EllaHamburg287

IN 1965, when she flew to Germany to give the concert heard on this CD, Ella Fitzgerald remained, after thirty years in show business, the ever-dependable First Lady of Song. At forty-seven, she sounded as girlishly carefree as the twenty-one-year-old who had swung a nursery rhyme, “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” to number one on the charts. All through the ‘60s, such TV variety-show hosts as Ed Sullivan, Andy Williams, Dean Martin, and Perry Como brought her into millions of American living rooms. She toured almost ceaselessly and recorded more often than any singer in jazz. “Man, woman, and child, Ella Fitzgerald is the greatest!” said Bing Crosby.

But the winds of change were blowing, and Ella was doing her best to stay “with it.” The Beatles had drawn a blunt line between two generations of pop music, but Fitzgerald had eagerly stuck her toe into the new, snapping her fingers as she gave “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” her best swinging treatment. Her matronly look of the past gave way to an attempt to seem mod: wild-colored dresses, blonde and frosted wigs. A few months before she reached Hamburg, she’d recorded the last in her eight-year, eight-volume series of Verve Song Books, the albums that had turned a musician’s singer into a world-renowned pop-jazz icon. “The Song Book material is beautiful,” she concluded, “but with these show tunes you have to stick to a certain type of material and a certain approach, and sometimes you can’t do too much with these numbers before you get away from the essence of the tune.”

She preferred things loose, as they are on this CD.
Ella in Hamburg looks like a typical live Fitzgerald album of the ‘60s, with familiar songs, most of which she’d already recorded, and her traveling band of the moment. But from the moment she tears into “Walk Right In” – a number-one hit of the day for the Rooftop Singers, a folk quartet – you feel a special tingle in the air. The Hamburg audience greets her rapturously, and Fitzgerald tries extra hard to please them. Her joy overflows; her creativity knows no bounds. Scat choruses and lyrical improvisations tumble out of her. When it comes time to quiet down and get sentimental, she opens her heart without hesitation.

With the schedule she kept, such effervescence wasn’t always easy. The month she performed in Hamburg, Fitzgerald launched two years of on-and-off touring with Duke Ellington. The fans expected perfection, and she suffered before every show, worried she might let them down. “Let’s face it,” she told a reporter from
Ebony magazine. “When you’re traveling all the time and don’t get enough rest, sometimes the voice is tired and you look tired and you don’t feel that you’re up to doing a show, and yet you’ve got to go out there. You’ve always got to run the risk of having someone say, ‘She’s supposed to be the greatest, but she gets away with anything.’”

Offstage, she and Norman Granz, Verve’s owner and her manager since 1954, bickered like an old married couple. He complained about her occasional childish petulance; she groused over some of the songs he made her sing and the grueling schedule he kept her on. In truth, after a week or so in her Beverly Hills house Fitzgerald would grow restless, and eager to get back on the road. She lived for the stage, where her adoring audiences could make her forget the things that troubled her: her weight, her looks, and the fact that no one was there waiting for her when she came home. Offstage it seemed as though food were her closest companion. In 1957, she had spoken to the
New York Mirror of her two failed marriages (the second to bassist Ray Brown). “I guess I pick them wrong,” she said ruefully. “But I want to get married again. I’m still looking. Everybody needs companionship.”

Husband number three never materialized – how could he, when she was almost never home, and too big a star for nearly any male ego to handle? But onstage, through the right songs, she could be glamorous, sexy even; she could walk into the sunset with the man of her dreams or just bask in her love affair with the audience, while losing herself in the freewheeling thrill of improvisation.

At Hamburg’s Musikhalle, she had the added inspiration of the Tommy Flanagan Trio. Flanagan, a superbly tasteful and meticulous pianist, accompanied Fitzgerald for much of the ‘60s and ‘70s, then became a world-traveling headliner in his own right. Bassist Keter Betts had played swing with Gene Krupa, bebop with Clifford Brown, R&B with Dinah Washington, and bossa nova with Charlie Byrd. Drummer Gus Johnson had worked alongside a still-unknown Charlie Parker in the Jay McShann orchestra; thereafter he helped keep the Count Basie band rocking for five years.

With the trio’s help, Fitzgerald could make any style swing. She sang rock and roll her own way, and with no condescension; her “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” in
Can’t Buy Me Love is the shout of a woman having a ball. Don’t Rain on My Parade, a Barbra Streisand showstopper from the musical Funny Girl, is so packed with words that no one ever managed to phrase it differently than written – no one except Ella, who revamps it rhythmically and makes the lyric much easier to understand. This album also includes several examples of Ella’s underrated torch singing, which had the wistfulness of a child alone in her room, feeling lonesome. And for everyone who still thought of her as the swinging little girl with the brown and yellow basket, Fitzgerald took a breathless dash through another kindergarten favorite, Old MacDonald Had a Farm.

Ebullient as she sounds, one can hear strain setting in, as she belts somewhat recklessly in keys that had gotten a bit too high for her. Her vocal heyday hadn’t far to go, but her jazz instincts and her youthful spirit lasted almost until she died in 1996. Thankfully, she left a nearly sixty-year trail of recordings for us to remember her by.
Ella in Hamburg stands out as a prime example of why Ella Fitzgerald is still making people smile.

-- James Gavin, New York City, 2007

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