With the best of intentions…

…I set out to this week to write a post on the top five American Songbook duet teams.

Over the last twenty or so years of listening, I’ve formed some opinions and settled on a few favorite duet practitioners … I figured, how hard could it be to apply a bit of scientific research to winnow the field down a bit, do a few hours of critical listening and net out a tidy top five list? The answer … real hard; like crazy, stupid hard.

A fools errand…

I waded into the research phase of the effort and realized almost immediately two important things…

First, there are simply too many quality duet teams to realistically net out a top five (or ten) list over the course of a few days research. There are so many great artist pairings, songs, styles, albums … material.

Like the Ella Sings… Songbook albums that I decided to review in serial fashion to accommodate the size and scope of that material, I think any attempt at a comprehensive discussion of duet teams likewise needs to roll out as a series (one that I am indeed tooling into my content plan for the holidays and into the Spring of 2013).

On the other hand…

As my research effort was leading me inexorably to the “this needs to be more than one post” conclusion, I was also struck by another duo truism: though it may be nigh on impossible to cull a top 5 list in a timely fashion, I think it IS possible to call the ball on a clear #1 duet team.

In my opinion, the top duo singing act of all time is Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong … and I don’t think it’s really even close.

The Great American Songbook…

…is replete with truly excellent duet performers — there are scores of them.

Some, like Frank Sinatra and Rosie Clooney, only worked together for a few wonderful numbers (I love “Peachtree Street”). Whereas others formed long, successful partnerships that arguably eclipsed their individual careers … I’m a big fan of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme as solo acts, but there’s little doubt the bulk of their popular success came as Steve and Eydie.

Rosemary and Frank, Rosemary and Bing (hell, Rosie and anyone) … Bing and Louis Armstrong, Bing and Frank (add Dean Martin for a cool trio in the film Robin and the Seven Hoods) … OK, Bing and anybody. Then we have Nat King Cole and Ella, Sammy Davis Jr and Carmen McCrae … Sammy and Nat, Bobby Darin and Johnny Mercer … We are just scratching the surface and I think you’re getting the picture?!

Louis and Ella top them all…

The body of work E & L brought to the duet game is incredible … as a team they must have release a dozen LPs or more.

It’s actually really hard to get an accurate count because E & L were so popular that their albums were iteratively repackaged and re-released numerous times.

I think their best studio work is captured in the 47 songs of The Complete Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong on Verve — an awesome 3 CD release from Verve that is sadly out of print these days (if you can find it, a new one will run you north of $200) … BUT, don’t be deterred as the digital download is available and will only set you back around $28.

If you are a patron of one of the digital “all you can eat services” (I prefer Rhapsody from a Standards catalog standpoint), you won’t find the Verve E & L compendium available but despair not! There’s an even larger collection of 58 tracks from the super duo in a “digital only” release called Ella & Louis, The Best Of Friends (Remastered).

This E&L The Best of Friends LP name is confusing on a couple of counts… First, there is an original LP release by the same name (less the “Remastered”) that only has 11 tracks. Go for the album with the tag line “60 Essential Tracks” … which, (sigh) brings us to the second confusion given the 58 tracks on the release!?

C’mon record people, work a little logic into the naming mix here! Anyway…

 Beyond the volume of material…

The depth of the Louis and Ella duo catalog is indeed impressive, but that is only one variable in my assessment  — and NOT the most important one at that.

The core reason Ella and Louis achieve the top rung on the duet ladder is the completely unique yin-yang goodness that results from the melding of such distinctive and disparate vocal styles into something that more than exceeds the sum of the parts.

There’s something … well, magical about the juxtaposition of Ella’s smooth dexterity, range and tonal precision up against Louis’ absolutely unique, coarse baritone delivery.

But beyond the ultra-distinctive “silk & smoke” vocals, these guys knew how to vocally tango!  Ella and Louis were the masters of  the traditional alternating verse style but also excelled at fast paced interleaving “vocal tennis”, and were surprisingly awesome in the harmonizing sequences … again that “silk & smoke” magic.

As if that were not enough, E & L both live at the very top of “scat mountain” and can weave scat every bit as well as they do verse … add the extra dimension Louis’ horn to the mix (it almost makes them a trio at times) and it’s game over man, game over — Ella and Louis are duet super-heros!

By way of example…

If you still need convincing, here’s just a tiny sample of Ella & Louis’s “silk and smoke” magic act. Ira and George Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day” is a great E & L demo with Louis’ trumpet accompanying … a fun frolic with Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” … the sweet beauty of Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You” and finally — “Summertime” — one of the many Gershwin’s hits from Porgy and Bess, with which the E & L duo came to be so closely associated.

[FYI… apparently DivShare is hosed up this afternoon and I can’t get “Nearness…” uploaded for your listening pleasure. I’ll keep trying and get the number uploaded into the player eventually. UPDATED – GOT “NEARNESS” LOADED AS OF 11/11/12]

I think I’m on pretty solid ground…

…with Ella & Louis as the best standards duo team. But given my lack of exhaustive scientific analysis, I’m game to be be schooled by the learned if there are believers in another way. 😉

Feel free to hit me with your best shot on who should occupy the top rung on the duet ladder … I can take it!

[* Please remember that all songs streamed here are for REVIEW PURPOSES ONLY and are NOT intended as a substitute for properly purchased original record company product. Give a listen and then please support the artists via iTunes, Amazon or your favorite music store. Artists/Record Labels — NO DOWNLOADS ARE SUPPORTED on this site; please contact me directly regarding the removal of any potentially infringing material.]