Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Emmy Award winner and Grammy Award nominee Geoffrey Mark. Geoffrey has been called a “walking encyclopedia of show business history.” A singer/stand-up comedian in nightclubs and cabarets, and an Off-Broadway veteran, Geoffrey has hosted radio series, written comedy for several stand-up comedians, and writes and produces documentaries and reality shows for cable television. Mark has three best-selling books, including The Lucy Book and is the producer of Nigel: Come Back to Me, a CD with a seventeen-piece Big Band. Geoffrey has recently authored Ella: A Biography of the Legendary Ella Fitzgerald.
Norm: Good day Geoffrey and thanks for participating in our interview.
Geoffrey: It is an honor and a pleasure. Thank you for asking me!
Norm: What motivated you to write about Ella Fitzgerald and how did you become involved with it?
Geoffrey: I like to write about people who are the absolute best at what they do. Ella Fitzgerald was, is, and for the foreseeable future will be the greatest jazz singer who ever lived. No one can match her tonal quality, her phrasing, her harmonics, her sense of rhythm and her use of time. The breadth of her recording canon will never be matched. She is the most recorded female pop singer in history.
I became involved when I had lunch one day with Val Valentin, the lovely man who was her recording engineer both at Verve and at Pablo Records. He felt that Ella’s story was going to get lost in time unless someone started asking the right people the right questions before they all passed away. He thought that I was the right person.
What is the most important thing that people don't know about
Ella that they need to know?
Geoffrey: How hard Ella worked in so many areas of her life. The talent was a gift from God, but the work involved to refine and perfect it was back-breaking. At the height of her popularity, Ella was touring over forty weeks a year, two shows a night, six days a week. On top of that, she made hundreds of radio and television appearances all over the world, appeared as an actress in four films, and recorded well over 100 albums. That effort alone ruined her health.
Ella also had to work hard to be an African-American woman in an industry that was dominated by white males. She had to suffer the slings of discrimination because of her color and because of her gender. Ella never made a big deal of it because she always kept her private life very private. But before there was a woman’s movement, there was Ella breaking down barriers. During the early days of the civil rights movement, Ella contributed with her talent and her personal finances. Later on, she personally financed a center for children in Watts.
How long did it take you to write Ella: A Biography of the Legendary
Ella Fitzgerald and what was the most difficult part of
writing your book?
Geoffrey: The research took over twenty years, and the actual writing about five. The hardest part was everyone’s hesitancy to discuss Ella’s personal life. She was a most private woman who relished keeping her life away from the stage to herself. In my book I tell the true story of her life and her career, and I do so lovingly and respectfully. What is true is shared, but not salaciously or with the flavor of gossip.
Norm: What was your writing routine when writing about Ella, i.e. how did you plan the book and how many hours a day did you devote to its writing?
Geoffrey: I am not necessarily making a joke, but I worked every single day until my fingers hurt. Sometimes I found myself at the computer for twenty-four straight hours at a time. Other days, I typed less but I thought more. And, of course, the hundreds of hours I spent listening to every song she ever recorded (including those that were never released), watching every television appearance that still exists and the hundreds of hours I spent interviewing hundreds of people don’t count in the actual writing.
Norm: Did you seek input from anyone concerning the book once it was completed?
Geoffrey: The only input I accepted (once the book was completed) was from my editor and publisher, Mies Hora.
Norm: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them? As a follow up, what do you hope will be the everlasting thoughts for readers who finish your book?
Geoffrey: My goal was to write a tome that would be the ultimate resource for anyone wanting to know about a life that was fascinating, thrilling, pain-filled and horrific – and the career of a performer who is the embodiment of show business history and the Great American Songbook and whose name stands equal to Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Barbra Streisand as the greatest in singing history.
Norm: Can you share some stories about people you met while researching this book?
Geoffrey: I could write another large book about the people I met along the way. It is difficult to describe how it feels to be in the presence of musical geniuses. Some of them, like Ella, were very shy. A few had axes to grind about Ella’s long-time manager and record producer, Norman Granz. I was blessed to get to know all of Ella’s great pianists and to spend quality time with all of them – Lou Levy, Paul Smith, Tommy Flanagan, Oscar Peterson. Each had a different point of view about the woman and her career.
In the book, I tell the two stories that meant the most to me personally. One is about Frank Sinatra and the other about Joe Pass. Mr. Sinatra could not have been nicer to me, but he almost cost me the ability to publish the book. Joe Pass, the genius jazz guitarist who made four studio albums with Ella – just the two of them -- became a personal friend, and I write about his illness and our time together in the book as well. Getting to know him and love him, and then watching him die from cancer, was one of the great heartbreaks for me.
Norm: What are some of the references that you used while researching this book? As a follow up, did any of Ella's memoirs (if she had any) play a significant role in your research?
Geoffrey: Ella never wrote her memoir, and at the time I wrote the manuscript, there were no other books to use as a guide. I really was on my own as far as style and format. Because, while she was alive, I interacted with her office and became a small part of her performing life (and because I saw her perform in-person more than twenty-five times), I was able to write from personal observation. I was also able to bring the perspective of being a performer myself. I understand what it means to travel from town to town, what it means to have an off-night, how it feels to stand in that spotlight and be completely focused on making the people happy. My great knowledge of show business history also helped tremendously.
Norm: Can you tell us how you found representation for your book? Did you pitch it to an agent, or query publishers who would most likely publish this type of book? Any rejections? Did you self-publish?
Geoffrey: This is going to sound so corny, but it is true. I met my publisher at a show business event, as we were both there to see delightful Loretta Swit. He is her publisher as well, for her wonderful book about her work with animals called ‘Switheart”. He and I had dinner together and a book was born. I did not need to use an agent. The publisher literally came to me. I am a blessed man. Naturally, I used agents for the other books I wrote.
Norm: What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
Geoffrey: Answering all of
the questions that floated around in my own mind about Ella and her
music. And the people. Getting to meet the greatest musicians and
singers in the world. In writing the book, I received a Master’s
Class education in jazz.
Norm: What did you think makes a good biography?
Geoffrey: There absolutely must be a good story to tell. If the story is not there, why bother? The author must have some affinity for the subject, and the proper style that serves the story. I do not enjoy biographies that have a pre-conceived agenda to either idolize or denigrate the subject before the book is even started. If one does diligent and thorough research, one becomes an expert. It takes an expert who has writing talent to fashion a good biography. Tell the truth, tell it well, tell it completely and tell it with affection. If those criteria are met, one has a good biography.
Norm: What will you be doing for promotion of your book and how much of it is your doing?
Geoffrey: I will be doing book signings in Palm Springs, Los Angeles. San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. In each city, I will also be doing a cabaret show in night clubs of songs from Ella’s canon, interweaved with stories of her music. All of the profits will go to the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation. We will also be reaching out to not-for-profit places, such as schools and universities and other charities. I want to reach as many people as possible. And naturally, I will be doing as many radio and television appearances as can be booked. My superb publicist Harlan Boll is handling all of that for me. He is the best in the business and I am in very good hands! I am doing all of the booking of performing venues myself – Harlan is handling everything else.
Norm: Are you working on any books/projects that you would like to share with us? (We would love to hear all about them!)
Geoffrey: Yes, indeed! Next year we will be coming out with a completely new and greatly updated version of “The Lucy Book”, which will cover Miss Ball’s entire performing career – movies, radio, television and theatre. After that, I am hoping to have my own memoir published in 2020.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about Ella: A Biography of the Legendary Ella Fitzgerald?
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Geoffrey: How do we book you for interviews or events? For events, such as singing, lecturing, teaching, etc., please contact me on Facebook. I would be happy to bring my show on Ella anywhere it is wanted. For interviews or media appearances, please contact Harlan Boll at http://www.bhbpr.com.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.