Ella Fitzgerald

Miss Otis RegretsCole Porter Song Book
Ev'ry Time We Say GoodbyeCole Porter Song Book
Begin The BeguineCole Porter Song Book
ManhattanRodgers and Hart Song Book
Johnny One NoteRodgers and Hart Song Book
Lush LifeDuke Ellington Song Book
You're Laughing At MeIrving Berlin Song Book
Get Thee Behind Me, SatanIrving Berlin Song Book
But Not For MeGeorge and Ira Gershwin Song Book
Oh, Lady Be GoodGeorge and Ira Gershwin Song Book




Contributor: Merric Davidson

Ella Fitzgerald (1919-1996) – a career that spanned more than fifty years and over sixty albums.

I first came across Ella when I was ten. My parents had a record they played to death. The 1957 HMV single of Manhattan b/w Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye. Hardly ever off the gramophone player and I knew both sides by heart. Much later, the record was handed down into my care. Manhattan. What a song. All those strange words: the Bronx, Yonkers, subway, baloney… I wasn’t too clear what she was singing about but I loved it. And as for Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye – a three-handkerchief weepie, hear it and “sigh a little”. An early education for a young lad!

Ella Fitzgerald – if you want a history it can be found in many, many places on the net, but if you’d like a neat potted one, there’s a wonderful piece here by John Chilton (of Feetwarmers/George Melly fame). “Ella Fitzgerald: One Of The Greatest Singers Of All” written earlier this year for the Telegraph to coincide with Verve’s 10-disc retrospective release. John recalls Ella singing as a teenager in Harlem through to her work with Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman and other renowned band leaders, through to her important career-defining recordings of the so-called Great American Songbook.

These are unparalleled recordings and it is this period that I’m going to concentrate on; the best way, I think, for a toppermost of this remarkable singer to take shape. Ella examined eight Song Books in all and each of them was released by Verve in the 50s/60s starting with the famous Cole Porter Song Book (1956), followed by Rodgers & Hart (1956), Duke Ellington (1957), Irving Berlin (1958), George and Ira Gershwin (1959), Harold Arlen (1961), Jerome Kern (1963), Johnny Mercer (1964).

Only eight albums maybe but even so, there are 250 tracks to choose from making it an impossible task, but an enjoyable one!

Then there are the three albums she made with Louis Armstrong for Verve, and that could be a whole other toppermost. Some of these songs crop up again in the Song Books (but without Satchmo).

I decided to aim for 10 in the topper-list on this page and then make the playlist on spotify a bit longer. So, numbers 11 through 20 are all among those listed here as near-misses but they sit proudly on the playlist along with the topper 10 as a topper 20!

There are also, obviously, many earlier recordings in the 30s/40s that should be sought out, A-Tisket, A-Tasket, T’ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It), Darktown Strutters’ Ball, and the early jazz numbers such as Goodnight My Love (with Benny Goodman), the voice not yet fully ripened and mature but with signs of the emotion and phrasing that was to come.

This incredibly ambitious series of albums started out with arguably the best songwriter of them all and I could easily pick a dozen from Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Song Book (1956) double album alone: Anything Goes, I Get A Kick Out Of You, It’s De-Lovely, Love For Sale, I’ve Got You Under My Skin etc. etc. In the end I had to make do with three on this toppermost; all three are works of songwriting and vocalising genius (see listing above) including, naturally, Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.

On to the Rodgers and Hart Song Book (also 1956), which boasts With A Song In My Heart (the tune already adopted by the BBC as the theme music for its popular “Two-Way Family Favourites” radio show), Have You Met Miss Jones?, You Took Advantage Of Me, I Wish I Were In Love Again, Thou Swell, Mountain Greenery, I Could Write A Book, Where Or When … but for my main choice from this album I obviously have to go with Manhattan, what else! I also have room for Johnny One Note, so that’s good.

In the following year, Ella sang the Duke Ellington Song Book over another four sides: Day Dream, Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me, Just A-Sittin’ And A-Rockin’, (In My) Solitude, Sophisticated Lady, Azure, I Got it Bad (And That Ain’t Good) are all fabulous, but I had to choose Lush Life for the single slot from this songbook; such a great song by Billy Strayhorn and this version has the bonus of the recognisable piano of Oscar Peterson. How can you go wrong! Ella was to go on and perform and record several times with the Duke in the 60s.

Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Irving Berlin Song Book came along in 1958 with the orchestra conducted by Paul Weston, another double album … Heat Wave, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Supper Time, It’s A Lovely Day Today, and all those toe-tappin’ Fred & Ginge numbers, Let’s Face The Music And Dance and Puttin’ On The Ritz, but one of my two choices is right up there amongst the greats. Twenty years after it was sung, sweetly, by Harriet Hilliard in Follow The Fleet, Ella gives Get Thee Behind Me, Satan the welly that it needed and delivers a knockout blow!

The most epic of these recordings came next though. Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George & Ira Gershwin Song Book with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra on five sides of vinyl, 59 songs in 1959, and a towering achievement. I’m picking two, But Not For Me and Oh, Lady Be Good, which means overlooking lots of classics as you can imagine – They Can’t Take That Away From Me and Somebody Loves Me and Love Walked In all came close, but I’m done listing!

Ella was to team up again with Nelson Riddle (not always successfully) in 1964 for the Johnny Mercer Song Book, and now I have a problem. I’ve picked my ten in chronological order and I can’t change any of them, so I can’t include any from the last three songbooks – Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer – but that’s okay because I much prefer the five earlier albums, and Ella singing One For My Baby and Over The Rainbow ain’t quite right!

I’ve singled out three tunes from these three albums to go on the playlist though: I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues (Arlen), I’ll Be Hard To Handle (Kern), This Time The Dream’s On Me (Mercer). The last two are single albums. The project was coming to an end.

And that’s it. There were many albums to come, right through to the 90s, so fortunately there’s much more to explore once you’ve sampled these epochal albums, but they were the undoubted highlights from Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song, the most beautiful voice in the world.


Ella Fitzgerald: The Official Site of the First Lady of Song

Ella Fitzgerald biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #346


  1. Peter Viney
    Sep 7, 2014

    Fascinating list. I think you’re wise to go for early. One later one that interests me is Can’t Buy Me Love. I loathed it at the time of release as “old people jump on Beatles bandwagon” but as time has passed, her interpretation really suits the song, and the instrumentation / arrangement is awe-inspiring. It’s actually the Beatles single I’d always skip, the only one I disliked, but she gets it right somehow. On the other hand, her These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ really was an attempt to jump on a bandwagon that ends up face down on the street.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Sep 7, 2014

    Merric, a great list and brought back a lot of memories… Although my dad was principally a classical music buff, he was also a big fan of Ella Fitzgerald’s, so grew up with the Cole Porter songbook album. ‘Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye’ such a great, great record… The song is also a classic demonstration of Ella’s ability to express a great deal of emotion through what might be termed a ‘cool’ approach. It’s also a classic demonstration of Ella’s ability to express a great deal of emotion through what might be termed a ‘cool’ approach…
    On another point, Lorenz Hart also my favourite of the tin pan alley lyricists – in my opinion, no one else had his ability to combine poignancy and wit.

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