Home » Stories » Ella Fitzgerald in top form on previously unknown 'Berlin Lost Tapes' / Jazz History Online

Top 10 for Jan

Ella Fitzgerald in top form on previously unknown 'Berlin Lost Tapes' / Jazz History Online

Bookmark and Share

Jazz History Online's THOMAS CUNNIFFE writes.......As her numerous concert recordings reveal, Ella Fitzgerald would eagerly accept song requests-even for songs that weren't part of her repertoire. One such request was the basis of one of her greatest triumphs. Someone who attended Fitzgerald's Berlin concert in 1960 requested "Mack the Knife", and when she introduced the song on stage, she admitted that she wasn't sure that she knew all of the lyrics. Nonetheless, she jumped in, and when she forgot the words, she brilliantly improvised her way out of trouble. The crowd went wild, as if they were secretly hoping to hear her as she worked her way out of a jam. Although Fitzgerald would never admit it, improvising her way out of trouble was one of her unique gifts. When she returned to the newly-separated city of Berlin  the following year, she had mastered those troublesome lyrics, and the audience cheered politely. "Mack" reappears in the 1962 Berlin concert, newly released as "Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes". Once again, the lyrics are correct, and her imitation of Louis Armstrong is recognized and appreciated, but the strangest mistake comes at the end of the track, when she forgets the city where she is singing! Naturally, the audience forgives her-as if they had any other choice. Fitzgerald performs at her normally high level throughout the concert. She makes "My Kind of Boy" into an artistic Superman who combines the best qualities of Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole, Count Basie and Harry Belafonte. She wails on "Cry Me a River"-who said that Ella couldn't communicate tragedy?-glides through a couple of Fred Astaire specialties, "Cheek to Cheek" and "I Won't Dance", and is spellbinding on "Someone to Watch Over Me". "Jersey Bounce" is a medium-tempo scat vehicle, and "Angel Eyes"-a favorite Fitzgerald ballad at the time-gets an intimate reading, primarily accompanied by piano (Paul Smith) and bass (Wilfred Middlebrooks), with drums (Stan Levey) only appearing on the coda. Levey gets the spotlight on "Clap Hands! Here Comes Charlie" as he drives the arrangement through its various twists and turns, and then contributes a fine solo. Smith was an outstanding accompanist (hear him cover an early entrance by Fitzgerald on "Good Morning Heartache") but I've never cared for him as a soloist. The fills he adds on "Taking a Chance on Love" are flashy and do nothing to enhance the performance. "Hallelujah, I Love Him So" is hardly a typical Fitzgerald vehicle, but like "Mack" two years earlier, she approaches it with gusto. The audience loves it so much that Fitzgerald sings the whole number again, this time with considerable variations to the original melody, and an extended vamp. "Summertime" acts as a blueprint for the stunning version Fitzgerald filmed in Germany six years later. "Mr. Paganini" is instantly recognized by the audience, and someone in the hall provides the "mournful cry" mentioned in the verse. After the nearly-perfect "Mack", Fitzgerald closes the concert with a request for a blues. She tells the audience that she didn't know many blues tunes (however, she did record an all-blues album later in 1962) and while her version of "Wee Baby Blues" was a far cry from Big Joe Turner, it's a fun ride as Fitzgerald improvises new verses to the delight of the crowd. With the abundance of live Fitzgerald sets available, it's hard to single out any album as the best example. Still, this previously unknown Berlin concert is a good representation of Ella Fitzgerald in top form.

SEE THE Jazz History Online's THOMAS CUNNIFFE writes