LOS ANGELES - "You can only be an innovator once ... and I hate that," joked Patti Austin backstage at a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald. Austin joined host Natalie Cole, Wynonna Judd, Nancy Wilson and other singers and musicians covering tunes by Fitzgerald at the "We Love Ella: A Tribute to the First Lady of Song" on Sunday night.
The tribute, held at the University of Southern California's Galen Center, marked what would have been Fitzgerald's 90th birthday April 25. The singer died in 1996.
Backed by USC's Thornton Symphony and Jazz Orchestra, instrumentalists George Duke, James Moody and Jon Faddis covered Fitzgerald's classic 1950s recording "Lady Be Good." Newcomer Lizz Wright cooed "Lullaby of Birdland."
Saxman Dave Koz riffed with "American Idol" Ruben Studdard on "Do Nothing `Til You Hear From Me," and a capella act Take 6 bopped to an original tune inspired by Fitzgerald's stylings.
"When it comes to vocal scatting, we feel like we're her great-godsons," said Take 6 member Alvin Chea.
Stevie Wonder brought the audience to their feet with "Too Close for Comfort."
"Ella didn't care about the words because she thought like a horn," noted Quincy Jones, a longtime collaborator. "One of her biggest records, `Mack the Knife,' in Berlin, she forgot all the words."
Fitzgerald's own peerless sounds were showcased in a montage of never-before-released tunes. The songs will be featured on "Love Letters From Ella," a collection of rare recordings to be issued July 31 by Starbucks Entertainment and Concord Records.
"We Love Ella," produced by Phil Ramone and Gregg Field for Thirteen/WNET New York, airs June 6 on PBS. The companion tribute album will be released June 5 on Verve Records.
On the Net:
University of Southern California:
Thirteen/WNET New York: