June 1962. The Crescendo Club on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. Ella Fitzgerald and her quartet have settled in for a two-week run in her adopted hometown. In the middle of a set, she starts singing “Too Darn Hot,” which had been a highlight of her 1956 album, “The Cole Porter Songbook.” But a few notes into the song, Fitzgerald is interrupted by the sound of kids dancing the twist in another joint upstairs. She decides to go with the flow: Drummer Gus Johnson and pianist Lou Levy start pounding out a boogie-shuffle beat, and the singer improvises lyrics about how hard it is to sing Porter while everybody’s twistin’. She then launches into the “Kiss Me Kate” show tune with the kind of energy and swing that the young twisters couldn’t even dream about. It’s a brilliant, spontaneous moment, and a wonderful insight into the thinking of one of the iconic interpreters of the Great American Songbook.
This performance is one of the many joys of the recently released four-CD boxed set “Twelve Nights in Hollywood,” and it’s also a microcosm of what was occurring in American culture at the time. At start of the ’60s, Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra were the powerhouses of the record-album business. Rock ‘n’ roll was in the doldrums, and even at its earlier height it was mainly a singles market. No less than Sinatra with his concept albums, Fitzgerald and her producer-manager Norman Granz had transformed the long-playing medium with their songbook and live albums. In 1959 and 1960, Fitzgerald brought both these ideas to unprecedented heights with one project that was incredibly ambitious, her five-LP “George and Ira Gershwin Songbook,” and another that was masterful in its simplicity, “Ella in Berlin—Mack the Knife.”
In contrast to the extensive preparations that went into the Gershwin project, all Granz had to do to create one of the most successful concert albums of all time was to turn on the tape recorder. In 1960, “Ella in Berlin” was regarded as an ideological as well as a musical triumph: The greatest singer in American music was bringing our music to the doorstep of our enemies—Berlin being ground zero for both Nazis and Communists—and making them love us. One of the Berliners’ own songs—”Mack the Knife”—became the subtitle and the most important tune on the album, the brilliant variations she devised striking a blow for the American way of life and music.
“Ella in Berlin” was a instant blockbuster and an all-time classic. But the next live album she released, “Ella in Hollywood,” was almost completely ignored. Taped at the Crescendo Club in 1961, it was bereft of all the political significance of its predecessor, as well as the exoticism of a foreign locale. “Ella in Hollywood” wasn’t even reissued on an American CD until early last year.
But it turns out that Fitzgerald and Granz recorded all 12 nights (as many as three shows per) at the Crescendo in May 1961, as well as two evenings a year later. What makes these tapes especially remarkable is that Fitzgerald and Granz seem to have approached the shows like a series of studio sessions, only with a receptive audience present. Rather than sticking to a single play list for each performance, Fitzgerald and her quartet recorded more than 70 different songs over the 12 nights.
These tracks are the basis of “Twelve Nights in Hollywood,” which does not duplicate any of the specific performances on the original “Hollywood” album, though six of those songs are heard again from different shows. Fitzgerald and her brilliant accompanist Lou Levy (along with guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist Wilfred Middlebrooks and drummer Johnson) seem to have laid down versions of every song the singer thought she knew well enough to sing in public—though there are a couple of occasions when she doesn’t know the song as well as she thought. In the middle of “Love for Sale,” she tells the quartet she’d like to resing a certain note; she also doesn’t have a complete grasp of the words and music on “It Had to Be You,” but what she comes up with is almost as good as what Isham Jones and Gus Kahn had written almost 40 years earlier. The latter is a unique item in Fitzgerald’s discography, and so is “The Lady’s in Love With You,” a zippy little swinger that goes by so quickly one wishes she would sing another chorus. The most intriguing rarity is the Matt Monro hit “My Kind of Girl,” which Fitzgerald has outfitted with special lyrics that not only change the gender of the object of her affection but note that “he walks like Sinatra walks.”
The tune stack also includes a number of classic songs Fitzgerald sang on her songbooks but never recorded live, such as Porter’s “It’s De-Lovely” and Harold Arlen’s “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe.” However, my personal favorites are a pair of babies from the birth of jazz. Fitzgerald’s only known performance of “I Found a New Baby” starts with the opening riff from Dizzy Gillespie’s “Bebop” and later alludes to Lester Young and Count Basie’s famous “Baby” variation, “Dickie’s Dream.” She further embellishes the 1926 song with new lyrics, and her treatment of the 1922 “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home?” is at once more intricate and more personal. She begins with an intro woven out of both “Am I Blue” and “Blue and Sentimental” (another Basie reference), and then moves into the “Baby” melody. She sings it slowly and sexily, accompanied for the most part by just Ellis’s guitar. This is one of many performances here that put the lie to the misconception that Fitzgerald sang without passion or regard for lyrics; it is shot through with what Billy Strayhorn called “the intimacy of the blues.”
That intimacy may make this boxed set an even more satisfying experience than the celebrated “Ella in Berlin.” “We were rested and we were loose,” bassist Middlebrooks is quoted as saying in the notes. “We were playing in front of 200 people instead of 2,000, and the atmosphere was more relaxed.” Even Fitzgerald’s famous sobriquet, the First Lady of Song, sounds too formal in this context. Here, she’s more like the Earth Mother of music.