The conventional wisdom says that early white rock and rollers, such as Elvis Presley and Bill Haley, introduced mainstream audiences to black music which helped spur racial integration during the 1950s. That is true to a point, but as New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote on the occasion of Ella Fitzgerald’s death, her series of songbooks “performed a cultural transaction as extraordinary as Elvis’ contemporaneous integration of white and African American soul: Here was a black woman popularizing urban songs often written by immigrant Jews to a national audience of predominately white Christians.”
Fitzgerald’s eight anthologies of songs by Tin Pan Alley auteurs like George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Harold Arlen were both commercially and popularly successful. Many fans consider the 1958 double record, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book, the best one because of the quality of her performances and conductor Paul Weston’s orchestral arrangements. It was nominated for the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, and Fitzgerald won the Grammy Award for Best Vocal Performance, Female for her performance on the album.
A few months after making the Irving Berlin songbook, Fitzgerald, Weston, and a full orchestra performed a batch of songs from the long player to a sold-out audience at the Hollywood Bowl. Recently, tapes of the performance were discovered in the private collection of Verve Records founder Norman Granz. It’s been released as Ella at the Hollywood Bowl: The Irving Berlin Songbook. The sound quality is pristine. Fitzgerald’s voice is sumptuous. Every note she sings rings out clearly with verve and vigor. The orchestra plays flawlessly behind her. They let her soar without interference and spur her on when required by the song. While the audience can be heard clapping at the end of each track, the focus is clearly on the musicians. Unlike Fitzgerald’s other live recordings that generally take place at nightclub venues, there’s little spontaneous interaction between the performer and the crowd.
The album begins with “The Song Is Ended”, one of the few tunes here in which Fitzgerald scats. Mostly she sings the lyrics straight without improvisation. Instead, she plays with her intonations and phrasing to suggest the layers of emotional meaning the words may have. That can be fun, as on her spritely rendition of the carefree “Cheek to Cheek”, or heavy as on the mournful song of loss “Supper Time”. Fitzgerald’s timing is always precise, and the band is always on cue.
The 15 tracks featured on the new release showcase Fitzgerald’s ability to sing and swing, even on the same song. Her version of Berlin’s romantic gem “Always” starts slow and earnestly as she declares her love, but before Fitzgerald’s finished, she’s taken it to a more physical plane. Her passion is more than some ethereal feeling. She captures the carnality as well. On other tunes such as “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “Let Yourself Go”, the instrumentation begins hard and fast. Fitzgerald joins right in, declaring, “come get together / let the dance floor feel your leather” making it challenging to sit still.
The selections on Ella at the Hollywood Bowl reveal a variety of moods, from the somber ballad “Russian Lullaby”, and the heartfelt “How Deep Is the Ocean” to the upbeat cadences of “Heat Wave” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”. Like Elvis and Haley, who combined different genres that both confused and stimulated audiences (remember, the King’s first single featured Arthur Crudup’s R&B hit “That’s Alright Mama” and Bill Monroe’s country “Blue Moon of Kentucky”), the First Lady of Song mixed styles in a unique way while sticking to the work of one songwriter at a time. This newly rediscovered recording shows how she could masterfully do this live with an orchestra.