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Musical Space

Musical Space: Brilliant Mistakes


Singing “Mack the Knife” to a live audience, Ella Fitzgerald realized she had completely forgotten the lyrics and had to ad-lib four whole choruses. The result was a brilliant display of improvising that ended up on the Grammy-winning 1960 album Ella in Berlin.

What is the value of perfection, anyway? Mistakes are human and music is an expression of humanity; bloopers are therefore an essential part of music-making. There are lots of mistakes on classic recordings, especially from the time when fixing them meant spending expensive studio time splicing tape. But no flaw will diminish the effect of a strong piece of music. And a mistake is a good reminder that performers are daredevils, skirting the edge of disaster for our enjoyment.

Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” was recorded before he had written all of the words. The plan was to add a third verse later; he just whistled through it for the session. That verse was never recorded, but the whistling is the most distinctive part of the tune.

It’s always fun to share a mutual laugh with a fellow human owning up to a mistake, like with the Beach Boys completely messing up the words of the second verse of their hit “Barbara Ann.”

Perhaps when we aren’t moved by a song, it’s because it’s too perfect.


Listening list:

•Ella Fitzgerald, “Mack the Knife,” Ella in Berlin (1960).


•The Police, “Roxanne.” Right at the beginning of the song, Sting accidentally sat on a piano keyboard near an open mic. They kept it in; you can hear him laughing about it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXzFCS72QIA

•War - Why Can't We Be Friends? - sour piano note 2 seconds in. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5DmYLrxR0Y8

•The Trashmen, “Louie, Louie,” the singer comes in too early after guitar solo


•Death Cab for Cutie, “Pity and Fear,” Narrow Stairs. The tape recorder they were using suddenly broke at the end of recording the song. They ended up liking the abrupt ending.


•Led Zeppelin, “Whole Lotta Love.” The strange pre-echo in the breakdown toward the end of the tune is an earlier vocal take leaking through the drum mics. Jimmy Page decided it sounded good.