Ella Fitzgerald’s Best Live Album Says A Lot About Her

Ella Fitzgerald performing in Amsterdam in 1961. Photo by Ben van Meerendonk.

Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife is easily one of the singer’s most well known albums, and arguably one of her best. It was recorded live in Berlin’s Deutschlandhalle in February of 1960, while she and her jazz combo were on tour in Europe.

At this point in her career, Ella was on fire. She had been performing for nearly three decades, and had improved immensely since her rocky beginning in the industry. She was no longer the shy teenager looking for her big break in a talent contest — being discovered by the Chick Webb orchestra had allowed her to polish her appearance and stage presence. By the time Ella in Berlin was recorded, she had been working long enough to reach the point of equilibrium that professional musicians strive for in their careers: experienced enough to be collected and confident in front of an audience, but not so overworked that exhaustion or age could take a toll on any musical capabilities.

She had worked with all types of ensembles and musicians, from large orchestras to intimate jazz combos, and had already recorded dozens of albums, including her very popular Songbook series that focused on different composers’ works. Her Europe tour was the best place to record a new live album — not only did it showcase her world renown and her consistency singing on stage instead of in a recording studio, but it also captured the audience’s exhilarated response to her talent.

The original LP release of Ella in Berlin was only nine tracks long. The CD re-release in the 1990s included two additional songs from the show that had been left out, as well as two others (“Love for Sale” and “Just One of Those Things”) from a concert a few years earlier that were mistakenly thought to be from the 1960 performance. The final set list features a lot of tried-and-true classics that she had been known to sing many times before — George Gershwin’s “Summertime”, for example, was a staple for her. But although better-known versions might exist elsewhere on her studio albums, the tunes seem almost like hidden gems when they appear on a live album. From the slight rasp in her voice in one of the choruses of “Love is Here To Stay” to her breathless laughter as the audience applauds for “Too Darn Hot”, the live performance aspect adds a raw and powerful dimension to her singing that is not otherwise heard in a more sterile studio environment.

One of the most famous recordings from that night in Berlin is her rendition of “Mack the Knife” — and not just because it was featured in the title of the album. For context, it’s important to know that “Mack the Knife” was originally a ballad called “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer”, written for the satirical German opera Die Dreigroschenoper. For a vocalist, the song certainly is an undertaking — even after being translated into English and performed as a jazz tune, a typical arrangement of the piece usually features about five different key changes, a number of unique verses, and no repeated chorus. Crooners like Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin had performed it with great success, but as Ella starts to introduce the song to the audience in the recording, she notes that it hadn’t been sung by a woman yet. Right before she begins to sing, she also makes another noteworthy comment: “Since [the song]’s so popular, we’d like to try and do it for you,” she says coyly. “We hope we remember all of the words.”

This seemingly-offhanded remark essentially becomes a moment of foreshadowing as the song unfolds. Apparently, the band knew when Ella called the tune out that she didn’t know the words very well — they had not properly rehearsed it with her, but she requested it anyways while they were out on stage, and they dutifully followed her lead. To her credit, she successfully makes it through the first two verses without issue. On the third, however, she begins to falter, singing somewhat more hesitantly and slightly behind the chord changes. By the time the fourth verse rolls around, she is completely lost, but she continues to sing along with the melody:

“Oh what’s the next chorus,
To this song, now?
This is the one, now,
I don’t know…”

After a little floundering, she does manage to remember a few more of the correct lyrics, but she soon abandons them entirely in favor of playfully making up her own. In a later interview about the Berlin performance, her bassist Wilfred Middlebrooks said that in that moment, he knew right away what she would do next. “When Ella got lost in a swing number, she usually fell back on her Louis imitation, which was a sure fire a crowd pleaser. And sure enough, about that time [she forgot the words], here came Louis.”

The quick combination of goofy new lyrics and a spot-on Louis Armstrong impression kills. What could have been a rather embarrassing moment is instead met with applause and further admiration — and in a strange sort of way, she is perfectly in her element. The ability to improvise at a moment’s notice is a core principle of jazz as a genre, and she demonstrates her mastery of it to her listeners not only in her solos, but in moments like this. By employing a tactic like her Louis impression, which she had carefully rehearsed to keep a performance on track, she protects herself from the spontaneous chaos of making mistake and gives herself a moment to recover. The song stays together, the audience is entertained, and Ella is victorious once again.

As incredible a performance as “Mack the Knife” is, the next and final track on the album was truly the jewel in the crown of the Berlin show. With no introduction, Ella transitions from “Mack the Knife” directly into Morgan Lewis and Nancy Hamilton’s jazz standard “How High the Moon”. She only has time to finish a single verse before a sudden drum break electrifies the atmosphere and cranks up the pace. With the new tempo hovering around a breathless 300 beats per minute, she sings through one more chorus before beginning what would eventually become one of the most iconic solos in jazz history.

In just under six minutes, she manages to quote Charlie Parker’s famous “Ornithology” solo, Harold Arlen’s “Stormy Weather”, her own famous version of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”, Irving Berlin’s “Heat Wave”, a portion of the William Tell Overture bugle call, and Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” — which she jokingly changes to “Sweat Gets in My Eyes” — while still weaving in her own improvised material. Towards the end, the band drops out to let her sing alone with just the hi-hat for accompaniment, and their absence is barely noticeable. The solo is positively earth-shattering. She finishes on a high B flat — not because she has anything left to prove to her listeners, but simply because she can.

The one-two punch effect that Ella creates by following “Mack the Knife” with “How High the Moon” is nothing short of spectacular. Any other artist might not have the stamina, after a nearly hour-long set, to deliver such an energetic finale, but Ella is a powerhouse. In spite of stage fright and her naturally quiet disposition, she proved herself in complete command of any stage, and the Deutschlandhalle stage was no exception. Her mistakes win Grammys; her victories bring the house down. The takeaway for both her audience in 1960 and her listeners today remains the same: Ella Fitzgerald is one of a kind.

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