Apr 25, 2017
My first exposure to Ella Fitzgerald was in a television commercial for Memorex audio recording tape. Their slogan was “Is it live or is it Memorex?” and the ad showed Ella breaking a glass with her incredible singing voice. Then a recording of her voice on a Memorex cassette was played, and again the glass was shattered. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate her not just for the amazing power of her voice, but its extreme musicality, warmth, soul and wit. She could go from a torchy ballad to a scatting jam session in a moment, and excelled at both. In my mind, no one touches her as a singer.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the First Lady of Song. Born in Newport News, Virginia, she moved to Yonkers, New York with her mother. She had a difficult childhood, suffering abandonment and abuse, ending with a stint in an orphanage and state reformatory for girls. Her physical appearance was gawky and ungainly, and her clothing often disheveled during these trying times. But she was also a gifted dancer, a keen student of music, and a devotee of the singer Connee Boswell, an early pioneer of jazz singing.
While she honed her craft in the church, her big break came when she won the famous Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem at the age of 17. Originally planning to dance, she sang two songs and won first prize of $25. Two weeks later she was singing professionally, and within a few months was the female vocalist for the Chick Webb Orchestra, with whom she would have her first hits. Her signature tune “A-Tisket A-Tasket”, written by Ella and Al Feldman, came a few years later and cemented her status as a major jazz singer through the end of the big band era and through bop. She made some of her finest recordings in the early fifties as part of Jazz at the Philharmonic, and with Louis Armstrong, including the seminal Porgy and Bess.
But Ella went beyond being a “jazz singer”. Beginning in 1956, she began recording a series of albums for Verve that was released over eight years. Each one was a “song book” of a major American composer of popular tunes – Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Together this body of work stands as the encyclopedia of what we today call the Great American Songbook. No less a singer than Frank Sinatra considered the albums to be the final word on interpretations of these songs, and he refused to allow record labels to release any of his albums in a similar fashion. Perhaps the ultimate compliment came posthumously from Frank Rich, when he wrote that in the Songbook series Fitzgerald "performed a cultural transaction as extraordinary as Elvis' contemporaneous integration of white and African American soul. Here was a black woman popularizing urban songs often written by immigrant Jews to a national audience of predominantly white Christians.”
In 1958 she became the first African-American to win a Grammy award, one for the Ellington songbook and one for the Berlin songbook. Ella would eventually win 13 Grammys along with a Lifetime Achievement Award. As jazz fell out of favor in the Sixties, and her record labels either dropped her or failed, she remained a top stage attraction. She performed on a regular basis through the Seventies, including a memorable series of shows with Sinatra and Count Basie in Las Vegas and on Broadway.
Diabetes eventually took their toll on Ella, and she was repeatedly hospitalized through the Eighties. Her last public performance came at Carnegie Hall in 1991. Shortly thereafter, both her legs were eventually amputated below the knee. She died at home in California at the age of 79.
While there are hundreds of recordings I could have chosen for a Centennial Podcast tribute, here are some of my favorites, including selections from the Songbooks, live recordings and a duet with Louis Armstrong:
"(If You Can't Sing It) You'll Have to Swing It (Mr. Pagininni)"
"Summertime" with Louis Armstrong
"Mack the Knife"
"How High the Moon"
"Too Darn Hot"
"Miss Otis Regrets"
"This Time the Dream's On Me"
"Love is Here to Stay"
"Let's Do It"
"Oh Lady Be Good"
"Someone to Watch Over Me"