Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Rodgers & Hart Songbook, Vol. 1 – Ella Fitzgerald, vocals with Buddy Bregman and his Orchestra – Verve/ORG 0055 – 45 rpm 180 gram double-LP Set ****1/2:
Ella Fitzgerald got her start back in the thirties singing with Chick Webb’s big band, and scored a major hit with the song “A Tisket, A Tasket,” which pretty much became her signature song and her claim to fame throughout the late thirties and into the forties. But by the fifties, her star seemed to be setting and her record label, Decca, showed little interest in bolstering her career by letting her sing standards or show tunes. Producer Norman Granz, who had just become Ella’s manager, approached Decca in an effort to record her singing songs from America’s great songwriters. He was rebuffed, but eventually signed Ella to his just-formed Verve label, where he immediately paired her with great orchestras from the likes of Nelson Riddle, Buddy Bregman, Duke Ellington and Billy May – all the big-band dream teams of the day. The results were spectacular; the Great American Songbook series was born, and the first entry, Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook, sold 100,000 copies in the first month of its release! New life was breathed into Ella’s career, and she went on to record the great songs of Gershwin, Ellington, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen – all the great ones, and generally speaking, Ella’s recording of any particular standard is considered the definitive version. Ultimately, she won 14 Grammy awards during the Songbook period!
I really didn’t acquire a healthy appetite for the standards until the advent of the CD era, and one thing I noticed right away was that the digital versions of all of Ella’s Verve recordings gave her voice a very metallic quality. And the orchestra accompaniment – whether the recording was stereo or mono – had a very congested, lifeless quality with only so-so dynamics. I never really made much of an effort to acquire any of the vinyl pressings or reissues at the time, so I really can’t attest to the sound quality of those, but the CDs just sounded very average. Now you can still develop an appreciation for great singing even listening to mediocre discs – but wouldn’t it be just swell if a little bit more care was put into those timeless recordings? The Speaker’s Corner LP reissues offered all the songbooks in fabulous 33 1/3 sound, and now the ORG 45 rpm LPs give us the promise of even better fidelity!
Not to sound like I’m flogging a dead horse, but the love-hate relationship I seem to be having with ORG’s LP releases definitely continues with this most recent batch of titles. First of all, thankfully, all their recent releases seem to have conformed to something close to a standard jacket size – thank you very much, because many of their previous LPs won’t fit in any kind of outer sleeve, whether resealable or not, and at quite nearly sixty bucks, I want to be handling these pricey little pieces of art as little as humanly possible. And to make matters worse – especially at this price point – I expect perfectly flawless pressings – which is not what I’ve recently been receiving from ORG. When I pulled the first 180 gram disc from its sleeve and placed it on the turntable, side one played without a hitch. But upon flipping the record to side 2, a quick visual inspection filled me with dismay – the LP looked as though I might have just pulled it from the bargain bin at the Goodwill store, and was scuffed and scratched beyond belief! Fortunately, most of the scratches are fairly low enough in level that I can live with them, with just a few ticks and pops scattered across the side. However, had this still been the good old days of vinyl, I’d have been running back to the record shop demanding an exchange in a heartbeat! Even though this was a promotional copy, it’s the sort of egregious thing that almost had me calling ORG for a replacement prior to the review – hopefully this is just an aberration, and not really what they’re planning on serving up to cash-paying customers for sixty bucks! And it’s really shocking to me that the Warner Pallas pressings I’ve bought have all been uniformly superb, while the ORG pressings from the same plant have been such a mixed bag from a quality control standpoint.
OK, enough complaining, on to the music. If you are a lover of Ella Fitzgerald, or a lover of good jazz singing or just standards in general – this 2-LP set is an absolute no-brainer for you! When the first advance information for this release came out months ago, the song list included all the tracks from the original LP release of this album – I guess they hadn’t done the math at that point and finally figured out that you can only get so many songs on a side at 45 rpm. So until this set showed up, I really didn’t know what the song selection would be, and I was a tad disappointed that some of the really memorable Rodgers and Hart songs like “My Funny Valentine,” “Blue Moon,” and “Bewitched” wouldn’t make it until Volume 2 is released. Well, not to worry, because the song set here is really strong, and from the first note of “Have You Met Miss Jones?” Ella’s crystalline voice is just intoxicating! And the mix really varies throughout, from rollicking numbers like “You Took Advantage Of Me” and “The Lady Is A Tramp,” to maybe the best song about New York ever written, “Manhattan.” And the ballads flow seamlessly too, from perhaps my favorite selection here, “Where Or When,” to such poignant numbers as “It Never Entered My Mind” and “Little Girl Blue.” I could easily gush here – this is the stuff that all my Ella dreams are made of!
And the sound quality is to absolutely die for! Yes, I’m still not happy with the lackluster pressing quality control, but the sound coming from these 45 rpm discs is shockingly good. The silkiness of Ella’s vocals is just amazing – without a trace of the metallic cast that so affected the Red Book CD versions of these albums, it’s just hard to believe that these LPs come from the same master tapes! Lifelessness is not an issue here – Ella, and amazingly, the band – are right in your living room, and as amazed as I was by the presence of Ella’s vocals, the presentation of the band is also almost beyond belief. And the band plays with no signs of the congestion or lack of clarity that were so prevalent on the CD versions – you can actually pick out the various players scattered across the soundstage in your listening room. I haven’t heard any of the Speaker’s Corner 33⅓ Ella Fitzgerald releases, but I just can’t imagine them approaching the clarity, quality or just plain magic coming from these ORG 45 rpm LPs. Very highly recommended!
TrackList: Have You Met Miss Jones?; You Took Advantage Of Me; A Ship Without A Sail; This Can’t Be Love; The Lady Is A Tramp; Manhattan; Johnny One Note; I Wish I Were In Love Again; Spring Is Here; It Never Entered My Mind; Where Or When; Little Girl Blue.
— Tom Gibbs