Fitzgerald_span3 Nina_simone-gold_span3 Sarah_vaughn-gold_span3 Dinah_washington-gold_span3
May 2008

Ella Fitzgerald
Gold
Verve/Decca/UMe
Nina Simone
Gold
Verve/Decca/UMe
Sarah Vaughan
Gold
Verve/Decca/UMe
Dinah Washington
Gold
Verve/Decca/UMe

While none of these singers’ extensive discographies can possibly be summarized in 30 to 40 tracks, these double-disc anthologies are carefully and thoughtfully curated in a way that gives them historical context and supreme listenability. Each one necessitated decisions by the compilers that would benefit its consistency and quality, which in some cases means that music some might consider essential doesn’t make the cut. But omissions aside, any of these uniformly excellent sets would make a perfect introductory collection for a newbie.

Fitzgerald’s Decca and Verve output, spanning 1938-64, is where producer Andy McKaie chose to concentrate, devoting one disc to each label. Fitzgerald’s fiery early collaborations with Chick Webb, Louis Jordan, Sy Oliver, Louis Armstrong and others bring the Decca half to a boil, and well-chosen selections from the Songbook recordings more than adequately characterize the sizzling Fitzgerald of the ’50s and ’60s.

The Simone Gold, compiled by producers Harry Weinger and David Nathan, gets off to an arguably rocky start chronologically by picking up in 1964 with a live take of “I Loves You Porgy” released on Philips, ignoring the 1959 Bethlehem label single that gave Simone a fluke Top-20 hit. All of the first disc and most of the second, in fact, comes from Philips, where Simone recorded superb material like 1964’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (a hit for the Animals the following year) and a chilling cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” alongside such powerful original compositions as “Mississippi Goddam” and “Four Women.” Both her RCA period of the late ’60s and Verve are, unfortunately, scantily represented, but other than the earliest tracks, nothing overly significant is missing.

For the Vaughan set, producers Weinger and Richard Seidel cherry-picked from a variety of labels, focusing on her prodigious output for Mercury and its jazz spin-off, EmArcy. Four tracks from Vaughan’s 1954 album with Clifford Brown highlight the first disc, while the second swings from small-band standards to orchestral vamps Sassy cut with the orchestras of Count Basie and Quincy Jones.

The Dinah Washington collection is more evenly distributed. Outside of a brief stint with Roulette just prior to her 1963 death, virtually all of Washington’s recorded legacy was confined to Mercury and EmArcy, which gave McKaie free rein here. Washington remains best known for late ’50s/early ’60s chart hits like “What a Diff’rence a Day Made” and “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes),” the latter with Brook Benton, but it’s her swinging interpretations of tunes like “All of Me,” “Blue Skies” and “Lover, Come Back to Me” (in a near-10-minute version from 1954) that best defined her strengths.

Originally published in May 2008
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