Ella Fitzgerald was only twenty when she recorded her 1938 Decca smash, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” Within a year she was listed at the top of national magazines’ readers’ polls. Now, on the occasion of Fitzgerald’s seventy-fifth birthday, 39 of her Decca sides have been sensitively remastered and reissued (and packaged in a book-like case) as the Ella Fitzgerald 75th Birthday Celebration: The Original Decca Recordings.
Ranging from pop covers to bebop-era scat, the selections from Fitzgerald’s two decades with Decca capture the singer’s creative development when she was quickly ascending from a lucky job in Chick Webb’s orchestra to being the renowned “First Lady of Song.” These numbers show why it’s not enough to tip a hat to Ella’s reputation—this woman needs to be listened to. It’s not hard to see why, for example, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” was so popular. The bouncy tune exudes pre-war innocence—the lament for a lost “little yellow basket” could be the song Little Red Riding Hood might have sung before she met the wolf. But underpinning the childlike insouciance is a voice that brims with the raciness of jazz and jump blues, which—with Fitzgerald in the front lines—was advancing out of black New York and already redefining American popular music.
Taking this musical trip with Ella are some of the era’s standard-bearers. Milt Gabler, who recorded many of her Decca sides (and selected the cuts for this tribute) teamed Fitzgerald with such artists as Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan and the Delta Rhythm Boys. The results are still amazing to hear, including the Armstrong-Fitzgerald encounter, “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” where the duet is so intimate the two singers seem to be drawing from the same breath. But Ella Fitzgerald’s career was also one in popular music, which meant then—as it does today—that commercial decisions were made with a close eye on industry trends. Some of the resulting schmaltz finds its way here, and after a few listens you’ll want to program some tunes out of your Ella mix, such as the harp and string-laden “I Wished on the Moon.” But just when the ear is tiring of these renderings, a song like “Goody, Goody” surfaces. With its biting chorus of “Hooray and Hallelujah / You had it coming to ya’,” and a sweet-voiced delivery accompanied by a sharp trumpet attack and a rollicking pre-R&B syncopation, “Goody-Goody” is the kind of tune that reissues like this one are made to showcase. Ella Fitzgerald, 75th Birthday Celebration is bounteous with such moments.