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WHEN ELLA Fitzgerald began her now-legendary Verve Song Book series in 1956, she was a musicians’ and singers’ singer of limited commercial appeal. Eight years later, when Verve released the final volume, she had become as much of an icon as Frank Sinatra. Fans all over the world embraced her as a peer of the geniuses she’d saluted: Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, and others. The Song Book series, in turn, was seen as a shrine to the songwriting craft at its zenith.

When those albums first appeared, no one knew that the so-called golden age of classic popular song was. In 1964, when
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Johnny Mercer Song Book hit the stores, the Beatles were America’s favorite tunesmiths, and Fitzgerald’s series had run its course. Her Gershwin box had included five long-playing albums and a companion EP single; Mercer got one LP.

Still, this album had its riches. The album placed Fitzgerald in the Tiffany settings of arranger Nelson Riddle. The lyrics came from Savannah, Georgia’s favorite son, a four-time Oscar-winner whose career had spanned Dixieland, swing, Hollywood, and Broadway. Along the way he attracted a stellar bevy of collaborators: Richard Whiting, Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Arthur Schwartz, Harry Warren.

Like Carmichael, this jovial Southern teddy bear was a voice of American life. In witty, casual, but superbly honed language, he evoked the open highway (“Blues in the Night”), the prairie (“I’m an Old Cowhand”), revival meetings (“Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive”), deserted barrooms (“One for My Baby”). For Mercer, nature was rife with human feeling; in one of his masterpieces, a bird becomes a confidante and a symbol of hope: “Skylark, have you seen a valley green with spring/Where my heart can go a-journeying/Over the shadows and the rain/To a blossom-covered lane?”

Exploring his words, which she phrased with underrated thoughtfulness, Fitzgerald bears out the contention of many that she was the perfect singer. Henry Pleasants, a British classical-music critic, wrote this about her: “She has a lovely voice, one of the warmest and most radiant in its natural range that I have heard in a lifetime of listening to singers in every category. She has an impeccable and ultimately sophisticated rhythmic sense, and flawless intonation. Her harmonic sensibility is extraordinary. She is endlessly inventive.” The sometimes strident girlishness of her concert singing is nowhere to be heard here; instead, the lower keys and relaxed tempos bring out her most womanly sound.

When she made the Mercer Song Book Fitzgerald was forty-seven, and a smiling, motherly fixture of the American home. She sang on all the major TV variety shows, bouffant wig bouncing as she snapped her fingers. The Song Books had helped buy her a huge Spanish-style home in Beverly Hills, but she wasn’t there much; her manager Norman Granz, who had founded Verve and masterminded the Song Books, kept her touring constantly. Often she complained about the grueling pace, but Fitzgerald, who was twice-divorced, had little to do besides work; inactivity left her feeling restless and lonely.

If her career was at its peak, Mercer’s was mostly in the past. A hard drinker with a streak of melancholy – just listen to “One for My Baby” -- he had hit the creative skids in the ‘50s. He underwent a final flowering with two consecutive Oscar winners, “Moon River” (1961) and “Days of Wine and Roses” (1962) But for the rest of his life (which ended in 1976), he produced little else of interest.

Fittingly, most of the songs on this album date from his ‘40s heyday. For the Mercer album, Riddle arranged the ballads in a mellow ballroom style, just as he used to do in his days with Tommy Dorsey. From there he had become the first-call arranger for several aristocrats of pop, notably Sinatra; he was also a top conductor for film and TV sessions. Working in settings that demanded perfection, Riddle developed his trademark sound: a plush, impeccably woven carpet of melody, dotted with enough short solos and obbligatos to give it the texture of jazz.

Fitzgerald never failed to get the guys swinging. Shortly before he died in 1985, Riddle recalled her as a breeze to work with and the quickest study imaginable. “Only when the demands of her incredible schedule of personal appearances sap her strength does she droop a little and get a bit short-tempered or irritable,” he explained.

You won’t hear a hint of that in these supremely poised performances. Fitzgerald is all earth-mother serenity in "Early Autumn", Mercer’s adaptation of a moody instrumental that Ralph Burns wrote for the Woody Herman orchestra. Fitzgerald explores the mysteries of dejá vù in "Laura," based on the theme for Otto Preminger’s 1944 film noir. Riddle builds his chart around a repetitive ascending phrase, as hypnotic as the ticking grandfather clock in the climactic scene.

Fitzgerald and tenorman Plas Johnson swing out in "Something’s Gotta Give"; while in "Midnight Sun", Riddle teams her with vibraphonist Frank Flynn – a tribute, no doubt, to the vibes giant Lionel Hampton, the song’s composer. Unlike the early Song Books, which were full of rarities, this album contains only one: "Single ‘O," written in 1964 with Donald Kahn, who had composed the standard “A Beautiful Friendship.”

The singer was fearful of touching anything associated with Billie Holiday; she made an exception for "Travlin’ Light", a torch song introduced by Holiday on Capitol, the label Mercer had founded. A tear enters Fitzgerald’s normally cheerful voice as she sings about the desolation of the solo life: “No one to see/I’m free as the breeze/No one but me/And my memories.”

Shortly after recording this song book, she confessed to
Down Beat that she was relieved to be getting “a little back to the jazz thing” in her new album, Whisper Not. “The Song Book material is beautiful,” she said, “but sometimes you can’t do too much with these numbers before you get away from the essence of the tune.” Later in life she made a few Song Books for other labels, but the Verve series captured her in her prime. The original Song Books have never lost their prestige; Mercer’s volume is as good as any of them.


-- James Gavin, New York City, 2006

James Gavin, the author of
Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, is writing a biography of Lena Horne.