The Lost Berlin Tapes
One of the things I love most about Ella Fitzgerald’s voice – particularly in live performance – is how you could feel the smile. It was often present, but it was always implied. You could hear it in her voice, you can almost even see it when you’re just listening. My Kind of Boy is just one example on this recording – she’s beaming. It’s infectious.
The Lost Berlin Tapes is, as the title suggests, a previously unheard set – this one from the private collection of Verve Records founder, Norman Granz. It is the very early 1960s. The Berlin Wall has just gone up. Ella’s on a new burst of fame on the back of Mack The Knife and doing the rounds to celebrate.
Here in the divided city she is in devastatingly good form – the kind of form that makes you scratch your head as to how this has sat in a vault “undiscovered” until now. There are so many ‘lost’ recordings and some of them should have remained in that state. Many of them simply unable to live up to any marketing promise of being any sort of actual find. But Fitzgerald owned almost any song she attempted. Certainly that was the case when she was in her prime. Here, she sings Cry Me A River like it’s a last chance to sell the song. She opens with Cheek to Cheek and the lively piano bounce is met with rapturous applause and Ella’s own sweet gratitude for the warm welcome. She then launches into it as if it’s never been performed by anyone else ever.
From deep ballads (Angel Eyes, Summertime) to mesmeric blues (Hallelujah, I Love Him So) via feelgood swing (Taking A Chance On Love) and the aforementioned mega-hit (Mack The Knife, the crowd goes nuts for the opening line) this is such a commanding performance. Apparently it’s her first time performing the song live. It was just a brand new hit at the time.
Paul Smith on piano, Stan Levey on drums and Wilfred Middlebrooks on bass – that’s the trio. They too are sublime. But they know their role, they know that they have a lead trumpeter and a mournful violinist and a crowd pleasing show-star all in one out front. Ella is magnificent. And maybe she was actually never better than here. And certainly it’s nice to be reminded of that this late in the piece, this deep into a shitty year. We hear names now – Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, we know they’re great. But as with Sinatra, she was a big match player. A voice of influence, a singer clear and perfect as a bell. But also a star. A great presence. There’s banter. There’s heart. There’s soul. And here there’s a reminder of all of that – Ella’s been gone some 25 years, the memory of her finest work might be buried even deeper to some. This is both timely reminder and perfect intro-point. If you’ve only ever heard the name and/or some of the hits dive into this exquisite performance. The great thing about this newly discovered gem is if you’re already a fan you’re going to have to hear this too. It’s so, so good.
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