A Celebration of the Best Ella Fitzgerald Songs
by Sarah Galo
Here is an indisputable Hairpin fact: Ella Fitzgerald is better than everyone. She is perfection in human form, “the tops,” and everything wonderful. I’m not sure how often you listen to Ella Fitzgerald, but her music takes up most of my listening hours.
Quite simply, her voice is transcendent. I’m pretty sure it’s both the sound of joy and sorrow, but most often smile-inducing happiness. I like Frank Rich’s explanation:
“It’s not just that her singing in beautiful. It is also liberating, transporting us into a realm of pleasure beyond all barriers, whether of race and age, of jazz and pop, of high art and low, or even, when she floats into scat, of language.”
Ella is above us all. Her voice uplifts and I’m not quite sure what it is, but whenever she hit certain higher notes, there it is — this moment of pure transcendence.
Here’s a list of my favorite Ella songs, and the moment of pure magnificence in each. (And here’s the Spotify playlist.)
“How High Is The Moon”
It’s all in which version of How High the Moon you listen to: I swear by the 1960 version out of her West Berlin show. (You may choose differently, and that’s awesome.) Either way, I will contend/assert/shout from the mountain tops that How High Is The Moon is an actual American treasure and should be required listening for everyone. Ella sings, she scats, she improvises for eight minutes, but the very best part of the song is its close. As she rounds the finish, in the last minute, she repeats the title, and then hits that final soaring note and you hear the applause, and you know you’ve just heard a feat of musical gymnastics.
No one else should be allowed to record live albums, not after this. Accept it. None of your current favorites will ever compare. There is a case to be made for Beyoncé, I’ll concede to that. Bow down, indeed.
“Mack the Knife”
Never did mafia-style murders sound smoother. Or more upbeat. Sure, Bobby Darin popularized the song originally from The ThreePenny Opera, and sure, Kevin Spacey’s version as Bobby Darin is pretty spot on. But Ella making a ‘wreck of this song,’ with her meta acknowledgement of “you and me, Bobby Darin, we singing the same song,” is different. Of course, my assertion still stands: the live version is best, which means you get to hear her sing to the audience. It’s difficult to pick a ‘transcendent’ moment in a song that includes references to dropping a body with a cement bag into the river, so we’ll go with her voice overall for this song. And the meta references, because she does that best.
“Isn’t It A Lovely Day?”
No list ever about Ella is complete without a Louis Armstrong duet. They are the best and there’s no disputing it. Out of all their duets, however, this may be the best, or at least my favorite. It was the first time I picked up on that ‘it’ quality of her voice, and the first and only time I ever tried hitting on someone with a song.
There was a boy (because there always is), and I remember we were driving to some artsy event — as friends — and I brought up this song. Yes, it was a silly ploy, and yes, I dropped a hint through an Ella and Louis duet. But can you really blame me for trying? A rainy day is the loveliest for romance in the classic American songbook and Ella hits that perfect, transcendent note at 3:10. “Just as you were going, leaving me all at sea…” Wistful and hopeful all at once, with the hint of a knowing smile, her voice made me feel every cliché from my heart soaring to walking on clouds. There’s a reason we have cliches; they began as little truths from listening to Ella Fitzgerald. Half of that sentence is true.
“Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”
Ella turns heartbreak into something beautiful, even a little sexy, in her version of Pal Joey’s Bewitched. I may or may not have listened to this song for a solid semester during college instead of going to therapy, but I plead the fifth. The bare instrumentation of this arrangement highlights her voice, which is in equal turns sweet and lusty. She knows her man is a half-pint imitation, but she worships the trousers that cling to him. And then, there’s perhaps the best rhyming sequence, when Ella emphasizes thanking God for her sex drive: “Vexed again, perplexed again, thank God I can be oversexed again.” Now is that transcendence or is that transcendence?
“Where or When”
If you listen very closely during the end of When Harry Met Sally, during the New Year’s Eve party, you can hear Ella setting the scene. It’s a song of déjà vu, of seeing someone and seeing a past with them. Have they really met? Or is it just a familiarity, a recognition of a future together? When she hits the second round of “Some things that happen for the first time…” I’m pretty sure her voice could mend hearts and bring about world peace. It’s those higher notes she hits; the way her voice lilts slightly. It’s that moment when you’re listening and know good things can happen for the first time or all over again.
“Get Thee Behind Me, Satan”
In other versions of the song, such as when it originally appears in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Roger vehicle Follow the Fleet, Get Thee Behind Me, Satan takes on a tone winking at the audience. But Ella’s version is different. Maybe it’s the arrangement, full with a piano and string section. Maybe it’s the way she sings, “Satan, he’s at my gate,” and with her delivery, you feel there’s more at stake. For the dark Biblical allusion, it’s a rather romantic-sounding song because of Ella.
Best listened to with a glass of your favorite whiskey, this is Ella’s version of a weepy bar song. It’s a down-in-dumps-while-I-address-the-audience tune that wouldn’t quite work for a contemporary songstress. There’s a bit of spite when she tells the audience to “drink up,” and “order anything you see.” Except it’s Ella, so it sounds almost like a compliment. As with her other live songs, it’s her delivery of the end that lingers with the line, “Excuse me while I disappear.” Excuse me while I refill my glass.
“Autumn in New York”
You know how there are songs that find their way into your high school creative writing manuscript and define the way you view your story? That’s Autumn in New York for me, the duet version between Ella and Louis Armstrong, if you please. Ella almost — almost! — leaves you wanting your heart broken, just so you can wistfully sing along when she declares, “Autumn in New York is often mingled with pain.” But even so, with the good and the bad, she and Louis conclude, “It’s good to live it again.” It almost makes you want to skip the summer. Almost.
Sarah Galo is a writer. She owns over 500 books and can be found buying used books in a bookstore near you. Follow her on Twitter @SarahEvonne.