The old adage that opposites attract couldn’t be more apt in the case of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, whose album collaborations for Verve Records, in the late 50s, resulted in some of jazz’s finest and most memorable duets. Texturally, their voices were like satin and sackcloth – Ella’s was refined and caressed the ear with its super-smooth contours; Louis’ was a rough, gravelly, bark-cum-rasp that was almost rustic by comparison. In sonic terms, then, Ella and Louis juxtaposed in a way that could safely be described as beauty meeting the beast, and yet the contrast in their vocal timbres resulted in a musical chemistry that made their recordings compelling and unforgettable.
Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald first recorded together in 1946, for Decca. At that time, Ella – then 29 – was a rising star of the contemporary jazz scene, having broken out with drummer Chick Webb’s group six years earlier. Louis, on the other hand, was 45 and, despite the decline in popularity of both New Orleans jazz and big band swing, had not lost his star status. The pairing of the two singers was, perhaps, a musical marriage of convenience: the young aspirant seeking credibility and validation in the jazz community by forging a union with a bona fide legend (the man who had practically invented scat singing) and someone who was regarded as jazz’s most august elder statesman. Teaming up with Bob Haggart’s orchestra, Ella and Louis duetted on the single ‘You Won’t Be Satisfied (Until You Break My Heart)’, a smoochy ballad, backed with the livelier and more playful ‘The Frim Fram Sauce’. Despite the popularity of the record, the duo didn’t record in the studio again (largely because of Armstrong’s busy itinerary) until four years later, when they cut ‘Can Any One Explain (No No No!)’ and ‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me’ for their next single, accompanied by Sy Oliver’s orchestra.
Three more Ella and Louis singles came out at sporadic intervals over the next four years, but it wasn’t until 1956, when producer and jazz impresario Norman Granz put the pair in the studio for an album project, that their potential as collaborators was fully realised.
Granz was the mastermind behind the successful Jazz At The Philharmonic series of concerts, which he first began in 1944, and then later evolved into star-studded package tours that eventually ventured as far as Europe and even Japan. In 1956, he set up a new record label called Verve, specifically to showcase the talent of Ella Fitzgerald, whom he had managed since the 40s. Just after Verve came into being, Louis Armstrong’s contract with Columbia had expired, and his manager, a tough, uncompromising hustler called Joe Glazer, brokered a short-term deal with Granz’s new label for the New Orleans trumpeter/singer.
But Pops’ first album for Verve wasn’t, as some had anticipated, an album recorded in tandem with his popular concert band, the All-Stars. Instead, Granz, who was intent on conquering mainstream America, wanted to reunite Armstrong with the sweet-voiced girl that he’d first duetted with in 1946. But now she was a woman of 39 while Armstrong was 55. Ten years on, Ella and Louis were now recording almost as equals. It was a high-profile summit where The First Lady Of Song – who had sold 100,000 copies of her debut Verve album, Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Song Book, in the first month of its release earlier in the year – was meeting jazz’s very own venerable ambassador.
Their inaugural album recording session together was captured for Verve on 16 August 1956, the day after Ella and Louis had performed at one of Granz’s most memorable JATP concerts, at the Hollywood Bowl. Evidently, Ella Fitzgerald had a soft spot for Louis Armstrong. She was a fan from way back and wanted to make sure that the jazz veteran felt at home and wasn’t taken out of his comfort zone. According to Norman Granz, she deferred to Armstrong on all aspects of the record and was just pleased to be in the studio with her idol: “When she made the album with Louis, she insisted that he select the tunes, and she sang them all in his keys, even if they were the wrong keys for her.”
The only problem that arose was, because of the trumpeter’s intense and seemingly perpetual touring schedule, the sessions were arranged at the last minute, so there were no opportunities for rehearsal. Even so, Ella and Louis – backed by the super-slick Oscar Peterson trio – excelled, with Fitzgerald seemingly unaffected by singing in Armstrong’s keys and Satchmo acquitting himself superbly on material that he wasn’t familiar with.
The first album came out as Ella And Louis, in November 1956, and with its impeccably delivered blend of showtunes and standards, it quickly won acclaim and became a bestseller. Given its success, it was no surprise that Granz brought the pair together for a follow-up – this time an expansive double-album recorded during four days in the summer of 1957 – called Ella And Louis Again, which again featured the Oscar Peterson Trio. Stylistically, … Again continued where their first album left off, drawing on material from The Great American Songbook. What was different, though, was that seven of the set’s 19 tracks were solo performances (four by Armstrong, three by Fitzgerald).
Later the same year, the couple reconvened for an LP version of orchestrated material taken from George and Ira Gershwin’s opera Porgy & Bess, released in 1958 by Verve. It would be the last time that Fitzgerald and Armstrong would record together, but, over the years, they would perform together on stage many times. Armstrong, evidently, was fond of the music the duo had recorded, and in 1968, during a tour of England, he appeared on the long-running BBC radio show Desert Island Discs, on which each guest is asked to pick eight treasured recordings that would give them solace if they were to become castaways. Among his picks, Armstrong selected ‘Bess, You Is My Woman Now’, his 1957 duet with Ella from their Porgy & Bess album.
What makes the couple’s duets so pleasing to the ear is the conversational informality of their vocal exchanges. Even though there was an age difference of 19 years between them, their affinity is such that any generational barriers seemed to instantly dissolve. Indeed, the front cover photograph of their first album – an informal shot of Ella and Louis sitting in the studio next to each other in their summer attire – shows how comfortable they were with each other.
But Ella Fitzgerald wasn’t above doing a parody of her hero and had got Louis Armstrong’s husky croak down to a tee, as anyone who’s heard her magnificent 1960 live album, Ella In Berlin, on which she summons his spirit on an impromptu version of the Satchmo favourite ‘Mack The Knife’.
Louis Armstrong died in 1971, aged 69, and Ella Fitzgerald was present at his funeral in the capacity of an honorary pallbearer, alongside the likes of Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington and Bing Crosby. Later, in the twilight of her career, during the 80s, she revisited some of the songs that she had recorded with Armstrong in the 50s – including ‘Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off’, ‘A Foggy Day’, ‘Moonlight In Vermont’ and ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’.
Ella and Louis’ was a musical marriage made in heaven, and today, over 60 years later, their recordings have lost none of their allure, charm and lustre. Just one listen to Cheek To Cheek: The Complete Duet Recordings instantly confirms this. It’s a new 4CD collection issued to celebrate their union. As well as the three Verve albums the pair recorded together, it contains all of their Decca singles, plus live material recorded at The Hollywood Bowl and a collection of rare alternate takes and false starts. Nothing less than a cornucopia of riches, it represents the finest duetting in jazz.
Buy Cheek To Cheek: The Complete Duet Recordings here.