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Ella Fitzgerald Gets Some Air, Thanks to Gregg Field

The Grammy-winning producer shares the story behind the full, never-before-released recording of Ella at the Hollywood Bowl: The Irving Berlin Songbook

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Ella Fitzgerald at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, April 1959 (photo: Wim van Rossem/Anefo)
Ella Fitzgerald at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, April 1959 (photo: Wim van Rossem/Anefo)

On the enchanted evening of August 16, 1958, Ella Fitzgerald took to the stage of the legendary Hollywood Bowl. There, with a lustrous orchestra conducted and arranged by Paul Weston, she let her vocal stardust twinkle over composer Irving Berlin’s sturdiest toe-tappers, such as “Cheek to Cheek,” and mid-tempo numbers like “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” It was the one and only time she shared a public stage with Weston to perform his Berlin arrangements, which they had recorded together in March of that same year for the album Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book.

For the full, never-before-released recording of this concert, now available as Ella at the Hollywood Bowl: The Irving Berlin Songbook (Verve/UMe), Grammy-winning producer Gregg Field mixed the original live” tapes from 1958. To do this, he used his instincts and his ears, just as he did when playing drums for legendary crooners such as Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra—and the First Lady of Song herself.

“When I first joined Ella’s band [in 1985], she told me something that, initially, I didn’t understand,” Field remembers. “She said that when I played behind her, she had more air. A few years later, when I joined Sinatra’s band, I remembered what Ella told me about air. A minute into the first song of the first show, ‘Come Fly with Me,’ I noticed Frank on the side of the stage, looking at me, and shaking his head in approval. I realized right then that I got it, I played right in the middle of where Frank sang rhythmically—the same thing that I did with Ella. I learned that way back when I was a kid playing with Count Basie, Joe Williams, and Freddie Green. They told me then, ‘Play in the middle of it, don’t try to push it or pull it back.’”

That knowledge of what worked for Fitzgerald (and others) has been useful to Field in multiple capacities over the years. “I was one of the owners of the Concord label [from 1998 to 2013],” he says, “and we had, happily, a lot of unreleased Ella on our hands. When it came time to celebrate what would’ve been her 90th birthday, I produced an album, Love Letters from Ella, where we took lost tracks—maybe just her and [guitarist] Joe Pass—and expanded them, symphonically. In 2016, the Apollo Theater asked me to produce her 100th birthday concert, so we dipped into her live experience often.”

The venue played a role in this recording too. Having played the Bowl many times, Field knows how it lifts one’s game. “You knew where you were when you hit the Hollywood Bowl,” he says. “It had an impact on [Fitzgerald] clearly. And of all the Ella Songbook [projects] that she did live, this Irving Berlin session is the only one that we could find in its entirety—all 15 songs, so its impact is raised by its level of the historic. Ella recorded the original (album), lived with the arrangements for several months, and then walked out on stage and killed it. It was a perfect storm, and we captured it.”