Today, Ella Fitzgerald would have turned 100 years old. While the First Lady of Song passed away in 1996 at the age of 79, her rich legacy of music has hardly waned. She recorded over a remarkable seven-decade span, from 1935 through the early 1990s, yet her most significant contribution to the canon of American song just might be her Songbook series. Between 1956 and 1964, Fitzgerald teamed with a variety of arrangers (including Buddy Bregman, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Nelson Riddle, Billy May, and Paul Weston) to salute the body of work that would later be referred to as “The Great American Songbook.” In fact, these seminal albums can be fairly said to have had a hand in establishing the standard repertoire.
To celebrate the Fitzgerald centennial, Analog Spark has brought the very first songbook title and the artist’s Verve Records debut – 1956’s Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Song Book – as both a deluxe 180-gram 3-LP vinyl box set and a hybrid mono SACD. The latter is playable on all CD players, but available in high resolution to those with SACD equipment. Whether vinyl or SACD is your medium of choice, this pair of beautiful releases allows these vintage recordings to sparkle anew.
Cole Porter was still active as a composer-lyricist when Ella Fitzgerald and Buddy Bregman stepped into Capitol Studios in February 1956 with Verve’s Norman Granz to record the sprawling Cole Porter Song Book. His Broadway career had begun in 1916 with See America First, and while most of America didn’t see that short-lived production, soon the country would be playing and singing the best of Cole Porter: “Let’s Do It” (1928), “You Do Something to Me” (1929), “Night and Day” (1932), “Anything Goes,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Don’t Fence Me In” (1934), “Begin the Beguine,” “Just One of Those Things” (1935) and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (1936) – and that’s just Porter’s first twenty years.
Fitzgerald recorded all of those songs and more for the Song Book project, swinging the songwriter’s urbane melodies and sophisticated, witty, and often quite ribald and double entendre-laden lyrics. Though born in Peru, Indiana, Porter epitomized “New York” with his cultured style. Fitzgerald, born in Virginia but a prominent player at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, brought an intuitive understanding to these songs that might have otherwise been considered relics of Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley. Instead, they became classics. Many of the qualities noted by author Fred Lounsberry in his original liner notes (reprinted in Analog Spark’s editions) to describe the songwriter also apply to the singer, such as: individuality, originality, restraint, and maturity.
Buddy Bregman (1930-2017), a nephew of famed composer Jule Styne (Gypsy, Funny Girl), was the head of A&R at Verve, working at the label with the likes of Anita O’Day, Bing Crosby, Count Basie, Joe Williams, Fred Astaire, and others. As arranger-conductor, he brought to The Cole Porter Song Book rich strings and boisterous brass, though neither component of his orchestration dared overwhelm Fitzgerald’s voice – expressive, vibrant, and flexible. Existing at the intersection of pop and jazz, the performances on The Cole Porter Song Book remain faithful to Porter’s original intentions while still personalized to Ella’s singular strengths as a vocalist. She was supported by the finest musicians of the day, including Harry “Sweets” Edison and Maynard Ferguson on trumpet, Bud Shank on alto saxophone, Ted Nash on tenor saxophone and flute, Corky Hale on harp, Barney Kessel on guitar, Alvin Stoller on drums, and Paul Smith on piano. None of Bregman’s arrangements became as iconic as, say, Nelson Riddle’s for Frank Sinatra, but they all serve the songs and the singer well.
Both vocalist and arranger explored their many facets on the original double album, befitting the variety of Porter’s songs and their primarily musical theatre origins in shows as diverse as Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate. (All told, all but six songs originated on Broadway. Five songs hailed from Hollywood, and “Miss Otis Regrets” was a rare pop song for Porter.) “All Through the Night” is sinuous, “You Do Something to Me” is gently swinging, and “Always True to You in My Fashion” is appropriately playful. Ella, in supple voice, cuts loose with saucy takes on the showstopping likes of “Anything Goes” and “Too Darn Hot,” but she’s equally sympathetic to Porter’s touching romantic odes, too, such as “Do I Love You” or the sublimely wistful “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” She expertly bends the notes of “Night and Day,” the smoky tone of her voice a perfect match for one of the greatest of Porter’s melodies. A handful of lesser-known songs are here, too, such as “Ace in the Hole” from the 1941 musical Let’s Face It.
Bregman’s orchestral colors varied from track to track befitting the shifts from Porter’s blue songs to hoop-de-do songs. The strings swirl on a confident “Begin the Beguine.” A simple piano adorns the mordant ballad “Miss Otis Regrets,” while the rhythm section handles Ella’s delicious dry reading of “Let’s Do It” and her low-key rendition of “I Get a Kick Out of You” with its original, oft-replaced lyrics referencing cocaine. (And how Ella deftly navigates Porter’s clever internal rhymes, such as “Flying too high with some guy in the sky is my idea of nothing to do!”) “I Love Paris” and “Easy to Love” get slow, moody and spare treatments in stunning contrast to the lightly Latin “In the Still of the Night” or brash “It’s All Right with Me” and triumphant “Ridin’ High.”
The inclusion of the sometimes-overlooked verses of songs like “Love for Sale” and “Just One of Those Things” are among the many treats to be found across these discs, as strong a collection of classic American tunes as there ever was. (Note that, due to SACD’s increased storage capabilities, the entire 32-song program is available on the SACD layer of Disc One. For CD listeners, the program is split between both discs, as on the original 2-LP set.) Ella, of course, went on to record further tributes in this series to composers such as Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, and the Gershwins, while the “composer tribute” album became a popular genre unto itself for numerous artists.
Analog Spark’s SACD is housed in a sturdy gatefold digipak reprinting the original liner notes by Don Freeman, Norman Granz and Fred Lounsberry, and the discs (protected in individual cloth sleeves) feature replica Verve labels. Ryan K. Smith has subtly remastered from the original mono tapes, revealing the lushness and warmth of well-recorded mono sound despite its limitations. The vinyl box set edition is beautifully packaged, with the music spread across not two, but three, LPs for truly optimal sound quality.
“My, what marvelous diction that girl has,” Cole Porter reportedly quipped with masterful understatement upon first hearing Ella’s titanic tribute. Over 60 years later, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book still holds up as a perfect marriage of singer and songwriter, and as a towering achievement in popular music. Analog Spark’s presentation on both vinyl and SACD does it proud.