By the we got to see her perform, in the 1980s, Ella Fitzgerald, born 99 years ago today in Newport News, Virginia, was the grand dame of jazz who played only the classiest of venues (for example, we saw her perform on two occasions: at Lincoln Center and at Carnegie Hall).
But she didn’t always soar in such rarified air. She began her career as just another girl singer for the Chick Webb Orchestra, singing pop and jazz hits for jitterbuggers in dance halls and ballrooms. Her family was active in the church, so she grew up hearing hymns and sacred songs in that setting, but she also loved listening to jazz records, especially the recordings of Louis Armstrong and the Boswell Sisters (Connee Boswell was a particular favorite).
Fitzgerald’s mother died when she was 15, and Fitzgerald was sent to live with her aunt in Harlem. That didn’t go so well, and Fitzgerald soon became truant at school, her grades soon fell off and she was running with something of a rough crowd. She was sent first to an orphanage and later to a reform school, from which she escaped and took to living (and singing) on the streets.
In 1934, when Fitzgerald was 17, she competed in an amateur night at the legendary Apollo Theatre. Her original intention was to dance on stage, but she decided at the last minute to sing, doing her best Connee Boswell impression in performing “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection.” She won the top prize of $25.00. Soon thereafter, she was given the opportunity to perform with Webb’s orchestra at a dance at Yale University in what was an audition for long-term employment. Webb was skeptical of the gawky and somewhat disheveled Fitzgerald’s suitability for the job, but the Yale students and Webb’s band members both responded positively to her singing, and the job was hers. She and the Webb outfit enjoyed several chart hits and Fitzgerald became a star in her own right, so much so that when Webb passed away in 1939, the orchestra was renamed Ella and her Famous Orchestra.
In 1942, the Webb orchestra disbanded and Fitzgerald went out on her own as a solo artist. She enjoyed a number of hits as the swing era wound down and her scat singing abilities were put to good use during the bebop era. She was now viewed as one of the great jazz vocalists of the day. However, just as Fitzgerald started to feel that she was being restricted by the public’s view of her as a bebop singer, Noman Granz, now her manager, created the Verve label for her and the pair worked together to record The Cole Porter Songbook in 1956.
Over the next eight years, Fitzgerald recorded a series of eight songbooks, each dedicated to a different composer from the era of the Great American Songbook. It was a groundbreaking concept, one that brought Fitzgerald’s music to a new audience. New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote after Fitzgerald’s death that with 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.”
The songbooks were Fitzgerald’s greatest accomplishment, but she continued to work and grow as an artist as long as her health allowed it. Her last recordings were undertaken in 1991 and her final public performances came in 1993. When she died on June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald was viewed almost universally as one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th century. Not bad for a kid who once lived on the streets and was considered too ungainly and plain to be a big-band songbird.
Happy birthday, Ms. Fitzgerald, wherever you may be!