Love, and CDs, for Sale: Ella Fitzgerald on Record

Christopher Loudon chooses highlights from the centenary-related flood of Ella reissues and tributes

Ella Fitzgerald

The vast majority of Ella Fitzgerald’s recordings have been reissued in various formats and packages again and again. Still, Universal Music Group, which controls Fitzgerald’s entire Decca and Verve catalogs, has devised several clever ways to reassemble and reimagine her work for her 100th. Released April 21, four days before her birthday, the four-disc Ella Fitzgerald: 100 Songs for a Centennial provides a comprehensive survey that extends from early dates with Chick Webb to her Grammy-winning “Mack the Knife” from 1960.

Cover of Ella Fitzgerald album 100 Songs for a Centennial
Cover of Ella Fitzgerald album 100 Songs for a Centennial

For a deeper dive into Fitzgerald’s formative years, all 300 of her Decca singles have been assembled across four digital-only sets covering 1935-55. Aside from such forgettable tracks as “My Wubba Dolly” and “Somebody Bad Stole de Wedding Bell,” this massive compilation is not only rich with sizzling Webb-led swing, early scat and American Songbook treasures but also provides elucidating documentation of Fitzgerald’s maturation as a vocalist, progressing from her Connee Boswell-influenced beginnings to the full glory that would later define her Verve years. The collection also includes her first duets with Louis Armstrong, alongside those with Louis Jordan, the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers and the Delta Rhythm Boys.

In a separate four-disc release, Universal has brought together all of the Fitzgerald-Armstrong material for the first time, including those eight Decca pairings and the duo’s three seminal Verve albums of 1956-57: Ella and Louis, Ella and Louis Again and Porgy & Bess. Rounding out Cheek to Cheek: The Complete Duet Recordings are live tracks from the Hollywood Bowl, more than a dozen alternate takes and a sultry solo saunter by Armstrong through “Let’s Do It.”

Cover of Ella Fitzgerald album set
Cover of Ella Fitzgerald album set Someone to Watch Over Me

Ever since Natalie Cole teamed with her late father to recalibrate “Unforgettable,” a steady subgenre of from-the-grave unions has emerged. The latest is Gregory Porter’s coupling with Fitzgerald on “People Will Say We’re in Love,” the standout track among the dozen that fill Someone to Watch Over Me. All 12 selections, culled from various Verve albums, marry Fitzgerald’s vocal—and, in two cases, her twining with Armstrong—to lush new instrumental backing courtesy of the London Symphony Orchestra. While some might consider such finagling the equivalent of colorizing Casablanca, the results are undeniably lovely. Among the plush highlights: “Misty,” cuddled in the densest, most luxurious silk; the moonlight-cocktail shimmer of “These Foolish Things”; and the near-baroque accompaniment to “Bewitched,” cleverly roiled by the subtlest hints of tipsiness.

Universal has also unearthed a sterling live recording, captured at a briefly famous Hollywood club. With 21 tunes filling 70 sublime minutes, including a killer “Air Mail Special,” Ella at Zardi’s turns out to be Fitzgerald’s debut Verve project: It was recorded on Feb. 2, 1956, five days before she commenced work on the first of her fabled Song Book albums.

Centennial tribute albums have been surprisingly few. At the top of the heap, as noted in the accompanying feature story, is violinist Regina Carter’s superbly crafted Ella: Accentuate the Positive (OKeh), featuring guest vocalists Carla Cook, Charenee Wade and Miche Braden. Further afield, there’s Swedish vocalist Vivian Buczek’s Ella Lives (Prophone), a solid collection of ballads and swingers winningly masterminded by pianist and arranger Martin Sjöstedt, with highlights including an inky “Caravan” and a sassy “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.”

Read Christopher Loudon’s story on the influence of Ella Fitzgerald on today’s jazz singers.