Ella Fitzgerald And The Lyrics Of The Great American Standards
September 22, 2003 10:02 AM   Subscribe

The Song Is You: If ever there was a perfect singer - and I do mean perfect - it was Ella Fitzgerald. Her Songbooks (please scroll down for the listings and samples) are still - and will always be - the best collection there is of the great American standards. That is, if you don't mind crying and having the little hairs on the nape of your neck stand up and revolt. And swing. They'd be the last records objects I'd be willing to part with: they're the mother's milk of American Western popular culture. So imagine my surprise when I found their perfect counterpart on the Web: the best-ever collection of lyrics to the songs of the greatest American composers: Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Richard Rodgers. Admirably, the compiler has gone way beyond his duty and included wonderful standards (quite a few unknown to me) that even Ella never got around to singing. Thank you, Todd. And God bless you, Sir!
posted by MiguelCardoso (26 comments total)
My favorite Ella song is her astounding version of 'How High the Moon' on Ella in Berlin - Mack the Knife. Ella totally jams in it. I first heard it in a jazz history class in college. The professor said he played it every year, and one time a student ran screaming out of the lecture hall. I guess some people just can't handle Ella. I put the song on one of my MeFi Swap CDs last year, and I can't recommend it more. The rest of the album ain't bad, either.
posted by zsazsa at 11:25 AM on September 22, 2003

I was 23 when I first heard Ella Fitzgerald.

Zhe zhe wai zhe zhe, bu zhe wai bu zhe. (I think.)

She's the top.
posted by ewkpates at 11:27 AM on September 22, 2003

My vote goes to Billie Holiday. Ella could swing, but only Billie could moan.

Though I must say, I've got a collection of tunes recorded for a Hollywood production that didn't quite make it, "Let No Man Write My Epitaph". It features Ella and Paul Smith on piano, and is simply marvelous.

But still no Billie.
posted by rocketman at 11:37 AM on September 22, 2003

Zsazsa! That's my favourite Ella album too! I love the way she adlibs "Mack the Knife", totally jettisoning Brecht's translated Marxist lyrics by going "something something I can't remember...and now the chorus..." and making it into an all-American swingathon. In Berlin. In the Sixties. That's class. John Le Carré, eat your heart out.

My favourite Ella song? Probably "There's A Lull In My Life."
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:37 AM on September 22, 2003

Of course she was no Billie, Rocketman! Ella's voice was smooth as silk and sweet as sugar. Although her singing style was fairly unadorned compared to other female jazz singers, it was (and is) a joy to hear.

A neat collaboration was Ella and Louis. Two voices different as night and day, somehow striking a wonderful balance. You could tell they had great fun, too.
posted by SteveInMaine at 11:44 AM on September 22, 2003

I had a four-month long debate with an ex-roommate of mine.. not so much an argument but more of a 'yeah, but..' brought up once in a while. We finally came to the conclusion that Ella was a better singer, but no one else on earth could do a song like 'Strange Fruit' justice after hearing Billie Holiday sing it.
posted by Space Coyote at 11:49 AM on September 22, 2003

See, I think Ella had a better voice. But Billie was a better singer.
posted by rocketman at 12:25 PM on September 22, 2003

Of course Fitzgerald had a better voice. Holiday's genius was in how much she could do with so little.

Fitzgerald had a great range and incredible pitch control. My only quibble with her is that she always seems to be having such a great time that when she sings a sad song I never really buy it.
posted by timeistight at 12:44 PM on September 22, 2003

I love the Songbooks and Ella & Louis; I can't stand the wild scat-singing stuff. Her live version of "How High the Moon" drives me up the wall—if somebody's written a perfect song that you're lucky enough to be able to sing, why would you chuck it in the garbage and start tossing notes around at random? (Sorry, that's what it sounds like to me.) Scat singing, like hitting high notes on the trumpet, is something that should be left to people who can do it so it sounds just right, and sometimes I think that category doesn't extend beyond Louis Armstrong.

Holiday's genius was in how much she could do with so little.

Miles too.
posted by languagehat at 1:04 PM on September 22, 2003

*cough* Lady Day
posted by Satapher at 1:19 PM on September 22, 2003

In a curious happenstance, I woke up this morning from a bizarrely funny dream in which a couple sang "Makin' Whoopee!"...which also was covered by Ella. The tune was stuck in my head just as I encountered this post.

Thanks for the link, Miguel.
posted by LinusMines at 5:02 PM on September 22, 2003

Ella's performance of Mack the Knife on the Berlin recording of 1960 was a result of a house management request. She knew the tune, yet never performed it before. It was primarily associated (the popular versions) with either Louis Armstrong or Bobby Darin at the time.

Ella chose to sing the request, but actually didn't know all the lyrics (her recollection to me was that she hadn't expected the Germans to notice. I knew Ella quite well many years ago), and few in the house did notice when she simply forgot the next chorus, improvising and scatting the remainder of the tune.

As a result, that recording became immensely popular and for a time was her largest selling record. Before CD's became the norm, the vinyl copy of that Berlin recording could fetch upwards to $135.

Ella returned to Berlin for another gig the next year, that recording is also available (Ella Returns to Berlin), as per the boss (our station produced it), and is also a wonderful recording.

And of course, anything with Ella and Pops together should be required listening.

I honestly don't think there is a single bad recording of her, she was on top the whole damn time. Rare. Damn rare.
posted by bluedaniel at 6:57 PM on September 22, 2003

Wow, thanks bluedaniel, you lucky man! That explains why she mentions Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong in her adlibbing.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:52 PM on September 22, 2003

Nat (Cole) was my first inspiration, then came Ella. Not by choice, but simply by who I was exposed to first and secondary as a child. Now, I can't seperate the two (in admiration). When it comes to the classics, those two are my desert island I suppose.

Miguel, email me your address and I'll ship you a JazzProfiles episode (burned onto CD) we did on Ella for NPR not long ago.

Cheers bro.
posted by bluedaniel at 8:19 PM on September 22, 2003

I just haven't listened to enough Ella to say anything profound here but I would like to note that Louis Armstrong sang with both Ella and Billie and it was magic each time. His duets, My Sweet Hunk O' Trash and You Can't Lose A Broken Heart, with Billie Holiday are both delights. He was the greatest singer.
posted by y2karl at 9:16 PM on September 22, 2003

Yes indeed!
posted by timeistight at 9:26 PM on September 22, 2003

I keep the double disc of Ella's late 30s early 40s DECA days with Chick Webb mixed in with the usual mp3 suspects on my winamp.
Her more popular latter day stuff is a little light and floaty, but the young stuff has the real bounce to it. When I hit "shuffle" and it bumps up against something like Black Flag, it holds it's own.
Current favorite : "When I get low, I get high."
posted by dong_resin at 11:34 PM on September 22, 2003

I'd never noticed this lyric before, and it's from one of my favourite songs -

I've been around the world in a plane, designed the latest IBM brain
But lately I'm so downhearted, 'cause I can't get started with you.

And it's circa 1936.
posted by emf at 11:47 PM on September 22, 2003

The Ella live in berlin album is one of my favourites of hers - She is my favourite singer of all time - It's not fair to compare her to Billie - Ella's pure whereas Billie has lived
posted by dprs75 at 2:25 AM on September 23, 2003

Another vote for Billie.
posted by insomnia_lj at 4:21 AM on September 23, 2003

Ella is the queen - always will be. Billie is marvelous, and can rip your heart out, but Ella, well Ella is sublime.

And BlueDaniel - thanks! Ella forgetting the words on Mack has always been one of my all time favorite tracks, but I never knew the backstory.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:17 AM on September 23, 2003

I have the Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook and I have almost worn the damn CDs out. She is great and I love the lyrical stylin' of Porter.

I don't even try to compare Ella and Billie. Each one is great for a specific mood I might have but that doesn't mean one is better than the other.
posted by Dagobert at 5:58 AM on September 23, 2003

Ella Fitzgerald, the most beautiful human voice of all time. I consider the complete songbooks the greatest work of art in the history of the United States (her version of "Miss Otis Regrets" alone is sublime beyond description). God bless her a million times.
I almost missed this wonderful FPP. Thanks, Miguel.
posted by 111 at 7:38 AM on September 23, 2003

designed the latest IBM brain

I seriously doubt this was circa 1936. Singers are constantly adapting lyrics, and I don't recall hearing this on really old recordings. This has the best approximation to the original lyrics I've found on the internet (note the caveat "The words are sometimes altered to fit the time-frame and gender of a performer"); does anybody have a better source?

Here's a nice piece on the history of "I Can't Get Started" (pointing out the oddity of the line "I've settled revolutions in Spain").
posted by languagehat at 9:57 AM on September 23, 2003

Dagobert said it best, no?

If MetaFilter digs jazz, and Ella, Billie and the like, then my confidence in the internet is completely restored.

if I could, I'd buy you all a beer.

I told Miguel (Cardoso) I'd send him a copy of a Jazz Profiles we did on her at NPR. He's concerned the overseas shipment may be too much for me to bother. Not so, I'll send it.

The same goes for any member of MeFi, if you want a copy, or a copy of any program* we've done (that I've archived), please write me and I'll fire off a disc to you.

(*excludes the interview we did with Matt. You have send hard cash for that one, heh heh).
posted by bluedaniel at 11:36 AM on September 23, 2003

Noted, languagehat, thank you.
posted by emf at 3:07 PM on September 23, 2003

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