In 1962, Verve Records released Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd's smash hit Jazz Samba album and set the world aflame, bringing the bossa nova out of Brazil and sending it around the world, claiming an Album of the Year Grammy for Getz's "Desafinado."
Recording companies and artists in every language began recording bossa tunes to ride the wave of popularity, and Verve attempted to cash in on the craze with many of its own in-house jazz musicians. Ella Fitzgerald fell instantly in love with the genre, and in that same year released a two-sided bossa single. Side A featured an English-language cover of "Desafinado," with a Brazilian-flavored take on the classic "Stardust" on the flipside.
Jon Hendricks' English lyrics ("Slightly Out of Tune," the definition of the Portugese term "desafinado") offer a fun, pop-friendly twist on the original, more sad Portugese lyrics, with Ella singing to a lover who just can't quite seem to get on the same page with her. The single was a minor hit (#38) in the UK, and just barely missed the Top 100 (#102) here in the U.S.
This marked the beginning of Ella's lifelong love affair with Brazilian music. She would record many bossa tunes over the remainder of her career. Sadly, though many major jazz and pop musicians did entire bossa albums during their peak years in the 1960s (among the best being Cannonball Adderley's outing with a young Sergio Mendes, and Frank Sinatra's towering LP with bossa master Antonio Carlos Jobim), Ella did not get around to it until 1981's Ella Abraca Jobim, a lamentable, very flawed record.
Check out Ella's 1962 "Desafinado," and then keep scrolling below to find a live performance and a 1981 version (with different lyrics) from the unfortunate Jobim album.
Ella on Swedish TV in 1963 (with Tommy Flanagan at the keys), clearly having a ball. Her voice is in excellent form here, with her quick vibrato at its best. Ella dances a little here; she loved dancing more than almost anything else, and had set out to be a professional dancer, not a singer. When she signed up for the Apollo Theater's infamously tough amateur night in 1934, she was to do a dance routine with a friend who got nervous and backed out. Left alone to take the stage, Ella sang instead. The crowd went wild, she won amateur night, and the rest is, quite literally, history.
From 1981's Ella Abraca Jobim, with a different set of lyrics by Gene Lees which hew more closely to the original Portugese in what amounts to almost a literal line for line translation. They're a bit strange in that they suddenly stop rhyming or attempting to fit the melodic structure in the final verse. Why? Who knows.
While Jobim does not appear on the album (he and Ella never worked together despite appearing - separately - on the same television special in the 1960s), there's a largely top flight group of jazz legends and studio musicians backing her, and her longtime manager and producer Norman Granz oversaw production here. And yet it's.....just not very good. Ella released many quality jazz albums in the '80s. This was not one.
Ella 101 is a daily look at 101 essential recordings by Ella Fitzgerald, who was born 101 years ago this month. Tune in to Equinox, Monday nights from 8 - 11 p.m. on WYSO, to hear Ella and more great jazz with host Duante Beddingfield.