Life doesn’t have to be perfect, to be beautiful
The slip up came halfway through her career, near the end of the set. It was February 2nd 1960 and Ella Fitzgerald was performing in Berlin.
On the recording of this performance, you can hear Ella’s voice waver a little before she begins. The applause is dying down from the last song, she thanks the audience and begins to introduce Mack the Knife. ‘Thank you’, she smiles, ‘thank you, ladies and gentleman. Thank you. We’d like to do something for you now, we haven’t heard a girl sing it and it’s so popular we’d like to try and do it for you.’ A brief pause as the music carries on and then, jokingly ‘we hope we remember all the words.’
Ella’s tone is light but her sentiment is serious. Swing in the 50s and 60s was all about getting it right. Take a look at the album covers. You’ll see sets of perfect white teeth, slicked back hair with not a lock out of place. The suits were crisp, the dresses were decadent, the bands were flawless.
Not to mention Mack the Knife’s popularity. It had been a smash hit for Bobby Darin just two years before Ella’s Berlin performance. The front cover of the vinyl single shows Bobby hair coiffed, collar popped, slight smirk gleaming.
Perfect had become ordinary, necessary. So when Ella took to the stage that night to make a live recording in front of thousands, she could not afford to miss a note. Lights glaring, eyes on her, and just before she starts to sing a hush falls over the audience.
The Queen of Jazz made it 1 minute 55 seconds into the song before the first mistake. Without missing a beat or panicking she sings ‘Oh what’s the next chorus to this song now.’ In perfect time with the orchestra behind her, Ella begins to craft new lyrics, bringing her audience in on the joke of her mistake, ‘And now Ella, Ella and her fellas/We’re making a wreck, what a wreck of Mack the Knife.’ She hits every note, every beat.
The cheers and applause ring out before Ella can finish. The audience are on their feet. Ella’s improvisation, it seems, has struck a nerve tonight. The Berlin audience were not the only fans. Her version of Mack the Knife exploded across the world. She even won two Grammys for it.
It seems the audience had seen something more interesting in her mistake than any perfect version she could have presented. What Ella had given them was not something perfect, but something memorable, fragile, unrepeatable. That night she told her audience to let go and live a little, that flawless was boring, but human was beautiful. It is a story we still need today.