Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, would have been 100 years old this year. Many of you might know I worship the ground this woman walked on. Ella could do it all, she had a wonderful warm tone, incredible range, ridiculous dexterity and the ability to improvise like a demon.
I collect as many of her albums as I can, and much as I love the cozy intimacy of the studio albums it’s the live recordings that I get most enjoyment out of, but as I am wont to say, “Live music – it’s the best thing for you!”
One of my favourite concerts took place in Berlin on February 13th 1960. For my money, Ella, then aged 43 was vocally untouchable at this point in her career. Accompanied by her excellent quartet Paul Smith on piano, Jim Hall guitar, Wilfred Middlebrooks on bass and Gus Johnson on drums every song is fantastic but one in particular has captivated music lovers to this day.
Ella sings Mack The Knife in front of 12,000 people but forgets most of the words, so she makes them up, her tone never falters for a second even though most singers would be cowering in a corner.
Over time a cynical voice at the back of my head has been quietly asking, “Was it a set up? Could a spontaneous performance be that good?”
So I was thrilled to recently read an interview with Wilfred Middlebrooks Ella’s bass player. He said Ella would rarely deviate from the set list on tour. She might change the encore every now but only occasionally would she call a tune out of the blue. Earlier that day Ella had played a concert in Brussels before flying to Berlin, everyone had been up for 22 hours and were fading fast, everyone that is except Ella, “Let’s do Mack the Knife”. Wilfred looked on in disbelief, he knew Ella didn’t know the tune. Paul Smith kicked off in the key of G, Wilfred’s just settling into the tune when she signals to modulate to Ab, she proceeds to sing right through the keys ending in Db forgetting and recreating lyrics as she goes. Her fabulously refreshing on the spot performance garnered 2 Grammys in 1961 and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1973. Note to self don’t be scared to try something new… just maybe not in front of 12,000 people.