Song: "Oh, Lady Be Good"
Album: Lullabies Of Birdland / Ella Sings Gershwin
Year: 1957 / 1959
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In the cases of the most elite, most talented performers in music history, one can easily argue that it does not really matter "what" they are singing or playing, as their level of skill is so far beyond that of others, that everything they attempt is nothing short of musical perfection. With this in mind, one can look back and better understand the artist who was once referred to with the statement that, "...she could read the phonebook, and it would be a hit." While there have been many great voices throughout history that might be worthy of such a compliment, the one that stands far above the rest, and the recipient of this accolade was none other than "The First Lady Of Song" herself, Ella Fitzgerald. Whether she was swinging a wild line of scat style singing or delivering some of the most heartfelt and truly beautiful ballads in history, Fitzgerald knew no vocal limitations, and this led to one of the most stunning recorded catalogs in all of music history. Due to this, it is almost imossible to pick out a single song that is representative of her wide range of talents, and yet there is a song in her catalog that has a rather strange history. While it is certainly not uncommon for a performer to take slight variations on a song over the years, it is almost unheard of for the same song to be performed in completely opposite ways by the same singer. Yet this is the case that one finds in the two amazing recordings that Ella Fitzgerald made of the Gershwin classic, "Oh, Lady Be Good."
The first version of "Oh, Lady Be Good" that Ella Fitzgerald released came in 1954 on her amazing album, Lullabies Of Birdland. Though it was already a well known part of her live set, and it had made a very brief appearance as what one would have considered a "single" in 1947, it is the 1954 release that made all aware of her extraordinary interpretation of the song. From the moment the song begins, the energy and sound are quite high, and the full band behind her seems to be doing all they can just to keep up with Ella's singing. Her vocals are extremely far forward in the mix, and one can even make the case that there is a bit of separation between her and the sound of the band. Regardless, Ella sounds absolutely amazing throughout this interpretation of "Oh, Lady Be Good," and it is on songs like this that one can understand what she has often been noted for the joy and positivity that she injected into nearly every song she ever sang. Yet while the verses are fantastic here, there is simply nothing that can overshadow her phenomenal "scat" section of the song. It was her ability to perform in this manner that made her the legend that she remains, and the dose she gives here is without question her finest studio recording of this rare talent. Ella goes back and forth with the band at one point, as well as dropping some rhymes in the middle of scatting, and it is her ability to make things flow so perfectly that makes both her voice as well as this interpretation of "Oh, Lady Be Good" so unforgettable.
One might assume that the Lullabies Of Birdland version of "Oh, Lady Be Good" would have been more than satisfactory, as it is not only musically exceptional, but it sold well and became one of Ella Fitzgerald's most well known songs. However, a few years later, she released a drastically different take on the song as part of her 1959 album, Ella Sings Gershwin. At first listen, this take on the song is almost impossible to connect to the previous release. Taking the lyrics exactly as they were originally penned, as well as an orchestration that better matches the Gershwin work, this version stands as one of Ella's most moving recordings in her entire catalog. Somehow finding a way to make this somber song swing just a bit, Fitzgerald shows here that she was more than capable of working every part of the vocal spectrum, and the pure, honest sound in her voice is nothing short of musical perfection. In fact, it has been noted many times that when Fitzgerald sings the lines, "...I'm just a lonesome babe in the world, so lady be good to me...," it is quite possibly the most beautiful single vocal moment that has ever been recorded. Letting her usual "pop of joy" stay to the side on this song, the heavy emotion is quite clear, and this latter recording of "Oh, Lady Be Good" is nothing short of a masterpiece and stands as one of the most extraordinary moments in Ella Fitzgerald's legendary career.
The fact that Ella Fitzgerald was able to make two so heavily varied recordings of the same song serves as a testament to her exceptional ability in every sense of the word, as she was able to bring the ideal vocal sound and tone to both styles. The dual recordings of "Oh, Lady Be Good" also almost serve as "bookends," standing as the two extremes of her style, and showing everything that made her the icon that she remains to this day. Furthermore, the fact that these two takes of the same song bear so little resemblance to one another is nothing short of inexplicable, as there is quite literally no other case in all of music history where and artist has been able to achieve such a feat with both versions being able to stand on their own with equal accolades for their sound. It is perhaps due to the fact that Fitzgerald succeeded in this task that proves the point that she still knows no equal, and why she stands so far above every other performer in the entire history of recorded music. Whether it is her distinctive, limitless voice or the endless differences in style with which she sings, there are simply not enough words that can do justice to the level of talent that lived within Ella Fitzgerald. Across nearly fifty years, she brought the world many of the most unforgettable recordings, as well as creating the blueprint for female performers that followed. Due to this length of time that she recorded, it is impossible to cite a single song as her "best," yet one is able to experience the full range of her sound and skills within the two contrasting takes that Ella Fitzgerald made of Gershwin's classic song, "Oh, Lady Be Good."