Today we are talking about a gal who is one of the top Jazz singers in history. Named the “First lady of song” she won 13 Grammys and sold more than 40 million albums. She sang songs from the Great American Songbook and made them her own. Ira Gershwin once said “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” Learn about the life and legacy of Your Gal, Ella Fitzgerald.
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Ella was born on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Virginia. Shortly after she was born her parents split up. Ella lived with her mother and her soon-to-be stepfather in Yonkers New York.
Ella had started out dancing in elementary school and liked to perform for her friends even though she considered herself to be more of a tom boy. She also loved to sing with her friends and visit Harlem to watch different performances at the Apollo Theater. During this period, Ella listened to jazz recordings by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and The Boswell Sisters. She idolized the Boswell Sisters’ 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.”
When Ella was just 15 her mother died in car accident. Her stepfather died of a heart attack soon after. Ella moved in with her Aunt in Harlem. Ella took the loss very hard.
She became increasingly unhappy, her grades dropped dramatically, she skipped school and she got in trouble with the police. She was sent first to The Colored Orphan Asylum in the Bronx, but because of over-crowding she was moved to The New York Training School for Girls. Ella was not treated well in either of these places. She escaped and was homeless for a time.
Ella later reflected on her most difficult years with an appreciation for how they helped her to mature. She used the memories from these times to help gather emotions for performances, just like any good artist does, and felt she was more grateful for her success because she knew what it was like to struggle in life.
In 1934 Ella was picked from a weekly drawing to perform at amateur contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. The story goes she was going to enter as a dancer but saw the Edward Sisters were the closing act she thought she could not compare and changed to entering as a singer. She sang Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy” (a favorite of her mother’s) and the crowd demanded an encore! She followed up with the Boswell Sister’s “The Object of My Affection” and won first place.
Offstage Ella was shy, self-conscious about her looks and even her abilities, but on stage she found she had no fear. She said once about that fateful night, “Once up there, I felt the acceptance and love from my audience. I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life.”
Saxophonist and arranger, Benny Carter, was so impressed that night that he began introducing Ella to those who could help launch her career.
Ella also entered and won every talent show she could find. In 1935 she won a week-long performance with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House. This is where she met Chick Webb and joined his band as a singer. Soon they were regular performers at The Savoy.
1930’s – Famous Band Singer
She recorded the hits entitled “Love and Kisses” and “If you can’t Swing it You’ll Have to Sing it.” But it was a song that she co-wrote and recorded that really made her famous. Her first no 1 hit single “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” Later that year, Ella recorded her second hit, “I Found My Yellow Basket.”
In 1939 Chick Webb died and Ella became band leader. It was renamed Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra, or as some knew it, Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band. Ella continued on and recorded nearly 150 songs with Webb’s orchestra between 1935 and its end in 1942. She also had her own side project known as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Savoy Eight.
1940’s – Solo Scat
In the 40’s Ella went solo and rocketed to stardom. She was offered a record deal with Decca Records. She had hit songs with the Ink Spots and Louis Jordan. She was made her film debut in 1942 in Abbott & Costello’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy.
By the mid 1940’s she started working with Norman Granz. Granz would later found Verve Records and he was responsible for starting Jazz at the Philharmonic. Granz became Ella’s manager.
Also in the 40’s is when Ella was on tour with the revolutionary trumpet player, Dizzy Gillespie. This is when she started scatting. Scat is when a singer improvises a melody using their voice as an instrument rather than lyrical. It started as early as 1911 but Ella is generally considered to be the greatest scat singers in jazz history. A great example is Ella’s song “Air Mail Special.”
1950’s – Racial Discrimination & Marilyn Monroe
In 1954 Ella and her band we’re kicked off a Pan-American Airlines flight from Honolulu to Sydney, forcing them to miss two well-booked shows in Australia. The band filed a civil suit for racial discrimination against Pan-AM and won.
In 1955 people of color were not often allowed to sing in popular night clubs, only the smaller ones. This was the year Marilyn Monroe had fled Hollywood to immerse herself in New York and find herself. She fell in love with Jazz music and especially Ella’s music.
Ella said, “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. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. 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.”
As time moved on music also moved on. Ella said “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 Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book with me. It was a turning point in my life.”
1960’s & 1970’s – A Life On Tour
In the 60’s and 70’s she spent most of her life on tour. She broke into the pop charts with her version of “Mack the Knife” and did an amazing two-week engagement with Frank Sinatra and Count Basie in New York City. She also got her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a Kennedy Center Honor.
By the 1980’s, with 60 years of touring and performing, she suffered some serious health problems. In 1986 she underwent a heart surgery and was diagnosed with diabetes. Which explained why her eyesight had been failing.
The press said she would never sing again but Ella carried on and continued to thrill audiences for as long as she could. She recorded her last song in 1989 and made her last public performance at Carnegie Hall in 1991.
Her diabetes did cause her to go blind and sadly to have both legs amputated in 1994. She died 2 years later at the age of 79. The marquee outside the Hollywood Bowl theater read, “Ella, we will miss you.”
Kate and Phoebe talk about what they learned from Ella and what legacy this talented and gifted performer left for all of us. Listen Here.
Your Gal Friday is a weekly podcast with supplemental video and article profiling and amazing gal of our galaxy that we can all learn from.
Your Gal Friday also ties into Gal’s Guide school outreach. Gal’s Guide offers a K-University presentations of Women You Didn’t Learn About in School. Showcasing 14-26 amazing gals to classrooms and assemblies, the presentations spotlight these gals where the podcast goes more in depth of your new favorite gals every Friday.
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