I’m going to be trying this new thing where I’ll release a blog about a woman I idolise/admire on their birthday (or what would have been their birthday if they were still alive). Hopefully this will introduce people who may not know much about these women or their work and might even turn them into fans. So here goes the first one…
If you’ve never listened to Ella Fitzgerald, firstly, what is wrong with you? Secondly, stop reading this and go listen to a couple of her songs. Seriously. Then come back.
With unique, pitch-perfect vocals and an incredible ability to scat, she became a musical icon with a recording career spanning 59 years and over 70 albums, putting her own stamp on the Great American Songbook and performed with some of the greatest names in musical history – Sinatra, Armstrong, Gillespie, Ellington.
Born in Virginia on April 25th 1917, she was moved to Yonkers, New York at an early age and grew up with her mother, step-father and half-sister. Growing up, she was a popular child, self-described as a tomboy who aside from loving baseball, also loved dancing and singing. After her mother died when she was fifteen, Ella went to live with her aunt to escape her abusive step-father but her schooling suffered and she eventually started skipping it altogether. After running away from her Aunt’s, she took on various jobs to make some money including working as a lookout in a bordello. But she was soon picked up by the authorities and sent to a reform school, where she was regularly beaten. Eventually managing to run away, becoming a homeless teenager.
But things started to turn around in 1934 when she won the chance to perform at an amateur night at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem but her dreams of being a dancer ended there. She was due to go on after a dance act called the Edwards Sisters who drove the crowd wild. When she was called up, she knew she wouldn’t be able to follow their dance act because they had been too good. Instead she started to sing. The song Judy won the crowd over and this was the night doors were opened for Ella.
She joined Chick Webb’s band as a singer in 1935 and found a new career along with a father figure who would look out for her. She went on the road with the band and would now spend the next five decades of her life “on the road”. But it was her 1938 recording of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” that brought her the attention she deserved. In 1942, she left the band (influenced by the death of Chick Webb) and embarked on a solo career.
Despite her success, this was still the age of discrimination. While travelling, the bands regularly encountered commonplace racism, especially in the South where everything was still segregated. Norman Granz became a great asset in Ella’s life when he became her personal manager, aside from turning her into the superstar she became. Granz was a jazz producer who was well known for his anti-racist stance. He would pay black musicians the same amount as white musicians and would refuse to let a band play at a venue if there was a slightest hint of racism. But even in 1955, when she was a huge star, Ella was still being judged on her colour instead of her talent. It took a call from Marilyn Monroe to the owner of the Mocambo nightclub in West Hollywood for them to book Ella. Marilyn promised that if Ella performed, she would take a front row table every night there was a performance, which would obviously amount to incredible publicity for the club. So Ella was booked and became the first black performer at the club and would go on to sell-out a three week run. She went on to become a musical legend.
But even though she was a superstar, her life never really became the fairy-tale she deserved. She had two failed marriages. The first was annulled when she realised she made a mistake after she found out Benny Kornegay was a criminal and drug dealer. Her second marriage to bassist Ray Brown, who she met while touring with the Dizzy Gillespie Band, ended in divorce after six years but was a mutual discussion when the couple realised they were spending too much time apart due to their careers. Despite her persona on stage, off stage she was plagued by shyness throughout her life and was very self-conscious of her appearance.
In her later life she suffered many bouts of illness, experiencing heart failure and exhaustion, as well as developing diabetes. In 1993, she had both legs amputated below the knee due to the diabetes and by the end of her life, was almost blind. She passed away on June 15th 1993.
The fact her music is still so popular today is a true testament to her immense talent.
On what would have been her 97th birthday, download a few of her songs (of which there are many), put your earphones in and relax in the presence of a true musical icon and generally inspirational woman.