At Hollywood parties, Frank Loesser would amuse guests with this comic parry of seduction and resistance. Loesser would sing the “wolf” part, his wife Lynn the “mouse,” in a dialogue of a woman trying to slip out of the bachelor’s lair while he plies her with compliments and admonitions about the weather. “The neighbors might think… / But, baby, it’s bad out there. / Say, what’s in this drink? / No cabs to be had out there. / I wish I knew how—/ Your eyes are like starlight now. / —To break the spell. / I’ll take your hat, your hair looks swell.” A novelty song that still sounds contemporary, “Baby” was put on film in MGM’s Neptune’s Daughter. Four different interpretations scaled the pop top 20 in 1949, including this bantering delight by Ella and jump-blues bandleader Louis Jordan. Ever since, “Baby” has united all manner of musical odd couples: Bette Midler and James Caan, Dolly Parton and Rod Stewart, Glee’s boy duo Chris Coffer and Darren Criss and, on The Muppet Show, Rudolf Nurejev (as the mouse) and Miss Piggy (as the wolf).
Fitzgerald’s unparalleled genius, though, was as a balladeer who seamlessly fused jazz and pop, airy scat-singing and the subtlest line-readings. Whereas Billie Holiday made her art about the singer, not the song, Ella slipped inside every lyric and located its sweet or desperate truth. Her eight-album “song book” series, devoted to the works of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer, is an unparalleled achievement: an epic fusing of creator and interpreter. “I never knew how good our songs were,” Ira Gershwin famously said, “until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.”