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Norman Granz, Fitzgerald’s producer and manager for what might be described as the glory years of her career, occasionally gets credit for inventing the idea of the songbook album. Granz was not a humble man, but even he would have hesitated to take a bow for this particular innovation. “Songbook” albums dedicated to the canon of a single composer, lyricist, or team, go back at least as far as 1939, when the jazz and torch singer Lee Wiley launched a series of songbook projects that ultimately extended to six different albums. The songbook’s growing popularity as a format appears to have gone hand-in-hand with the introduction of the long-playing record in 1948: Margaret Whiting did a Rodgers and Hart collection for Capitol Records in 1947 (released as a 10 inch LP in 1950), and even more notably, Fitzgerald herself recorded her first songbook, Ella Sings Gershwin, in 1950.
That premiere Fitzgerald songbook was produced by Milt Gabler, an under-appreciated figure in the arc of Ella’s career and in jazz in general. Yet Norman Granz deserves credit for something else, something closely related.