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Ella Fitzgerald: Ella in Hamburg

According to Bob Newhart, “It was like you were in someone’s living room.” Indeed, among legendary nightspots, few could boast the intimacy of Chicago’s Mister Kelly’s. The space’s name was borrowed from its original manager, Pat Kelly, but it was owned and operated by two brothers, Oscar and George Marienthal, renowned for their warm hospitality to both guests and visiting artists. So, it’s no wonder the Rush Street landmark managed, throughout its two-decade history (opened in 1953, twice nearly destroyed in fires, and finally shuttered in 1975), attracted the top tier of singers (extending from Sarah Vaughan to Bette Midler) and cerebral comedians (Newhart, Woody Allen and Shelley Berman among them).

Fortunately, Verve Records honcho Norman Granz had both a penchant for live recordings and an appreciation for the superior sound and performance quality Kelly’s snug atmosphere enabled. Granz captured Anita O’Day there in April 1958. He was back four months later with Ella Fitzgerald. The resultant O’Day disc was, and remains, a cornerstone of her Verve catalog. The Fitzgerald sessions-early and late shows recorded on the closing night of a three-week run-weren’t released. Now that they’ve been exhumed from the Verve vaults, the mystery of their long-delayed appearance can be solved. Since the concern can’t have been one of quality (though Ella was, among the upper echelon of jazz vocalists, likely recorded live more often than any other, this double-disc set ranks near, if not atop, the list), it must have been a question of quantity. At the time, record buyers were busily snapping up copies of the seismic Ella Fitzgerald at the Opera House (culled from her 1957 JATP concerts with the Oscar Peterson Trio) and Ella Fitzgerald & Billie Holiday at Newport. The possible addition of a third live disc was surely judged oversaturation.

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