"I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them," --Ira Gershwin.
xxxxx I remember clearly the first time I knew I was listening to Ella Fitzgerald. I was in a small shop, buying beads to make necklaces, and the guy that worked there had a CD of hers playing in the back. I was instantly taken with her voice, but had know idea who she was. I knew I had to find out, but I had a crush on the guy that worked there, and didn't want to ask, and sound stupid. While I was trying to figure out some way around having to ask, I got lucky, and someone else asked. Like most people do, he just said "That's Ella."
xxxxx She needs no more introduction. My heart melts at the mention of her name.
xxxxx I'm sure that I had heard her before, without knowing it, but now that I knew, I was hooked. I drove straight to the record store down the street from that store, and went home with "Ella Fitzgerald - The Cole Porter Songbook, volume one." Obviously, I loved it. I listened to it about a hundred times in the next week, fascinated by every song and the amazing quality of her voice, and then went and got volume two. The funniest thing to me, is that her voice is so flawless and perfect, but it's not intimidating at all. Rather than feeling like your voice sounds stupid next to hers, her voice encourages you to belt out the song along with her. The Cole Porter CDs were recorded when she was almost 40, and had learned to really enjoy playing with a song, and they are so lovingly rendered, they've become the definitive versions of his tunes, at least to me. I've never heard anyone do Love For Sale, Night and Day, Don't Fence Me In, I've Got You Under My Skin, Anything Goes, Lets Do It, Begin the Beguine, or any of this others, with the spirit and talent that Ella did. Who else could take a morbid song like "Miss Otis Regrets," and make it fun to sing along? There's no sense in letting music depress you. That's not what it's for. It's meant to cheer you up and want to sing along, and that's what Ella always did.
xxxxxShe's totally addictive, and you just can't help but love her. Most of my friends listen primarily to punk and heavy metal music, like me, and have no interest in jazz, but I have never played Ella Fitzgerald for anyone who didn't rush right out and buy her CDs, and listen to them incessantly. Soundgarden, Ella, NOFX, Ella, Marilyn Manson, Ella, Black Sabbath, Ella, Misfits, Ella, Korn, Ella. She doesn't interfere with your other musical tastes, she's just a whole different thing that you never imagined until the first time you heard her voice.
xxxxx"Coming through the years, and finding that I not only have just the fans of my day, but the young ones of today -- that's what it means," she once said. "It means it was worth all of it." She loved her young fans like me and my friends, just as much (and maybe more, because of our novelty) as her original fans, and had a great sense of humor about her lasting popularity. "Some kids in Italy call me 'Mama Jazz,'" she recalled. "I thought that was so cute. As long as they don't call me 'Grandma Jazz.'"
xxxxx She has amazing diversity, in both range and style. She started as a swing singer, moved to bebop, perfected scat and jazz, but she sang modern songs as well as classics. Blues, bossanova, gospel, calypso, Christmas hymns and Christmas carols, She covered "Heard it Through The Grapevine" and "Hey Jude" with as much enthusiasm as she did songs by Cole Porter and the Gershwins. She could sing with a full orchestra, or just with a guitar. She sang with Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, and Oscar Peterson, and even Abbott and Costello, in their 1942 film "Ride Em Cowboy."
xxxxxShe could sing specifically Harlem high life songs like "When I Get Low I Get High" and "Wacky Dust," with as much ease as she did songs from foreign countries and lifestyles like "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen," "MacPherson is Rehearsin'," and "Irish Black Bottom," (she was better at the swinging o' the green than many Irish and Scots singers of the time), and even "Swinging on the Reservation."
xxxxxHer scat is simply magnificent. She obviously made it up as she went along, but never stumbled, never repeated, and never, ever became monotonous. Her grasp of beat and harmony was amazing, and these wordless songs of pure syllable and sound become simply magical as she creates them out of thin air. Scat was originally created as a human means of copying a musical instrument, "I just tried to do what I heard the horns in the band doing," she said, and her voice is certainly just that, just as much in the wordless masterpieces of "Lady, Be Good" and "How High the Moon" as when precisely articulating the Iyrics of Porter, Gershwin, Arlen, Berlin, Ellington, Kern, Mercer, and Rodgers and Hart.
xxxxxAccording to various biographers, Ella was born in Newport News, Virginia, on April 25, 1917, but moved to Yonkers with her stepfather and mother, as an infant. Even that has not been proven. Very little is known about her early childhood, but the most romantic rumor is that she ran way from her abusive stepfather after her mother died, and made money by singing and dancing on the sidewalks of Harlem and by telling the prostitutes when the police were coming. No telling if it's true or not, but it's a great story.
xxxxxAs a child, she was interested in dancing, and that seemed to be the path her life would take. She entered a contest at the Apollo Theater in 1934, when she was 16, dressed in cast-off clothes and wearing men's boots, hoping to gain some attention as a dancer. The Apollo was then nothing but a cool local club in Harlem, not a landmark. When she got on stage, though, she panicked and froze up. "I got out there and I saw all the people I just lost my nerve," Ella said, "And the man said, 'well, you're out here, do something!' So, I tried to sing." She only knew a few songs, and, with a stroke of divine inspiration busted out with Connee Boswell's "Judy," and "The Object of My Affection." Just like that she found her calling. She won the contest, and it was all uphill from there. The effects of that night not only established her as a new, brilliant vocalist, but also marked the Apollo as the primary starmaker theater of black showbusiness.
xxxxx Soon after, she performed in another contest, at the Harlem Opera House, and the prize, which she won, was a week-long professional engagement at that venue starting on February 16, 1935. This got her the attention she would need to become famous for her voice, but in 1935, female vocalists were a new luxury and few black bands beyond Duke Ellington's could afford the additional cost. Fortunately, Bardou Ali, the showman of Chick Webb's band, heard her and decided she was worth the expense. He introduced her to Webb, hoping he'd hire her to tour with them. "I sang the only three songs I knew - all the things I'd heard Connee Boswell do," Fitzgerald recalled, "Chick had a boy singer and didn't want a girl, and he grudgingly said, 'well, we're playing Yale tomorrow. Get on the band bus and, if they like you there, you've got a job.'" It sounds negative, but this was his sign of approval. Once Webb had been convinced, Fitzgerald still had to audition for the band's manager, Moe Gale. Gale looked at her and said "Ah no, Chick. No, no!" "Listen to the voice," Chick said, "Don't look at her." That cracks me up. I don't know if he said that because she was female, because she was young, or because he thought she was unattractive, but I can't imagine telling anyone not to look at someone who so embodied beauty! Physically, mentally, and spiritually, she was such a beautiful person. Upon hearing Fitzgerald sing, Gale was speechless (even at 16, how could he not be?), and she was hired for her first professional singing job. Chick became a father and mentor to Ella. She performed with his orchestra for several years and, deciding that she needed a gimmick, decided on her youth, which was the primary thing audiences saw in her. Swinging nursery rhymes had already gained minor popularity before she recorded "A-Tisket A-Tasket" in 1938, but Fitzgerald consolidated it. It was her idea, and she and Feldman created it just for her. It was perfect for her age and style. It was Chick's only number one record and Ella's most popular for several years. It was at the top of the Hit Parade for almost the whole year. It's a great song, but she sings it rather seriously, for a nursery rhyme., The original is nothing compared to her later versions of it, in my opinion, when she really sang it with the hilarity it deserved. By 20 she was a legend in Harlem, and her voice drew audiences from south of 125th street too. This was previously something that only famous men like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington could do.
xxxxx She had as many fans within her genre as she did throughout the world. The mention of her name brings out stories and ravings by anyone that has heard her voice.
xxxxx Tony Bennett, in an interview in the eighties, while talking about his latest album, suddenly stopped in the middle of a sentence. "Ella Fitzgerald!" Bennett declaimed, apropos of nothing, "now that's my idea of a great singer!" There is none better.
xxxxx Marilyn Monroe was an Ella fan too. When she was making "There's No Business Like Show Business," her first musical, her trainer bought her a whole bunch of Ella Fitzgerald records, and told her to listen to them constantly. Marilyn fell in love with her voice, just like the rest of us did, but she also became a pretty good musical comedienne herself, with Ella's inspiration.
xxxxxWill Friedwald, in his adoration, writes, "She has a wider range than most opera singers, and many of the latter, including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, are among her biggest fans. And the intonation that goes with the voice is, to put it conservatively, God-like. Fitzgerald simply exists in tune, and she hits every note that there is without the slightest trace of effort. Other singers tend to sound like they're trying to reach up to a note - Fitzgerald always sounds like she's already there. If anything, she's descending from her heavenly perch and swooping down to whatever pitch she wants."
xxxxxThrough it all, Ella's quiet, strong charisma served as a magnet. Betts says of her, "a real true artist is like a projector. The more voltage--not wattage, wattage is loudness--but the more voltage in the projector, the more radiant that will show on the screen, and the audience is the screen. That's what she did."
xxxxxJohn Edwards Hasse, curator of the Smithsonian's Division of Cultural History, called Fitzgerald "the greatest jazz singer of them all"
xxxxx"Her recordings will live forever... she'll sound as modern 200 years from now," said Tony Bennett.
xxxxx"She was the best singer on the planet," said Mel Torme.
xxxxx"She had a vocal range so wide you needed an elevator to go from the top to the bottom. There's nobody to take her place," said David Brinkley.
xxxxxHer artistry, wrote Duke Ellington,"brings to mind the words of the maestro, Mr. Toscanini, who said concerning singers, 'Either you're a good musician or you're not.' In terms of musicianship, Ella Fitzgerald was beyond category."
xxxxx"I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them," said Ira Gershwin.
xxxxx"Women like Ella make you feel things that you didn't know were missing in your life," said singer Melissa Manchester. I know that's true, but I know I miss Ella too.
xxxxx Ella's film credits include Pete Kelly's Blues, St. Louis Blues, and Let No Man Write My Epitaph. Her many television appearances include two Frank Sinatra specials, a Timex special, two shows of her own for the BBC, and the Carol Burnett Show. I don't remember seeing her on Carol Burnett (the others are before my time) but I'm willing to bet I did. I'd kill to see it again.
xxxxx She won zillions of awards over the years. She won the Esquire Gold and Silver Awards in 1946 and 1947, first place in the Down Beat's Critics' Poll 18 years in a row, starting with its creation in the 60s, and first place in Playboy's poll for 13 years. She was awarded the U.S. National Medal in 1987, the French Commandeur Des Arts et Lettres in 1990. She dominated the early Grammy ceremonies, and in all, she won 13 Grammy awards -- more than any other jazz musician, and more than any other female in the history of the award.
xxxxx Throughout all of these awards she maintained her graciousness and complete amazement at the love we all felt for her-- she was at a loss for words when the Society of Singers named an award after her, and even near the end, after 60 years of cheering fans, hearing the unbridled roar of her audience, she was amazed at it. "In all those years, and all those performances, she still couldn't believe the response of the crowd." Richard Rossiter recalls. She made no mythology of her personal life. She was shy and often too insecure to speak, so she let her songs do the talking. She gave them a life that superseded her own. "I don't want to say the wrong thing, which I always do," she said. "I think I do better when I sing." Friends did the talking for her at her many tributes.
xxxxx She was remote, and felt she needed music to give her substance. But when you hear her voice, you feel you've known her forever. She once admitted, "It used to bother me when people I didn't know came up and called me Ella, it seemed to me they should say Miss Fitzgerald, but somehow they never do." Although I always refer to her as "Ella," I'm sure I would've have enough respect (and hopefully presence of mind) to call her Miss Fitzgerald, or probably just "Ma'am," if I'd ever had the pleasure of meeting her. I just hope she realizes, at least now, that we call her Ella because we love her.
xxxxx She was married twice, but who really needs that? She was a private person, with her own insecurities and needs, and husbands often don't mix with a personality like that. (I should know) With her second husband, bassist Ray Brown, she had a son, Ray Brown Jr., who is also a jazz musician.
xxxxx She had health problems, beginning with her eyes in the seventies and continuing with her heart in the eighties, which slowed her career, but she continued to perform, even if she was on crutches, until the early nineties. Even in her sickness, the perfection of her voice never failed. Her fans, ranging in age from their teens to their eighties, still raced to see her. In 1993 though, diabetes, a disease terrible in its subtlety, took her legs. It makes me so mad, and it's so painful to have lost her. I remember the night she died, I was working in a bar, and I had to work, so we all sat around work, depressed as hell, some of us crying, and made everyone completely miserable. We didn't make any money, but it felt good to force everyone to be as unhappy as I was.
xxxxx At the same time, it's so wonderful that her talent hasn't been lost. Affection, respect, lightheartedness, and love are immediately conjured up in one's mind's eye the instant the name "Ella" is spoken or thought. No one else has even tried to cover as many decades as she has with her music. It could just as easily have been created a week ago, and won't sound old 50 years from now, when my grandkids are just learning to listen to her. There will never be anyone who even comes close to her talent. The glory and risk of her genius were the type that exist only once on a planet like this. We're damn lucky she was found and recorded, even from her very early years, because I for one would be in a bad way, without her.
Many of the pictures, and most of the information on this page that isn't my own opinion, or that didn't come out of my memory, came either from newpapers, encyclopedias, or these very informative websites (the last two of which were, sadly, defunct at last check):
The Ella Pages tribute at Jazz Roots Rhythms
The Unofficial Ella Fitzgerald Page
Ella Fitzgerald 1917-1996 - pictures, songs, and memories
Please check out these pages, since they were a huge help when I wrote this tribute. They are amazing, and are big fans like you and me! Thank you! (and if I have missed giving anyone credit, please let me know!)
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