3 Part Series
There is so much to say about Ella Fitzgerald and the profound influence and effect she has had on 20th century music and the pop standard that I decided to split this biography into three parts so I could cover it all. Before going into detail about Ella’s life and her career, I’d like to tell you all how I met her and what effect she has had on me personally.
In 1978, a close friend gave me a recording of Ella Fitzgerald singing the “Rodger’s & Hart Songbook.” I had never heard of Rodger’s & Hart and all I knew about Ella at the time was that she was a jazz singer and that she was the one who sang, “A Tisket-A Tasket.” I didn’t realize at the time the “Rodgers” in “Rodgers & Hart” was Richard Rodgers, whose music I had grown up listening to. My parents had all of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Broadway recordings. I also didn’t know until later on that Ella not only sang “Tisket-A-Tasket,” she wrote it. I listened to the “Rodgers & Hart Songbook” for hours on end. It opened up a world of music I had never known. Shortly after first hearing the recording I was in a local music shop where I found the companion “Rodgers & Hart Songbook” in sheet music.
And so began my lifelong passion for the music from the 20’s through the 40’s. Before long, I branched out by searching for every “Tin Pan Alley” tune I could get my hands on, not to mention every recording that Ella had ever recorded. From there, I discovered the world of jazz. I began listening to Sarah Vaughn next, then Carmen McRae, Billy Eckstein, Peggy Lee and on and on to this day. Evolving at the same time was my own professional music career which had slowly migrated from pop tunes of the day (60’s/70’s songs) to almost exclusively American Pop Standards from the “great song era.”
1978 was also the year I met Ella in person for the first time. She was performing at Carnegie Hall and I lied to the Stage Manager after the show, telling him that I had written to Ella and she told me that I could come backstage after the show to meet her. You’d think New York savvy security would be less naive, but this was 1978 and things, even in New York City were more provincial than they are now. I passed by Oscar Peterson, managing to shake his hand and compliment him on the wonderful performance, as I headed straight for Ella’s dressing room. I knocked on the dressing room door and was greeted by a lovely older woman who turned out to be Ella’s assistant. Moments later, Ella emerged wearing a full length mink coat. She took a seat. I actually got down on one knee and told her that she was my idol and that I was a singer-pianist. I told her she was my favorite singer and my greatest influence. She told me that in 50 years of singing that was one of the nicest compliments she had ever received. I kissed her hand and she gave me a hug. That moment remains one of the highlights of my life. I had no idea at the time that years later I would meet Ella again, and have the opportunity to develop a more personal friendship.
Ella Jane Fitzgerald (April 25, 1917 — June 15, 1996) also known as the “First Lady of Song” and “Lady Ella,” was an American jazz and song vocalist. With a vocal range spanning three octaves, she was noted for her purity of tone, impeccable diction, phrasing and intonation, and a “horn-like” improvisational ability, particularly in her scat singing.
She is considered to be a notable interpreter of the Great American Songbook. Over a recording career that lasted 59 years, she was the winner of 14 Grammy Awards and was awarded the National Medal of Art by Ronald Reagan and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George H. W. Bush.
Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia, the child of a common-law marriage between William and Temperance “Tempie” Fitzgerald. The pair separated soon after her birth and she and her mother moved to Yonkers, New York with Tempie’s boyfriend, Joseph Da Silva. Fitzgerald’s half-sister, Frances Da Silva, was born in 1923.
In her youth Fitzgerald wanted to be a dancer, although she loved listening to jazz recordings by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and The Boswell Sisters. She idolized the lead singer Connee Boswell, later saying, “My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it….I tried so hard to sound just like her.”
In 1932, her mother died from a heart attack. Following this trauma, Fitzgerald’s grades dropped dramatically and she frequently skipped school. At one point she worked as a lookout at a bordello and also with a Mafia-affiliated numbers runner. After getting into trouble with the police, she was taken into custody and sent to a reform school. Eventually she escaped from the reformatory and for a time was homeless. She was placed in the Colored Orphan Asylum in Riverdale, the Bronx.
She made her singing debut at 17 on November 21, 1934 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. She pulled in a weekly audience at the Apollo and won the opportunity to compete in one of the earliest of its famous “Amateur Nights”. She had originally intended to go on stage and dance but, intimidated by the Edwards Sisters, a local dance duo, she opted to sing instead in the style of Connee Boswell. She sang Boswell’s “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection,” a song recorded by the Boswell Sisters, and won the first prize of US$25.00.
Ella singing “A-Tisket-A Tasket”
Ella singing, “Lullaby of Birdland” live in 1957 at the New port Jazz Festival
Sources: Personal Photos, First Hand Accounts, Wikipedia, YouTube.
Ella Fitzgerald Vol II
In January 1935, Fitzgerald won the chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House. She met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb here. Webb had already hired singer Charlie Linton to work with the band and was, The New York Times later wrote, “reluctant to sign her….because she was gawky and unkempt, a diamond in the rough.“ Webb offered her the opportunity to test with his band when they played a dance at Yale University.
She began singing regularly with Webb’s Orchestra through 1935 at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom. Fitzgerald recorded several hit songs with them, including “Love and Kisses” and “(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini).” But it was her 1938 version of the nursery rhyme, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket“, a song she co-wrote, that brought her wide public acclaim.
Chick Webb died on June 16, 1939, and his band was renamed “Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra” with Ella taking the role of bandleader. Fitzgerald recorded nearly 150 sides during her time with the orchestra, most of which, like “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” were “novelties and disposable pop fluff.”
n 1942, Fitzgerald left the band to begin a solo career. Now signed to the Decca label, she had several popular hits while recording with such artists as the Ink Spots, Louis Jordan, and the Delta Rhythm Boys.
With Decca’s Milt Gabler as her manager, she began working regularly for the jazz impresario Norman Granz, and appeared regularly in his Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) concerts. Fitzgerald’s relationship with Granz was further cemented when he became her manager, although it would be nearly a decade before he could record her on one of his many record labels.
With the demise of the Swing era and the decline of the great touring big bands, a major change in jazz music occurred. The advent of bebop caused a major change in Fitzgerald’s vocal style, influenced by her work with Dizzy Gillespie‘s big band. It was in this period that Fitzgerald started including scat singing as a major part of her performance repertoire. While singing with Gillespie, Fitzgerald recalled, “I just tried to do [with my voice] what I heard the horns in the band doing.”
Her 1945 scat recording of Flying Home (arranged by Vic Schoen) would later be described by The New York Times as “one of the most influential vocal jazz records of the decade….Where other singers, most notably Louis Armstrong, had tried similar improvisation, no one before Miss Fitzgerald employed the technique with such dazzling inventiveness.” Her bebop recording of “Oh, Lady be Good!” (1947) was similarly popular and increased her reputation as one of the leading jazz vocalists.
Perhaps responding to criticism and under pressure from Granz, who felt that Fitzgerald was given unsuitable material to record during this period, her last years on the Decca label saw Fitzgerald recording a series of duets with pianist Ellis Larkins, released in 1950 as Ella Sings Gershwin.
Ella singing Duke Ellington’s, “In A Sentimental Mood” from the “Duke Ellington Songbook”
Fitzgerald was still performing at Granz’s JATP concerts by 1955. Fitzgerald left Decca and Granz, now her manager, created Verve Records around her.
Fitzgerald later described the period as strategically crucial, saying, “I had gotten to the point where I was only singing be-bop. I thought be-bop was ‘it,’ and that all I had to do was go some place and sing bop. But it finally got to the point where I had no place to sing. I realized then that there was more to music than bop. Norman….felt that I should do other things, so he produced The Cole Porter Songbook with me. It was a turning point in my life.”
Ella singing, Cole Porter’s, “I Concentrate On You.”
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook, released in 1956, was the first of eight multi-album Songbook sets Fitzgerald would record for Verve at irregular intervals from 1956 to 1964. The composers and lyricists spotlighted on each set, taken together, represent the greatest part of the cultural canon known as the Great American Songbook. Fitzgerald’s song selections ranged from standards to rarities and represented an attempt by Fitzgerald to cross over into a non-jazz audience.
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook was the only Songbook on which the composer she interpreted played with her. Duke Ellington and his longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn both appeared on exactly half the set’s 38 tracks and wrote two new pieces of music for the album: “The E and D Blues” and a four-movement musical portrait of Fitzgerald (the only Songbook track on which Fitzgerald does not sing).
The Songbook series ended up becoming the singer’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful work, and probably her most significant offering to American culture. The New York Times wrote in 1996, “These albums were among the first pop records to devote such serious attention to individual songwriters, and they were instrumental in establishing the pop album as a vehicle for serious musical exploration.”
A few days after Fitzgerald’s death, New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote that in the Songbook series Fitzgerald “performed a cultural transaction as extraordinary as Elvis‘s contemporaneous integration of white and African-American soul. Here was a black woman popularizing urban songs often written by immigrant Jews to a national audience of predominantly white Christians.” Frank Sinatra was moved out of respect for Fitzgerald to block Capitol Records from re-releasing his own recordings in a similar, single composer vein.
Ella Fitzgerald also recorded albums exclusively devoted to the songs of Porter and Gershwin in 1972 and 1983; the albums being, respectively, Ella Loves Cole and Nice Work If You Can Get It. A later collection devoted to a single composer was released during her time with Pablo Records, Ella Abraça Jobim, featuring the songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim.
While recording the Songbooks and the occasional studio album, Fitzgerald toured 40 to 45 weeks per year in the United States and internationally, under the tutelage of Norman Granz. Granz helped solidify her position as one of the leading live jazz performers.
In the mid-1950s, Fitzgerald became the first African-American to perform at the Mocambo, after Marilyn Monroe had lobbied the owner for the booking. The booking was instrumental in Fitzgerald’s career. The incident was turned into a play by Bonnie Greer in 2005.
There are several live albums on Verve that are highly regarded by critics. Ella at the Opera House shows a typical JATP set from Fitzgerald. Ella in Rome and Twelve Nights In Hollywood display her vocal jazz canon. Ella in Berlin is still one of her best selling albums; it includes a Grammy-winning performance of “Mack the Knife” in which she forgets the lyrics, but improvises magnificently to compensate.
Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube, ellafitzgerald.com and nndb.com
Race or Ethnicity: Black
Sexual orientation: Straight
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: The First Lady of Jazz
Husband: Ray Brown (jazz bassist, b. 13-Oct-1926, m. 1949, div. 1953, d. 2-Jul-2002, one son)
Son: Ray Brown, Jr. (adopted)
Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame 1978
Kennedy Center Honor 1979
NEA Jazz Master 1985
National Medal of Arts 1987
National Women’s Hall of Fame 1995
Endorsement of Memorex Playboy magazine (1978)
Unlawful Gambling arrested with Dizzy Gillespie, Houston, TX (1955)
Risk Factors: Amputee, Diabetes
Ella Vol. III Coming Soon……..