Ella Fitzgerald - First Lady of Song

Ella Fitzgerald was unique among vocalists. Her clear, sunny voice sounded girlish most of her life, and could lead a listener to think she had known little pain and much happiness. This was far from true.

Born in Newport News, Virginia in 1917, Ella was orphaned at the age of 15. As an orphan she was placed in the Colored Orphan Asylum in Riverdale – one of the few orphanages which then accepted black children.   But from there she was transferred to a reform school, the New York State Training School for Girls. Later investigations revealed this to be a place where wide-spread physical abuse took place: it was a hell hole for a teenaged girl.   She escaped the reformatory and was living, homeless, in the streets of Harlem, when she was discovered at 16 by the bandleader Chick Webb.

Webb saw her at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theatre, at the weekly amateur night. Ella had intended to go on the stage to dance, but she lost her nerve when she finally got there. The stage emcee had told her to “Do something while you’re out there,” she recalled, “So I tried to sing ‘Object of My affection’ and ‘Judy,’ and I won first prize.” That was $25 – no small sum at the time.

What the audience – including Chick Webb – heard was an untrained but pure voice with a three-octave range throughout which her clarity and timbre remained uniform. She had crisp diction and flawless intonation.   She had at 16 the voice which would uniquely identify her throughout her entire performing career.

Webb personally coached the shy girl into becoming a professional performer. And then he introduced her at the Savoy Theatre as his band’s new singer, launching her singing career.

On June 12th in 1935 Ella made her first record with Chick Webb’s powerhouse band. The A-side was “I’ll Chase the Blues Away,” and she certainly did. Ella Fitzgerald’s was a joyful voice, not at all mournful or sad, and the blues did not become her. Her musical influences included Louie Armstrong but also the white Boswell Sisters, whose lively upbeat qualities can be heard in many of Fitzgerald’s own recordings. Even when she sang with blues inflections, as on “My Last Affair,” recorded in November 1936 with members of the Chick Webb band, she does not sound involved in the song’s lyrics.

But the novelty song, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which was light-hearted and upbeat, became a big hit for Ella with Webb in 1938. She was still a teenager but she sounded comfortable trading phrases with the band in the final choruses – already an accomplished and assured pro.

Chick Webb died suddenly the following year, leaving Ella to front the band and try to keep it going. The band fell apart during the war, freeing Ella to follow her muse – which took her in the direction of bebop, the revolutionary new jazz.

Ella found the rhythms of bebop uplifting, and she began to scat – singing wordless syllables in a vocal imitation of a horn, improvising her own solo line. This became in time one of her trademarks, but it can be heard in an early form in her 1943 “Cow Cow Boogie,” where she scats briefly. Many beboppers scatted, Dizzy Gillespie notably among them. Ella jammed with him and he encouraged her to improvise. “I just tried to do what I heard the horns in the band doing,” she said.

Ella quickly made herself at home with the boppers, marrying bassist Ray Brown and co-leading a band with him. In December, 1947 she recorded “How High The Moon,” from which the boppers had used the chords for “Anthropology.”

In the Forties Ella met Norman Granz. Granz was a former MGM film editor who had begun promoting jazz concerts under the name of Jazz At The Philharmonic. That “Philharmonic” originally referred to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium, where he presented his first concert with a borrowed $300 in 1944.   By 1948 the JATP had two national tours going every year, and Granz was recording them for release through Mercury Records.   Ella began touring with the JATP that year, and soon thereafter Granz became her manager.  

Everything fell together.   Granz knew how to look after her interests – at first with Decca Records, and then, after 1956, with his own Verve label.   Fitzgerald’s career took off. Granz made the canny move to have Ella sing the “songbooks” of some of the 20th Century’s major composers of songs, and he packaged them (often double LPs) as class acts. Between the years of 1956 and 1964 Ella sang the “songbooks” of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer. After hearing his, Ira Gershwin said, “I didn’t realize our songs were so good until Ella sang them.”

Granz also produced collaborations between Ella and Count Basie (On The Sunny Side of the Street) and Duke Ellington (Ella At Duke’s Place) as well as using Ellington and his orchestra for parts of the Ellington SongBook. She scats through Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm” in the latter album, a double-LP.

In December, 1960 Granz sold Verve to MGM and moved to Switzerland. But subsequently he started a new label, Pablo Records.   Granz paired Ella with guitarist Joe Pass to make four duet albums in the Seventies.

Ella was a diabetic and the disease attacked her vision and her circulation, causing her to have both legs amputated below the knee in 1992. That ended her performing career – which had spanned six decades.   She died June 15th, 1996 at the age of 78. By then she had made thousands of recordings, earned thirteen Grammy Awards, a Kennedy Center Award for her contributions to the performing arts, and honorary doctorate degrees from Dartmouth and Yale.

She leaves behind a huge legacy of music with her unique vocal stamp upon it.

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