Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book
Ella Fitzgerald, a star of Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic concert series since 1949, seemed to Granz an ideal fit for his new Verve label, so he signed her in 1955, luring her away from Decca in something of a coup. Right away the plan was to position her as a singer with a command of the American pop songbook, on par with a figure like Sinatra. Jazz connoisseurs admired her for her solid swing feel and breakneck scatting, her ability to go head-to-head onstage with the era's great soloists. Granz knew she possessed greater versatility, and with the Verve songbooks he sought to connect her to the widest possible audience.
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook was the first of what would be eight albums in this vein, each devoted to a single composer. Porter would be followed by Rodgers & Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, and finally Johnny Mercer in 1964. Most of these writers, save for Porter and Berlin, had lyricist partners (Mercer was primarily known as a lyricist, not a composer). So the Porter songbook attests not only to his timeless melodies and creative, often elongated song forms (“In the Still of the Night,” “Begin the Beguine”), but also to his peerless wordplay and wit (“Too Darn Hot,” “You’re the Top,” “Always True to You in My Fashion”). Fitzgerald nails the delivery and the fun in all of it, but also captures the tragedy and pervasive unease of a song like “Miss Otis Regrets” (played in duet with session pianist Paul Smith).
Will Friedwald, in A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, argues that the first two Ella songbooks, Porter and Rodgers & Hart, suffer in comparison to those arranged by Nelson Riddle. Still, Buddy Bregman’s Porter arrangements have their charm; the band features Bud Shank, Barney Kessel, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Maynard Ferguson, and other top talent. There was a bigger-picture consideration as well, which Friedwald notes: “As the album format became more and more important to the music business, Fitzgerald was perfectly poised to assume her position as queen of the long-playing disc.” It was Norman Granz, Fitzgerald’s manager long after he sold Verve to MGM in 1960, who helped put her there.