Here’s a clip of jazz vocal matriarch and sweetly-voiced Louis Armstrong foil Ella Fitzgerald, performing Brecht & Weill’s “Mack the Knife”, a song she made her own, although not without some interesting blips along the way. This is a performance from 1966. I wish I could find a clip of the 1960 album track, which is very special indeed.*
[Actually, these few years later, here is Ella Fitzgerald’s “Mack the Knife”, to which I referred. The clip is dead, I fear. Alas, poor YouTube. I knew him well.]
On her 1960 Ella in Berlin record, Fitzgerald busted this tune wide open in a way she probably did not expect.
She forgot the words.
But rather than this turning into a disaster, she did what jazz musicians do. She improvised. And I don’t mean scat singing in this case, although she’s known for that. Nope. She made up her own words. For this, she earned a very well-deserved Grammy for best female vocal performance the following year, not to mention kudos for her professionalism and creative spark as tested in real time, in front of a real audience.
You’ll notice in this clip, she takes the existing words and adds to them as well, name checking Bobby Darin, who had a hit with this tune, as did Louis Armstrong (who she imitates affectionately). Where a lot of singers might look ruefully upon material they find difficult, Ella owns this, and makes a potential screw up into something joyous and fun.