On March 25, 1962, jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald performed in front of a packed audience at the cavernous Berlin Sportpalast arena. She was returning to the city as a hero: Two years earlier, she’d stunned Berlin audiences while recording a live album that would go on to earn her two Grammy Awards, among other accolades.
The 1962 performance was also recorded, but the tapes were lost to history—until recently. Thanks to a chance discovery, audiences can now catch Fitzgerald’s reprise in a rare album, Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes, available to purchase and stream via Verve Records.
Earlier this year, Verve’s vice president of catalog, Ken Druker, and producer Gregg Field were digging through an archive of live recordings that Norman Granz, Verve’s founder, had stashed away decades ago. As music critic Giovanni Russonello reports for the New York Times, the men quickly realized they had uncovered a musical gem: a reel-to-reel tape of Fitzgerald’s 1962 performance that had apparently lain, undisturbed for 60 years, in a box closed with yellowed Scotch tape.
“The information written on it certainly wasn’t complete, so it was kind of a crapshoot of what was on it,” Druker tells Grammy.com’s Rob Ledonne. “But the tape was in very good shape and when we listened to it, we recognized immediately it was an incredible performance. It was very exciting.”
Born in Virginia in 1917 but raised in Yonkers, New York, Fitzgerald—who came to be known as one of the greatest American singers of all time—found early success with the Chick Webb Orchestra in Harlem. She was exceptionally skilled at vocal improvisation, or scatting, particularly on songs like her 1960 rendition of “How High the Moon.”
In a male-dominated, racially segregated music landscape, Fitzgerald broke gender and racial barriers to become a major celebrity singer, even earning the nickname “First Lady of Song,” according to the Smithsonian Institution.
About halfway through “Mack the Knife” during her iconic 1960 Berlin performance, Fitzgerald famously forgot the words to the song. Her improvised version was a hit, however, and the resulting record became one of her bestselling works, per the Times.
The newly released album finds 44-year-old Fitzgerald in her artistic prime. She sings alongside pianist Paul Smith, bassist Wilfred Middlebrooks and drummer Stan Levey. Her roster includes obligatory well-known tracks—“Mack the Knife” makes a reappearance—as well as a rare cover of Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” in which Fitzgerald switches “her” for “him,” reports Grammy.com.
At the end of “Mack,” Fitzgerald again makes a small mistake: Amid her banter with the crowd, she forgets the name of the city where she’s performing.
As Russonello writes in the Times, the mistake is “another moment of imperfect perfection that’s almost too good to be true.”
The critic adds, “Erupting in supportive applause, the crowd hardly has time to be offended.”
To prepare the 60-year-old recordings for release, producer Field used new engineering software that brought Fitzgerald’s voice to the front of the audio and separated the different instruments, creating a richer sound.
“I was able to bring her more forward and brought up the bottom so you can even hear fingers on the strings,” Field tells Grammy.com. “The result is that Ella’s much more in the room with you.”
Jazz vocalist and artist Cécile McLorin Salvant created animations for the music videos that accompany Fitzgerald’s newly released recordings.
These performances underscore “how much of a risk-taker [Fitzgerald] is, how much humor she brings to her performances,” Salvant says to the Times.
She concludes, “For me, a live setting is the best way to hear her.”