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Ella Fitzgerald Masterfully Butchers “Mack the Knife”

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 22, 2020

If you listen to more than 20 seconds of any song by Ella Fitzgerald, you can instinctively tell how amazing a singer she was. But taking a closer look reveals just how special. In this episode of NPR’s Jazz Night in America, they took a look at Fitzgerald’s 1960 performance of Mack the Knife (where she forgot half the words and improvised the rest) and her talent for referencing other songs while improvising, creating live “mix tapes” of popular songs using just her voice.

By 1960, Fitzgerald had become a global sensation. That February she gave an unforgettable performance in West Berlin for an audience of thousands. On the set list was “Mack The Knife,” a huge hit first made popular by Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong. Fitzgerald sang the song flawlessly until about halfway through, when she forgot the lyrics. But she didn’t stumble — instead, she playfully freestyled her way to the end with nonsense syllables and improvised words — the singular jazz style called scatting. This unforgettable and Grammy Award-winning performance demonstrated her masterful grace under pressure.

You can listen to her Grammy-winning version of Mack the Knife on Spotify:

I love how confidently she sings “Oh, what’s the next chorus…” — Fitzgerald belts it out like those are the right lyrics. Her self-assurance sells it. (via the kid should see this)