Spring 2019

Ella Fitzgerald & “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” Berlin 1968: Paying Homage to & Signifying on Soul Music

Judith Tick

“If you don’t learn new songs, you’re lost,” Ella Fitzgerald told The New York Times in 1967. This essay is a close reading of one performance of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” she gave at a concert in Berlin on February 11, 1968. The song, which had already become a global hit through a version by Ray Charles in 1962, turned into a vehicle through which Fitzgerald signified on “Soulsville,” or soul, a black popular style then sweeping the American music scene. References to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and Vernon Duke’s “I Can’t Get Started With You” are examples of the interpolations included here. The essay challenges the idea that the late 1960s were a fallow period in Fitzgerald’s career by highlighting the jazz techniques she used to transform one song into a self-revelatory theatrical tour de force.

Judith Tick, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2004, is the Matthews Distinguished University Professor Emerita of Music History at Northeastern University. She is the author of Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music (1997) and Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150–1950 (1987) and editor of Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion (2008). She is currently writing a biography of Ella Fitzgerald.

This essay depends upon a virtual community of semianonymous uploaders who have Web-posted Ella Fitzgerald’s Berlin 1968 concert in its entirety. Held on February 11, 1968, at the Deutschlandhalle, a roughly nine-thousand-seat arena in the American sector of Berlin–a divided city in a divided country–the concert was televised by and broadcast on West-German public television. As of February 2019, the YouTube clips of the concert have been viewed a combined 240,000 times.

Berlin 1968 challenges the idea that the late 1960s were a fallow period for Fitzgerald’s artistic achievement, a period in which her albums compromised her art to accommodate new trends in American popular music. It offers living proof, so to speak, that she had much to say about the potential interactions between pop and jazz and that old categories of “commercial” versus “authentic” cannot grapple with the individuality of her approaches. To be sure, she acknowledged her own receptivity to contemporary pop: “If you don’t learn new songs, you’re lost” . . .

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