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Unearthing A Lost Ella Fitzgerald Recording, 60 Years Later
It was like a scene out of an Indiana Jones film: Ken Druker, the Vice President of Catalogue at Verve Records, and Gregg Field, the veteran drummer and producer, were about to play a dusty recording of the indelible First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald, that hadn’t been heard, seen or even opened in almost 60 years. "The information written on it certainly wasn’t complete, so it was kind of a crapshoot of what was on it," says Druker of the tedious process. "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."
Exactly what Druker and Field stumbled upon was a complete live set of Fitzgerald in her prime performing in 1962 at Sportpalast Arena in Berlin, Germany with the same band as her GRAMMY-winning classic album Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife, which snagged the prize for Best Female Vocal Performance (Single) and the Best Vocal Performance, Female (Album) at the third-ever GRAMMY Awards in 1961. Explains Druker of the monumental find: "The mono recording sounded good, but when we came across the stereo version of the same show we knew for sure it was something that needed to be released."
The result, out Oct. 2 on Verve Records, is appropriately dubbed The Lost Berlin Tapes and is a rare, never-before-heard release courtesy one of America’s greatest voices traversing through bouncy renditions of both her hallmark tracks ("Mack the Knife" and "Check to Cheek") and otherwise rare covers (including a version of Ray Charles’ hit "Hallelujah I Love Her So," swapping "him" for "her").
"There are those nights when you can count on one hand that everything is working on such a high level and this was one of those nights," explains Field who played drums for Fitzgerald in the mid-'80s and serves as a co-producer of the Lost Berlin Tapes endeavour. "She was coming off this big success and you couldn't pick a better year in terms of her age and developed abilities. Here she is with maximum knowledge and ability to execute what she wanted to do. Not only that, but everyone is in a great mood too. All of those things contributed to a much more interesting, compelling performance than the 1960 record that she won the GRAMMY for, which is iconic in itself."
How exactly this particular concert never saw the light of day until the 21st century is a mystery lost to the ages, but Field has some ideas. Formerly in the collection of Ella’s famed manager Norman Granz who founded Verve with the specific mission to release Fitzgerald, the tapes entered a limbo state when Granz later founded Pablo Records in 1973 and sold Verve to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. "We're guessing that when Verve was sold, he took a lot of these tapes with him. Since Verve could have claimed ownership, it could have contributed to why they never came out."
The tapes then sat quietly in Granz's collection for decades, Fitzgerald died in 1996 and Granz passed in 2001, and they were essentially forgotten. That is until a nudge last year from Richard D. Rosman, a caretaker of the Fitzgerald estate, pointed Druker and Field in the direction of the treasure. "We’ll never know what we don’t find," says Druker of the tricky business of lost recordings, some which have the very real ability of disappearing forever. (See: The 2008 fire at Universal Studios during which countless master recordings went ablaze.) "There are some recordings that we know happened but we never found them, so we’re lucky when we do come across these things. When we dig them up, we’re very fortunate."
The quality of The Lost Berlin Tapes is also bolstered by a state-of-the-art technology created by the software company iZotope called RX 8 Music Rebalance. "This technology did not exist a year ago and they called me by chance (just as I was looking into the tapes)," says Field, who used the technology to separate the original stereo mix into a four-track drum, bass, piano and vocal recording. "On the original tape, Ella’s voice was a little thin in the mid-range and the piano and drums were panned hard left and hard right, which is very old school. I was able to bring her more forward and brought up the bottom so you can even hear fingers on the strings. The result is that Ella's much more in the room with you. When I sent it to Ken, he said, 'This is the best live recording of Ella I've ever heard.'"
For Field, who became so close to Ella that she even serenaded him with "Happy Birthday" when he turned 30, it’s both her talent and humanity that’s on full display on the unearthed recording. "Ella was two people. She was very humble, very shy and generous. But when she walked on stage she was hardcore and didn’t know how to sing unless it was coming from her heart," Field explains. "She had a great sense of her audience and made you feel like you were in on all the fun that we were having. She was able to get rid of the walls between her and the audience. That showed in her music, and this set."