Ella Fitzgerald – Sings the Johnny Mercer Song Book

  • With superb Nearly Triple Plus (A++ to A+++) sound on both sides of this Verve stereo original LP, we are fairly certain you could not possibly have heard Ella Fitzgerald sound better than she does on this very record
  • The huge, rich orchestral sound captured so beautifully by Val Valentin is always one of the highlights of these songbooks
  • By the time this one came out in 1964 Ella had already recorded 18 LPs of songbooks – this was the last, going out on a high note
  • Some of the Mercer Classics here are Too Marvelous For Words, Day In-Day Out, Laura, Skylark, Midnight Sun, I Remember You
  • Once you hear Ella sing Skylark on this album, you will have a very hard time sitting through Linda Ronstadt’s rendition of it on Lush Life
  • AMG raves “this is one of the best of Ella Fitzgerald’s songbooks. Fitzgerald’s assured and elegant voice is a perfect match for Mercer’s urbane lyrics and Nelson Riddle’s supple arrangements…”

When you are lucky enough to find a album that sounds as good as this one, full of standards from the Great American Songbook, you cannot help but recognize that this era for Ella will never be equaled, by her or anyone else.

The recording is outstanding, with huge amounts of space and midrange richness that might just take your breath away.

Having done this for so long, we understand and appreciate that rich, full, solid, Tubey Magical sound is key to the presentation of this primarily vocal music. We rate these qualities higher than others we might be listening for (e.g., bass definition, soundstage, depth, etc.).

The music is not so much about the details in the recording, but rather in trying to recreate a solid, palpable, real Ella Fitzgerald singing live in your listening room. The best copies have an uncanny way of doing just that.

If you exclusively play modern repressings of older recordings (this one is now 54 years old), I can say without fear of contradiction that you have never heard this kind of sound on vinyl. Old records have it — not often, and certainly not always — but less than one out of 100 new records do, if our experience with the hundreds we’ve played can serve as a guide.

What The Best Sides of Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Johnny Mercer Song Book Have To Offer Is Not Hard To Hear

  • The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
  • The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1964
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments having the correct timbre
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional studio space

No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the qualities we discuss above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.

What We’re Listening For on Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Johnny Mercer Song Book

  • Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
  • Then: presence and immediacy. The vocals aren’t “back there” somewhere, lost in the mix. They’re front and center where any recording engineer worth his salt would put them.
  • The Big Sound comes next — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality, all that sort of thing.
  • Then transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks, not the smear and thickness so common to these LPs.
  • Next: transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the soundfield, showing you the space and air around all the instruments.
  • Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.

The Phenomenal Sound of Ella’s Classic Songbooks

Copies with rich lower mids and nice extension up top (to keep Nelson’s orchestral arrangements from becoming congested, hard or shrill) did the best in our shootout, assuming they weren’t veiled or smeary of course. So many things can go wrong on a record! We know, we’ve heard them all.

And we know a fair bit about Ella’s recordings at this point. As of today we’ve done commentaries for more than a dozen different Ella Fitzgerald albums, and that’s not counting the sixteen (yes, 16!) titles we put in our Hall of Shame. If you want to know how Ella’s records stack up, please visit our blog.

We’ve searched high and low for her records and played them by the score over the years. We plan to keep great copies on the site for our Ella fans so watch for new arrivals in the Vocal section (linked to the left).

A Big Group of Musicians Needs This Kind of Space

One of the qualities that we don’t talk about on the site nearly enough is the SIZE of the record’s presentation. Some copies of the album just sound small — they don’t extend all the way to the outside edges of the speakers, and they don’t seem to take up all the space from the floor to the ceiling. In addition, the sound can often be recessed, with a lack of presence and immediacy in the center.

Other copies — my notes for these copies often read “BIG and BOLD” — create a huge soundfield, with the music positively jumping out of the speakers. They’re not brighter, they’re not more aggressive, they’re not hyped-up in any way, they’re just bigger and clearer.

And most of the time those very special pressings are just plain more involving. When you hear a copy that does all that — a copy like this one — it’s an entirely different listening experience.

Val Valentin

Valentin’s list of credits runs for days. Some high points are of course Ella and Louis, and Getz/Gilberto.

Recently we played a copy of We Get Requests by the Oscar Peterson Trio that blew our mind. And we have been big fans of Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley for more than a decade.

Pull up his credits on Allmusic. No one I am familiar with other than Rudy Van Gelder recorded more great jazz, and in our opinion Valentin’s recordings are quiet a bit more natural sounding than Rudy’s, especially with regard to the the sound of the piano.

Much of the above commentary is borrowed from other Ella records. The better songbook albums have much in common, and the top pressings of them are much more alike than they are different, especially once Verve entered the stereo era in the later ’50s.

Vinyl Condition

Mint Minus Minus and maybe a bit better is about as quiet as any vintage pressing will play, and since only the right vintage pressings have any hope of sounding good on this album, that will most often be the playing condition of the copies we sell. (The copies that are even a bit noisier get listed on the site are seriously reduced prices or traded back in to the local record stores we shop at.)

Those of you looking for quiet vinyl will have to settle for the sound of other pressings and Heavy Vinyl reissues, purchased elsewhere of course as we have no interest in selling records that don’t have the vintage analog magic of these wonderful originals.

If you want to make the trade-off between bad sound and quiet surfaces with whatever Heavy Vinyl pressing might be available, well, that’s certainly your prerogative, but we can’t imagine losing what’s good about this music — the size, the energy, the presence, the clarity, the weight — just to hear it with less background noise.


Side One

Too Marvelous For Words
Early Autumn 
Day In – Day Out 
This Time The Dream’s On Me 
Single ‘O

Side Two

Something’s Gotta Give 
Travlin’ Light 
Midnight Sun 
I Remember You 
When A Woman Loves A Man

Allmusic 4 1/2 Star Review

Along with her Rodgers and Hart collection, this is one of the best of Ella Fitzgerald’s songbooks. Fitzgerald’s assured and elegant voice is a perfect match for Mercer’s urbane lyrics and Nelson Riddle’s supple arrangements…

Fitzgerald’s Mercer songbook has become something of an overlooked gem partly because of the popularity of her Cole Porter and Gershwin collections. It’s a shame, because this songbook is beautifully executed by Fitzgerald and Riddle and contains wonderful Mercer collaborations with, among others, Harold Arlen and Hoagy Charmichael. This is definitely one for any Fitzgerald fan and not a bad introduction to her vast catalog.

James Gavin Review

WHEN ELLA Fitzgerald began her now-legendary Verve Song Book series in 1956, she was a musicians’ and singers’ singer of limited commercial appeal. Eight years later, when Verve released the final volume, she had become as much of an icon as Frank Sinatra. Fans all over the world embraced her as a peer of the geniuses she’d saluted: Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, and others. The Song Book series, in turn, was seen as a shrine to the songwriting craft at its zenith.

When those albums first appeared, no one knew that the so-called golden age of classic popular song was. In 1964, when Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Johnny Mercer Song Book hit the stores, the Beatles were America’s favorite tunesmiths, and Fitzgerald’s series had run its course. Her Gershwin box had included five long-playing albums and a companion EP single; Mercer got one LP.

Still, this album had its riches. The album placed Fitzgerald in the Tiffany settings of arranger Nelson Riddle. The lyrics came from Savannah, Georgia’s favorite son, a four-time Oscar-winner whose career had spanned Dixieland, swing, Hollywood, and Broadway. Along the way he attracted a stellar bevy of collaborators: Richard Whiting, Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Arthur Schwartz, Harry Warren.

Like Carmichael, this jovial Southern teddy bear was a voice of American life. In witty, casual, but superbly honed language, he evoked the open highway (“Blues in the Night”), the prairie (“I’m an Old Cowhand”), revival meetings (“Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive”), deserted barrooms (“One for My Baby”). For Mercer, nature was rife with human feeling; in one of his masterpieces, a bird becomes a confidante and a symbol of hope: “Skylark, have you seen a valley green with spring/Where my heart can go a-journeying/Over the shadows and the rain/To a blossom-covered lane?”

Exploring his words, which she phrased with underrated thoughtfulness, Fitzgerald bears out the contention of many that she was the perfect singer. Henry Pleasants, a British classical-music critic, wrote this about her: “She has a lovely voice, one of the warmest and most radiant in its natural range that I have heard in a lifetime of listening to singers in every category. She has an impeccable and ultimately sophisticated rhythmic sense, and flawless intonation. Her harmonic sensibility is extraordinary. She is endlessly inventive.”

The sometimes strident girlishness of her concert singing is nowhere to be heard here; instead, the lower keys and relaxed tempos bring out her most womanly sound.

Shortly after recording this song book, she confessed to Down Beat that she was relieved to be getting “a little back to the jazz thing” in her new album, Whisper Not. “The Song Book material is beautiful,” she said, “but sometimes you can’t do too much with these numbers before you get away from the essence of the tune.” Later in life she made a few Song Books for other labels, but the Verve series captured her in her prime. The original Song Books have never lost their prestige; Mercer’s volume is as good as any of them.