April 25, 1917– Ella Fitzgerald
“The only thing better than singing is more singing.“
She overcame adversity and achieved unprecedented success as a black woman at the height of the Jim Crow era.
Fitzgerald remains the most popular female Jazz singer ever. In her lifetime, she sold more than 50 million albums and received a Kennedy Center Honor (1979), the National Medal of Arts (1987), France’s Commander of Arts and Letters (1990); the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1992), the country’s highest civilian honor, 13 Grammy Awards, plus her own USPS postage stamp.
In a career that lasted six decades, Fitzgerald recorded more than 200 albums and at least 2,000 songs, making her the most recorded female performer in history. She was the first African-American woman to win a Grammy.
Fitzgerald had an extraordinary flexible vocal range of three octaves and possessed a preternatural gift for pitch and rhythm, plus flawless diction, despite her lack of formal musical training. The quality of her voice seduced listeners who were not interested in Jazz music. Singing the best popular songs from Hollywood or Broadway, she was matchless. As a Jazz musician could take hold of a popular song and transform it into something the original composer might have found hard to identify.
Fitzgerald was a big part of my parental units’ album collection and I remember hearing her from the earliest age. She possessed a true diversity in style with her pure, sweet voice. She started as a Swing artist, did Bebop, perfected Scat and Jazz; she also sang modern songs as well as standards, plus Rock, Blues, Bossa Nova, Gospel, Calypso, and Christmas Carols. She covered Cream‘s Sunshine Of Your Love with as much skill and feeling as she gave to the songs by Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. She sang the work of Lennon and McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Stevie Wonder. She could sing with a full orchestra, a band, a trio, or just a guitar. Musically, Fitzgerald had few limitations.
She was raised in Yonkers by her mother, a cook and laundress, and a stepfather. She never knew her real father. As a kid, Fitzgerald listened to 1920s popular music shows on the radio and played records. She finished school just at the start of the Big Band sound, when the American popular song had its golden age.
She wanted to be a dancer, and in 1934, she entered a talent contest at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem on a dare. Fitzgerald intended to dance, but once on stage she lost her nerve, and on impulse decided to sing The Object Of My Affection, a song she loved that was recorded by The Boswell Sisters. She won first prize. Fitzgerald:
“Once up there, I felt the acceptance and love from the audience, I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life.“
She impressed audiences and caught the attention of influential people in the music biz. She soon landed a gig performing at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom as vocalist for the Chick Webb Band. Live radio broadcasts from the Savoy Ballroom led to recordings with Webb’s band on the Decca label; her first, Love And Kisses, was recorded in 1935. In 1938, her “swing” version of the nursery rhyme, A-Tisket, A-Tasket, brought her international stardom.
When Webb died in 1939, Fitzgerald carried on as the leader of his band. During WW II, she toured Jazz clubs all over the USA, introducing wordless improvisations into her songs, emulating Dizzy Gillespie‘s trumpet technique. This is known as “scat”. I am decidedly not into scat, it even says so on my Grindr profile, but her scat is simply magnificent. She obviously made it up as she went along, and never stumbled, never repeated, and never became monotonous.
In 1947, Fitzgerald joined Norman Granz‘s Jazz At The Philharmonic and toured the globe. Granz required promoters to ensure that there was no “colored” or “white” seating at the venues on the tour. He made certain that Fitzgerald received equal pay and accommodation. If the conditions were not met, shows were cancelled. There were many obstacles, even for the most popular African-American artists. Once, in Dallas, touring with the Philharmonic, angered by Grans’s directives, the police barged into Fitzgerald’s dressing room where band members were shooting dice, and arrested everyone for gambling. Fitzgerald:
“They took us down to the jail and then when we got there, they had the nerve to ask me for an autograph.“
Black musicians, regardless of popularity, had to enter and leave clubs, restaurants and hotels through a backdoor. During the 1950s, one of the most popular venues was The Mocambo in Hollywood. Some guy named Frank Sinatra made his L.A. debut at Mocambo in 1943, and it was frequented by a lot of big stars including Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Fitzgerald was not allowed to play at Mocambo because she was black. Then, one of her biggest fans made a telephone call. Fitzgerald:
“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt… she personally called the owner of The Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman, a little ahead of her times. And, she didn’t know it.“
Granz recognized that in the traditional setting of a jam session Fitzgerald was free to improvise in the same way as instrumentalists. He knew that her remarkable rich contralto tone, was ideally suited to mainstream popular music.
Granz bought her contract from Decca in 1955, and Fitzgerald, accompanied by large, lushly-scored orchestra, recorded on his Verve label the famous “Songbook” albums, devoted to a series of composers. The Cole Porter Songbook (1956) came out on two LPs; five albums were devoted to George Gershwin. Other Songbook collections included the works of Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Frank Loesser, Johnny Mercer and best of all, Rodgers and Hart. The series had mainstream popularity and high praise from critics.
Fitzgerald continued to tour throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, despite her failing health. In 1984 and 1990 she was hospitalized for exhaustion. In 1986, she had heart bypass surgery. In 1993, both her legs were amputated below the knee because of diabetic complications. Then, she became increasingly reclusive in her house in Beverly Hills.
I think I know such an awful lot about the Great American Songbook, but then I will be introduced to some gem that has eluded me for decades. Recently, my husband’s bidness partner brought me a recording of When I Get Low, I Get High by Ella Fitzgerald. I thought the lyric was: “When I Get HOME, I Get High”, which brought special relevance for me. I didn’t know this “Harlem High Life” tune before, but now it is a favorite. It is nice to have something old that is something new.
Certain artists just seem to reach through the restraints of listeners and fans of specific genres. It doesn’t make a difference if the bulk of your music collection is Heavy Metal, Rock, R&B, Funk, Hip Hop, Gospel, Show Tunes, Folk, Opera, or Symphonic Music; every music aficionado always should have, at the very least, a Greatest Hits package of Patsy Cline, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald. Don’t you agree? Who else would you add?
In 1959, both at the height of their popularity, Sinatra told the press:
“Ella Fitzgerald is the only performer with whom I’ve ever worked who made me nervous. Because I try to work up to what she does. You know, try to pull myself up to that height, because I believe she is the greatest popular singer in the world, barring none—male or female.“
Fitzgerald said her biggest regret was never having recorded an album with Sinatra. They appeared in television specials together in 1958, 1959, and 1967’s A Man And His Music + Ella + Jobim, that also featured Antônio Carlos Jobim. Sinatra always gave her his dressing room when they worked together. Fitzgerald agreed to appear with Sinatra and Count Basie for a series of concerts at Caesars Palace in 1974, which was the incentive for Sinatra to return from his retirement of the early 1970s. In 1975, the trio grossed $1,000,000 for 10 performances on Broadway.
My research shows that Fitzgerald was a bit dim and extremely shy, keeping to her own company and rarely hanging with the band. She shrank from giving interviews and always gave me an impression of inner insecurity. She was known to be extremely generous.
Fitzgerald performed her last concert at Carnegie Hall in 1991. She scatted until the end, leaving this world in 1996, at 79 years old, taken by complications from Diabetes at her Beverly Hills home that she loved so much.
She once described singing a song as:
“You tell it like a beautiful story, and it’s always a story that happened to somebody else.“
My favorite Ella Fitzgerald recording I would have to be How High The Moon. What is yours?
“She was the best there ever was. Among all of us who sing, she was the best.“