The immortal Ella Fitzgerald, First Lady of Song, was born a century ago — April 25, 1917 — and there has been no shortage of commemorative celebration. We caught the spirit and asked some of our on-air hosts at WBGO to curate this edition of Take Five. Their enthusiasm compelled us to expand the column to six tracks, spanning the golden era of her roughly five-decade recording career.
"Begin the Beguine," 1956
Ella Fitzgerald's songbook series provided a lasting documentation of the richness of what we now call the Great American Songbook. Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook was the first in the series, and one of my favorite songs on the album is "Begin The Beguine." The thing about this song that has always fascinated and delighted me is the fact that it doesn’t follow the traditional A-A-B-A formula. There is no repetition of the lyric. It’s like a narrative where Cole Porter sets the scene and you can see it in your mind’s eye: “And down by the shore an orchestra’s playing / And even the palms seem to be swaying.” He tells a complete story of this love affair, and Ella’s interpretation is sublime.
— Rhonda Hamilton, host, Mid-Day Jazz
"Your Red Wagon," 1958
“Your Red Wagon” is a swing-era standard best known in a version by Count Basie with Jimmy Rushing. I heard Ella’s version on the radio probably in 1958, and really dug the organ accompaniment. This was a rarity for Ella; she didn’t do it again until These Are the Blues, her 1963 album with Wild Bill Davis. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered that the organist was Dick Hyman.
— Bob Porter, author of Soul Jazz; host of Portraits in Blue, Saturday Morning Function, and Swing Party
"Mack the Knife," 1960
This was the very first time I heard Ella (or anybody) forget lyrics in performance. I remember for years, I wondered if she was faking forgetting — the song was so much fun and, it seemed, so much under her control that I could not imagine it was a blooper. Take for example the impersonation of Louis Armstrong, or the German-like English of "it's a surprise-it." The other thing that I noticed over the years was the name of the LP, Ella in Berlin. I was always struck by the fact that there was no such place in 1960, when she recorded this. It was West Berlin at that point in time. I always wondered if the German record had the same title; it would not have made sense to West Germans — or maybe that was their dream.
— Rob Crocker, host, Saturday Evening Jazz and Sunday Afternoon Jazz
"Don't Be That Way," 1962
I chose this track from the vast catalogue of incredible performances by Ella Fitzgerald because I think it is the personification of swing. Indeed, it first appeared on the 1962 Verve release Ella Swings Brightly With Nelson, a collaboration with noted arranger and orchestrator Nelson Riddle; the project won Ella a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance, Female. This tune falls easily into a swing tempo that spotlights Fitzgerald’s vocal command: Her perfect tonality, the way she effortlessly navigates the lyric and envelopes you in her warm, buttery sound.
— Eulis Cathey, host, Sunday Night Music Mix
"Duke's Place," 1966
My standout Ella Fitzgerald track would be “Duke’s Place,” from a concert with her trio and Duke Ellington’s orchestra in Stockholm 1966. (Find it on the album The Stockholm Concert, 1966, which was finally released on Pablo in 1984.) Ella scats as only she can, the trio swings, Duke’s band roars and the enthusiastic Swedes roar right back — priceless!
— Brian Delp, host, Jazz After Hours
"Rockin' in Rhythm," 1974
I always enjoy playing Ella’s Pablo album Fine and Mellow. The band is stellar: Clark Terry and Sweets Edison on trumpets, Zoot Sims and Lockjaw Davis on saxophones. All good songs, but most spectacular is Ella's scatting on Duke's "Rockin' in Rhythm," with Louis Bellson exploding at the drums and with Ella singing fireworks.
— Michael Bourne, host, Singers Unlimited and Blues Break