So, I got super into writing about Billie Holiday last week and I wanted to follow up with a biography of another killer jazz lady.
I can’t tell you the first time I heard to Ella Fitzgerald’s voice. My memory isn’t that great and so a lot of those small, but important “firsts” are lost to time. But I can tell you that every time I have listened to her since then, I get chills.
Ella Fitzgerald’s voice has this warmth and this fullness to it that is unmatched, in my opinion, by any other jazz singer that came before or after her.
Ella Fitzgerald is in my completely professional and unbiased opinion one of the best jazz performers of her time. But you don’t need to just take my word for it. You can talk to loads of critics, music enjoyers, and even the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and they will all tell you that I’m correct. That’s just how it is.
Ella Fitzgerald (whose middle name is Jane, which I think is the cutest thing in the world. Ella Jane? Right? Just me?) was born in Newport News, Virginia (no, that’s not a typo or anything. Newport News. There’s gotta be a story there) on April 25, 1917 (Making her a taurus. I just KNEW she would be an earth sign) to Temperance and William Fitzgerald. A little while after Ella was born, her parents split up and her mom relocated the two of them to the exotic mecca of Yonkers, New York to live with Temperance’s boyfriend Joe de Sailva (the two got married not long afterwards). New York had a lot to offer the young Fitzgerald; she would often spend her nights wandering the New York theaters, especially the famous Apollo Theater (spoilers: the Apollo played a big role in her career later on. Foreshadowing!)
Now, brace yourself, her story is going to get a little sad for a second. Take a deep breath or a shot of whiskey, if that’s what you’re into.
So, just after Ella’s 15th birthday, her mom passed away. After that her new step-father Joe passed away, so Ella was sent to live with her aunt, who eventually decided she was too much trouble to take care of and sent her to an orphanage. Let’s take a minute to think about the current state of the foster care system and orphanages in America… Now imagine what it was like in the early 20th century… Wasn’t great. During this time, the poor girl basically lived on the streets and tried to make a living by engaging in various small jobs of a somewhat…dubious nature.
At the time, all Fitzgerald wanted to be was a performer. But, it might surprise you to find out, she wanted to be a dancer. She’d loved watching the dancers at the various theaters she frequented and loved to spend her spare time dancing. This desire fired her up and inspired her to try her hand…or her feet, as it were, at the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night in 1934. As she was waiting in the audience, watching the rest of the performers display their talents, Ella was hit with a wave of doubt and insecurity. She was terrified that there was no way she could measure up to the people going before her.
And then they called her name.
As she walked up to the stage, she made a decision that would change her life forever: she decided to ditch the dance routine she had prepared and told the confused stagehands who were introducing her that she would be singing a Hoagy Carmichael song called Judy.
Needless to say, she took home the grand prize that night: a whopping $25 dollars. In fact, her performance was such a sensation that the audience demanded an encore. She was floored by the audience’s response and got this huge surge of self-confidence and assurance. And that was the moment she realized that she wanted to be a singer.
After everyone heard That Voice at Amateur Night, people were falling all over her, requesting her to perform at different venues, even the Harlem Opera House. Coincedentally,, this is exactly where she met Chick Webb (a big band leader and all-around cool dude) who invited her to tour with them and sing in her band. She got all sorts of super great experience during her time with Chick Webb and his band, even getting to perform at famous venues like The Savoy (one of the most prominent venues in New York, at the time).
After a while, however, Fitzgerald found herself drifting away from big band music and she slowly began singing and experimenting more with bebop music. For anyone who doesn’t know, bebop is a kind of avant-garde style of jazz music; it’s super fast and doesn’t have that same rhythmic swing that you hear in a lot of the big band stuff. The only way I can think of to describe it is like…if a bee had two legs and was just running around in weird little circles and stuff. It’s very driven.
Anyway. She was a huge member of the bebop community and she was very active in shaping the sounds and voice of bebop in singing. Specifically what I am referring to here is scat. Yeah, Ella basically invented scat. And it was a hit. She’s perfect. Everyone, audiences and critics alike, fell in love with her style and her sound.
Only a few years after her arrival on the music scene, she was asked to record A Tisket A Tasket (1938), which quickly became number one on the charts and stayed there for 17 WEEKS.
Unfortunately, shortly after this astounding accomplishment, her band leader and good friend Chuck Webb passed away. But, at this point, she had been performing with his band for quite a while now and had grown really close to them. She didn’t want them to be out of a job and, more importantly, she wanted to be able to keep playing music with them. So, she stepped up and decided to become the band leader, in Chuck’s place. This was met with some resistance, of course, because she was a woman and, until then (and after then, in fact), band leading was almost exclusively a position held by men. Not one to be dissuaded from following her dreams, however, Fitzgerald stood her ground, changing the band’s name to Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band (listen, she knew she was hot shit and she ran with it. You’ve gotta respect that).
So, I didn’t mention this earlier, but for a while in the 40s, Ella was married to this real jerk named Benny Kornegay. You can just tell from his name that he was no good. He was a local drug dealer and apparently was pretty terrible to her during their short marriage. Thankfully, she was able to divorce him without much trouble. At which point she met and fell in love with Ray Brown, a bassist with another band. Brown, a wise gentleman, saw Ella’s star power and did everything he could to help support her career, introducing her to the Verve’s record producer Norman Granz who was working on a tour called Jazz at the Philharmonic. Because he, too, was a wise man, as soon as he heard Fitzgerald open her mouth, he begged her to sing with him on the Philharmonic tour, which turned out to be a huge success.
It was actually under the Verve label that Fitzgerald released her famous hit series of song books, recording with greats such as pianist Duke Ellington and trumpeter Louis Armstrong. As a matter a fact, it was her Duke Ellington and Irving Berlin songbooks that allowed her to win her first two Grammys at the FIRST EVER GRAMMY AWARDS in 1958. Wild stuff, let me tell you. This success put her down in the history books as the first black women to ever win the prestigious award.
The 40s and 50s were a big success for her. Her career was on the up and up, performing in venues all around the states and landing spots on popular TV shows (including The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show).
Now, so far, I’ve been talking rainbows and puppy dogs. Ella’s career really was remarkably successful; however, I want to make it clear that she did experience a good deal of setbacks. Unlike other performers of the time (I’m not saying “Billie Holiday”, but….Billie Holiday), Fitzgerald was a literal ray of sunshine and apparently an absolute delight to work with. BUT due to the fact that she was a woman in a predominantly male-dominated field AND black woman, at that, this led to a good deal of strife. Because of her skin color and gender, she was denied a great many opportunities to perform and advance her career.
Here’s a story that I like to pretend relates to me. It makes me feel closer to her: One night in Dallas, Texas (my hometown Houston’s ugly stepsister), she and her band were hanging out and having some laughs in her dressing room. I will admit that they were gambling and shooting dice, which was sort of a no-no at the time. But they weren’t hurting anyone or really doing anything wrong. Well, their producer (Granz) was apparently very liberal and outspoken in terms of supporting the civil rights movement. Which is great. But, the Dallas police didn’t seem to agree with that view and got rather annoyed with him. To get back at him, they stormed the dressing room to harass the band members and caught the band shooting dice and locked them up in jail. Luckily, due to the support from her fans and manager, they were released not long after.
Ella continued performing and touring and recording all the way into the 1990s, despite a significant decline in her health. Even in her old age, she was a smash hit, performing with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Count Basie (what a man). Her last performance was at Carnegie Hall in 1991, just five years before she passed away in 1996 from complications due to her heart and diabetes. (Yes, we all know what this means. Ella and I lived on the same planet for a whole year. And I am so blessed by it.)
Okay, now I’m just gonna get into a little bit of why she was technically so wonderful. A contemporary of Fitzgerald’s, Billie Holiday was also got rave reviews from critics and the public; however, one common critique of her was that she had a rather limited range and set tone to her voice. No one has EVER said that about my girl Ella. She had this fantastic range, just gigantic. But not only that, she was able to move her voice in ways that I’ve never heard before, performing remarkable runs during her scatting and singing. Another thing that she is celebrated for was her willingness and ability to modulate her voice in order to make it sound like other instruments, such as the growl of the trumpet.
By the end of her career, she had amassed over $40 million in record sales, having recorded upwards of 2,000 songs and having released over 200 albums.
BUT SHE WAS SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT. Ella Fitzgerald served as a role model to young women, both black and white, and proved to the world that a black woman could make a difference in history, an honor that was recognized by the NAACP who rewarded her with the Award for Lifetime Achievement.
She was perfect and beautiful and talented and we all love her.
Have a great week, guys.