Ella Fitzgerald had a brilliant night in Germany 60 years ago, as captured on the iconic album Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife.
Two years later, on March 25, 1962, she performed again in Berlin — meeting, if not exceeding, the high bar she’d famously set. That concert is now about to see the light of day for the first time, when Verve releases The Lost Berlin Tapes on Oct. 2. The first single from the album, appropriately, is an ebullient new take on “Mack the Knife,” the title song from Ella in Berlin.
Fitzgerald — impeccably backed by Paul Smith on piano, Wilfred Middlebrooks on bass and Stan Levey on drums — gives the popular song a burnished sheen. She doesn’t flub the lyrics, as she had in 1960, but she does seem to draw a blank elsewhere. “Thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen — you know, I’m so embarrassed,” she says afterward. “This is where the first time I sang ‘Mack The Knife,’ and I got to the part of the town, I couldn’t think of it!”
As the title suggests, The Lost Berlin Tapes spent more than half a century in the vault — not only unreleased, but also unheard. The recordings, made in both stereo and mono, were found unopened in the private collection of Verve founder and producer Norman Granz, who also managed Fitzgerald.
“Norman had left Verve by the time this was recorded,” explains Ken Druker, who produced The Lost Berlin Tapes for release. “But Ella was still under contract to Verve. So he couldn’t have released it himself. It was something he knew he couldn’t do anything with, contractually.”
The 1962 concert, at Berlin Sportpalast, was also just one in a breathless myriad of tour dates at the time. “On this tour Ella was doing two shows on some days, in different cities,” Druker says. “I don’t even know how that’s possible, but she was doing a late afternoon show in one European city and a late show in another.”
Musically speaking, The Lost Berlin Tapes could hardly be characterized as just another night on tour. Fitzgerald is a firecracker, and her high spirits manifest in everything from her phrasing and lyrical interpretation to the arc of her trademark scat maneuvers.
Opening with a brightly swinging “Cheek to Cheek,” the set list sashays through a mix of staples and rarities — the latter including “My Kind of Boy” (also heard on the boxed set Twelve Nights in Hollywood) and “Hallelujah, I Love Him So” (a gender-flipped take on the Ray Charles hit, so uplifting that after wrapping it up, she sings it again).
“We’ve all heard a lot of live Ella from this period,” reflects Druker. “We have 1960 from Berlin, and we’ve also released Ella Returns to Berlin from ‘61.” He adds: “I don’t know what it is about Berlin in particular, but she’s in great voice, and the band sounds amazing. It’s an incredibly strong performance.”
Druker confirms that there’s more where this came from, which suggests that we’ll be seeing even more Ella in the pipeline. For now, The Lost Berlin Tapes is sufficient cause for celebration. Preorder it here.