jack Kapp. In June of 1955, Universal Pictures began pre-recording the soundtrack for the film The Benny Goodman Story, which was to be a major motion picture and receive major promotion. The people at Universal began contracting with many musicians who had worked with Benny Goodman in the past, including Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson and Stan Getz, to not only perform on the soundtrack for the film, but also to appear in it. Granz knew that he had exclusive recording contracts with these musicians (all of whom appeared frequently for JATP), but said nothing as pre-recording and filming with these men proceeded. His spirits soared ever higher as Universal continued with production of the film, spending huge sums of money in the process.

When the film was finished, Granz let it be known at Universal that he had exclusive recording contracts with Krupa, Wilson and Getz, and that some consideration would have to come his way, or he would tie up release of the film, and the original soundtrack album, which was to be issued on the Decca label. Cutting out the parts of the film that included Wilson and Getz was considered, but the drummer Krupa played on every bar of music in the film and on the soundtrack album. The people at Universal were apoplectic as they considered this situation. Granz also knew that there was a substantial legal relationship between Decca Records and Universal International Pictures. When emissaries from Universal came to him, he said only: “Let’s get Dave Kapp on the phone now.” The conversation was brief. Granz proposed that if Universal wanted to release its film, and its soundtrack album on Decca, it had to release Ella Fitzgerald from her contract with Decca Records immediately. Dave Kapp knew when he was checkmated, and he released Ella immediately.(3)

Norman Granz would thereafter be Ella’s personal manager, booking agent and record producer. The golden age of Ella Fitzgerald on Verve Records was about to begin.

The music: I have always greatly appreciated Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of “Detour Ahead” because of the song’s lovely melody and metaphorical, poetic lyric, her superb singing, and the intimate mood created by her and her accompanist, guitarist Herb Ellis. This magnificent performance captures Ella at her peak. The quality of her voice, her spot-on pitch, her totally relaxed phrasing — all are to be savored. In addition, every note, nuance and inflection are suffused with swing. She also performs this song rubato, as a good jazz musician would. This out-of-tempo approach allows the music to float. This performance is a textbook example of a tremendously talented singer, whose skills have been polished to perfection by 25 years of performing in almost every conceivable venue, often with many of the greatest musicians in the history of jazz, doing what she loved — singing a beautiful ballad.

The story continues:  At various times over the years, I began to learn very slowly about how and when the song “Detour Ahead”  was composed, and about the song’s three listed composers. Then I met one of the song’s composers, Johnny Frigo, and the young man who was assisting Mr. Frigo, who by that time, was elderly. That young man’s name is Alfred Ticoalu. Suddenly, largely as a result of the research and writing of Alfred Ticoalu, a factual mosaic took shape explaining these things.

Here is a summary of Alfred’s investigative reporting about the creation of “Detour Ahead.” “In the summer of 2000, I moved to Chicago where one fall night I was introduced to Johnny Frigo by multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan at Chicago’s Jazz Showcase. I asked him whether he was the Frigo credited (as a co-composer) of “Detour Ahead,” which he confirmed. Several days later, we met at a diner where we chatted more, and he told me his side of the story in regards to “Detour Ahead.” He mentioned that he conceived the idea for the song, including the lyrics, on a trip to New York City while he was still with the Soft Winds (Trio). (This would have been in the late 1940s – MZ.)  He brought it to a (Soft Winds) rehearsal, and showed it to (the other members of the Soft Winds, guitarist Herb Ellis and pianist Lou Carter). They ran it once, after which Carter suggested that a chord be changed and that the words ‘gullible clown’ be used (in the lyric). Frigo liked these suggestions and adopted them. He (Frigo) later told me that he put down (all three names of the members of the Soft Winds as co-composers) so they could split the royalties three ways.”(Money was tight and Frigo wanted to keep the group together.) (The Soft Winds Trio – L-R: Herb Ellis, guitar; Johnny Frigo, bass; Lou Carter, piano-late 1940s. Later in his career, Frigo concentrated his playing on violin.)

What seemed to start a controversy was the fact that Herb Ellis, on a live Concord Records recording he made in 1974 with bassist Ray Brown, said to the audience: “Ray and I are going to play a tune for you entitled ‘Detour Ahead.’ It just so happens that this is another of my tunes.” When Frigo heard this, he took umbrage.

“I then (in 2001)contacted Ellis, and in the course of our brief telephone conversation …(discussed) ‘Detour Ahead.’ Ellis used the words ‘co-wrote’ and ‘wrote together’ during this discussion. I mentioned the Concord recording where he said that ‘Detour Ahead’ was ‘another of my tunes.’ He then retorted that was a ‘spur of the moment’ comment, and said that (he knew) how upset Frigo was about this. Ellis also mentioned that he wrote a letter to Frigo explaining his side of the story, and that I should discuss it further with him (Frigo). I did bring this up during my next conversation with Frigo. He produced the letter (a bit) later and let me read it. Frigo confirmed that he was indeed upset after he heard (Ellis’s Concord recording of ‘Detour Ahead,’) and contacted Ellis afterward. …The letter explained that the announcement during the recording was spur of the moment, and that it was shorter to say it that way, and (Ellis) asked Frigo to understand the situation. I said to Frigo that maybe Ellis was entitled to say (what he said) because his name was (listed as a co-composer of the song). Frigo replied that just because he put Ellis’s name on the composition did not make it his song, and it did not give him the right to (refer to it as his tune), since he should have known that it was not his in the first place.” (Below right: Johnny Frigo-1990s.)

“At this point I had heard (both Frigo’s and Ellis’s) sides of the story, each from their own perspective. What was left for me to do was to contact the third member of the Soft Winds Trio (Lou Carter), and get his perspective. After introducing myself to Carter, I told him what I had heard from Ellis and Frigo (about ‘Detour Ahead’). He immediately told me: ‘It was John’s idea, not Herbie’s, not mine. I did suggest a word or two and a chord, but that hardly made it my tune. The whole confusion started when Herbie’s attorney decided to make him the sole composer of the tune. I’m not sure what the full intention was, but it sure created a mess.’  Carter also added that if he had chosen to do so, Frigo could have taken legal action to be declared the sole composer of the tune, and he (Carter) would have testified for him. But Frigo never did that. He kept his word and honored the agreement he proposed during the Soft Winds (Trio) days to split the royalties three ways.” (4)(5)

(1) Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP), came into existence at a concert on Sunday, July 2, 1944, at the Philharmonic AuditoriumLos Angeles, and featured Illinois JacquetJack McVeaJ. J. JohnsonShorty SherockNat King ColeLes Paul, Johnny Miller, Meade Lux LewisBumps MyersJoe SullivanBuddy RichRandall MillerBud HatchMarie BryantRed CallenderLee Young, and Carolyn Richards. Illinois Jacquet, Nat King Cole and Les Paul, in particular, created a sensation. The title of the concert had been shortened by the printer of the advertising supplements from “A Jazz Concert at the Philharmonic Auditorium” to “Jazz at the Philharmonic”. Norman Granz organized the concert with about $300 of borrowed money. 

(2) Initially, Granz’s JATP recordings were issued on the Mercury record label, and distributed by Mercury. Later, they were issued on Verve.

(3) Many details about Norman Granz’s gradual representation of Ella Fitzgerald as her personal manager/booking agent/recording producer through the 1950s were obtained from the book Norman Granz …The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice (2011), by Ted Hershorn. After Jack Kapp’s death on March 25, 1949 as a result of a cerebral hemhorrage he suffered in a taxi in Manhattan, his brother Dave ran Decca Records with Milton Rackmil.

(4) The information regarding Johnny Frigo and his involvement in the creation of the song “Detour Ahead” is excerpted from the third installment of Alfred Ticoalu’s article on the Soft Winds Trio, which appeared in the IAJRC Journal, Vol. 47 No. 2, June 2014, 12-19. I feel that I have to add this note, which was included in the above-said article by Alfred Ticoalu: “I became acquainted with Frigo after I moved to Chicago in 2000, and befriended him. Later on, he requested me to assist him as his road manager. My personal relationship with Frigo did not take precedent over my integrity as a music researcher/writer. I have kept them separate at all times.”

(5) In the 1950s, Lou Carter became “Louie the Singing Cabbie” on TV.

The recording used in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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  1. Mike
    Excellent article!
    Not only was it fascinating listening to Ella’s voice again (I grew up watching her perform on TV), but I loved the backstory of Granz eventually checkmating Decca and Gale and representing her for the next 40 years without contract. (Loved the “annuity” description of Decca’s putting Ella’s money-making abilities on autopilot).
    You also gotta love Mr. Frigo’s efforts regarding the “Detour Ahead” ownership of royal rights. How many times do that ever happen?
    Finally, listening to Ella sing this song really makes you appreciate once again her wonderful talent.
    Bravo, Mr. Zirpolo.

  2. Mike, as always tremendously researched and written! “Detour Ahead” is not a song in the ordinary sense of the word; nevertheless, Ella makes it a unique story. I spent a wonderful time with Ella at our hotel after she closed the North Sea Jazz Festival at The Hague in Holland in 1979. She came into the hotel lounge alone, and I kissed her hand before our chat. Henry.

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