Ella Fitzgerald Songs – 10 Hits by The Queen of Jazz

It takes a special type of musician to take a 19th Century nursery rhyme and turn it into one of the hippest, swinging songs of the era. That’s exactly what the legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald did early on in a career which saw countless hits and no fewer than 13 Grammy awards.

In this article we’ve singled out a selection of the most famous Ella Fitzgerald songs which chart the rise of one of the truly legendary jazz artists.

Ella Fitzgerald was born on 25 April 1917 in Virginia and, by all accounts, her childhood and teenage years were not an easy time.

Early indications of her talent were discovered when, at the age of 17, she won first prize in a competition called Amateur Nights at the Apollo Theater in New York City.

By 1936, she’d firmly established herswelf with the Chick Webb Orchestra and just three years later found herself leading the band after Webb’s death from spinal tuberculosis.

Leading such a large group was not, it seemed, her forté and, by 1942, she was struck out on her own as a solo artist.

With a solid career underway, not even the decline of the swing era could halt her progress; with perfect diction, timing and intonation, she found acceptance with bebop musicians who greatly admired her ability to improvise while scatting.

Known as the “Queen of Jazz” and “The First Lady of Song”, Ella continued to thrive and it’s arguable that the success of the Verve label was down to her Songbook series she recorded for them.

What is sure is that in a career spanning more than sixty years, Ella scooped no fewer than 13 Grammy Awards as well as the prestigious National Medal of Arts.

We were spoilt for choice putting together this article of famous Ella Fitzgerald songs, but stay tuned for our favourites… we hope you’ll enjoy listening to them as much as we do!

A-Tisket, A-Tasket (1938)

Ella’s first big song success took its inspiration – believe it or not! – from a 19th Century nursery rhyme.

Recorded with the Chick Webb Band and released in 1938, the endearing lyrics and simple swing feel of the band made the song an instant hit.

The fact that the arrangement was ideal for dancing too was also a great help in securing its success

Flying Home (1945)

with Victor Schoen and His Orchestra

Written by Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton, Flying Home would become universally known a few years later as the Hampton Orchestra’s theme song.

This version by Ella in the company of Victor Schoen and his Orchestra pre-dates that. Taking Schoen’s pleasant and swinging arrangement, the vocalist steals the limelight with her scat singing.

Oh, Lady Be Good (1947)

with the Benny Goodman Orchestra

This is a joyous and swinging version by Benny Goodman’s band with some exceptional scatting from Ella.

By this time she was so far ahead of the game in terms of her ability to improvise that her scat chorus’s are every bit as compelling as the horn solos she so admired.

Listen out around 1:24 on the video below where she even quotes from her hit song, ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’!

Too Darn Hot (1956)

From the album The Cole Porter Songbook

Too Darn Hot featured on the first of the Songbook albums that Ella Fitzgerald recorded for Verve Records.

It could be said that the label was created for her, as producer Norman Granz (who was managing her at the time) was looking for a way to present her as more than simply a jazz singer, and this was the imprint’s first release.

With Ella at the peak of her vocal powers, each and every performance is worthy of inclusion. This version of Too Darn Hot, though, arranged by Buddy Bregman swings nicely with the assembled studio band almost as impeccable as Ella herself.

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered (1956)

From the album The Rogers and Hart Songbook

Ella would record 8 Songbook albums during her career and the second, focused on the music of Rogers and Hart, gives us this version of Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.

She retains the services of conductor and arranger Buddy Bregman but, wisely, the arrangements differ from the earlier recording.

On this lovely song, Ella shows why she is held in such high regards: her timing and diction are flawless, and her voice is pure velvet.

It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) (1957)

From the album Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook

It’s a good piece of jazz trivia: Ella Sings The Duke Ellington Songbook is the only one of her 8 songbooks albums where she performs with the composer.

It was a happy and, ultimately, musically satisfying meeting of two giants of the jazz; who can swing harder than Duke and the Queen of Jazz herself?!

Aside from Ella’s magnificent scatting, it’s worth listening out for a wonderful piano solo from Ellington and violinist Ray Nance’s playing.

Let’s Face The Music and Dance (1958)

From the album Sings The Irving Berlin Songbook

With Paul Weston taking over arranger duties, there is a sophistication in the treatment of Irving Berlin’s songs which takes the emphasis away from Ella as jazz vocalist, and is perhaps more consciously focussed on the composer’s original intent.

Let’s Face The Music And Dance is often treated as an up tempo swinger, but here we get to hear the lyrics and unadorned beauty in Fitzgerald’s voice in its purist sense.

Someone To Watch Over Me (1959)

From the album Sings The George & Ira Gershwin Songbook

Ella Fitzgerald delivers a lavish production of Gershwin songs, with arranger and conductor Nelson Riddle using a string section as well as the studio band.

The orchestrions are lush without being over-sentimental and Ella’s reading of the classic jazz balladSomeone To Watch Over Me’ is as close to perfection as it’s possible to get.

Its Only A Paper Moon (1961)

From the album Ella Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook

Perhaps one of the more underrated jazz songs on this list, It’s Only A Paper Moon was close to Ella’s heart and one that had been part of her repertoire from the early days of her career.

It also represents the only time the vocalist would work with arranger Billy May who struck a nice balance between loose swing and tight orchestral arrangements for the horns.

Ella sounds happy and relaxed singing this delightful tune, and the tenor solo is by Plas Johnson who is best known as the tenor saxophone soloist on ‘The Pink panther Theme’ by Henry Mancini.

Mack The Knife (1960)

From the album Ella In Berlin

While the song was already a hit, having been covered by countless artists already, Ella being Ella decided she should have a crack at it too.

As she announces in her introduction in this live recording, Mack The Knife had not been covered by a female vocalist before, but she wanted to do it anyway.

As if jinxing herself by doing so, she added that she “hope she remembered all the words”, which she promptly forgot!

How she got through the song with her own impromptu lyrics is no mean feat, and yet she still manages to make the song uniquely her own.

In our pick, it’s one of the best Ella Fitzgerald songs for summing up not just her talent, but her enourmous stage presence.

Them There Eyes (1963)

From the album Ella and Basie

Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie had already recorded together in 1957 on the album One O’clock Jump and, if anything, this 1963 surpasses their earlier efforts.

The Basie band could not fail to swing; the only problem might have been to reign in their enthusiasm. This task fell to arrangers Quincy Jones and Benny Carter who do a wonderful job.

The All-American rhythm section with Basie and guitarist Freddie Green at the helm creates the pulse that drives the band, and on ‘Them Their Eyes’ Ella gets in a couple of superb scat chorus’s.

Written in 1930, the song was given an early outing in a recording by Louis Armstrong in 1931, and another notable version is by Billie Holiday in 1939. Ella’s, we’d argue, beats them all!

More Ella Fitzgerald Songs

Ella Fitzgerald died aged 79 on 15 June 1996 leaving behind a valuable legacy of recorded work.

So valuable, in fact, that our list barely scratches the surface.

As the above selection shows, Fitzgerald was so much more than a jazz singer, while paradoxically being one of the greatest exponents of the art along with Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan.

The series of eight Songbooks recorded by Norman Granz’s Verve label are among the finest vocal albums of any genre, but they too only give half the story.

So as usual, we’d highly recommend using them as a springboard to get deeper into the Ella Fitzgerald discography…

Looking for more?

Check out our guide the most famous female jazz singers in history, or our guide to 10 of Ella FItzgerald’s greatest albums.

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