When Norman Granz started the Verve label in 1956 it was very much as a vehicle for the recording career of Ella Fitzgerald, who he had been managing for a number of years; in 1955 Granz had wrestled away Ella’s recording contract from Decca Records
In 1956 Granz produced two major projects for Ella, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book, and Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers & Hart Song Book. The following year they undertook the Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book and in 1958, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book.
They continued to work their way through The Great American Song Book and it was on 5 January 1959 Ella began work on another major songbook, this one of George and Ira Gershwin’s timeless classics. ‘Love Is Here to Stay ‘was recorded at the first day as was ‘The Man I Love’ along with ‘A Foggy Day’, two days later Ella did ‘Somebody Loves Me’, with ‘I’ve Got a Crush on You’ being done on 8 January. In all Ella did 57 Gershwin compositions; aged 41 she was at the very peak of her vocal powers.
Ella and the Gerswhins were old friends. In the summer of 1950 Decca then came up with the idea of doing an album with just Ella and piano accompaniment, in this case, Ellis Larkins. The resultant album, Ella Sings Gershwin is lovely and while they are very different in presentation to Ella’s later foray into the Great American Songbook they are both perfect vehicles for her.
“I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” – Ira Gershwin
A new song book meant a new arranger and Granz finally got Nelson Riddle into the studio with Ella, something he had been looking to do since he she had arrived at Verve. It was the perfect combination with Ella and Riddle developing a firm friendship. Her Gershwin sessions were interspersed with others for Hello Love, Sweet Songs for Swingers and Get Happy!; Granz was careful to stockpile songs for these other albums when Ella’s hectic touring schedule allowed her time in the studio.
Such was the extent of the Gershwin’s song book that recording did not finish until 18 July 1959. It was while Ella was recording the Gershwin Songbook that Norman Granz moved to Lugano in Switzerland. He was increasingly involved with concert promotion and managing the careers of Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson and Ella, and in late 1960 he sold Verve Records to MGM. Prior to this Granz took the JATP tour to Europe in February and at the Deutschland Halle in Berlin Ella was recorded for what became Mack The Knife – Ella In Berlin.
The success of Ella Fitzgerald sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song book if measured in chart terms is at best average, spending just 5 weeks on the best seller list, but that is looking at this monumental recording from the wrong perspective. Ella takes songs that are much loved, and much played and makes them sound fresh and alive, new even. It did, however, win a Grammy for the Best Vocal Performance, Female at the 1960 ceremony. And let’s not forget, this was a five album set, one that has subsequently become a 4CD set, with alternate takes and other rarities. Immerse yourself in some of the greatest singing by any singer, anytime, anywhere…