Happy 100th Birthday, Ella Fitzgerald!

The incomparable Ella Fitzgerald was born 100 years ago today in Newport News, Virginia. Here are 10 EF Did-You-Knows:

  • Though Fitzgerald’s parents were never married, they had lived together for more than two years when she was born. When Fitzgerald was still a young girl, her mother and another partner moved together to Yonkers.
  • Fitzgerald was an excellent student, despite changing schools with frequency. As a young girl, she loved to dance to jazz records, often performing for friends and classmates.
  • Fitzgerald’s 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, Bing Crosby and the Boswell Sisters (Connee Boswell was a particular favorite). “My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it,” she would later say. “I tried so hard to sound just like her.”
  • When Fitzgerald was 15, her mother died from injuries suffered in a car accident, and Ella 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.
  • Though she’s best remembered today as the kind of grand dame of jazz who played only the classiest of venues, Fitzgerald 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. Not long after her win at the Apollo, she was given the opportunity to perform with Webb at a dance at Yale University as 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.
  • Soon thereafter 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 Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra.
  • In 1942, the erstwhile 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.
  • Fitzgerald eventually began to feel that she was being restricted by the public’s view of her as a bebop singer, Norman Granz, her manager, created the Verve label for her and in 1956 the pair worked together to record The Cole Porter Songbook.
  • 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. The songbooks were arguably 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.

Happy birthday, Ms. Fitzgerald, wherever you may be!

Ella Fitzgerald

Happy 115th Birthday, Annette Hanshaw!

Cladrite sweetheart Annette Hanshaw was born Catherine Annette Hanshaw 115 years ago in Manhattan. For us, she’s the gold standard for songbirds of the late 1920s and early ’30s; we think she’s keen. Here are 10 AH Did-You-Knows:

  • Hanshaw came from something of a show biz family. Her father, Frank Wayne Hanshaw, loved the business so much he ran off to join the circus (he thought better of it and returned), and her aunt, Nellie McCoy, and cousin, Bob “Uke” Hanshaw, were popular and successful vaudeville performers.
  • Hanshaw grew up loving to sing—she performed for the guests at a series of very small hotels her father operated for a time and demo’d sheet music at a Mount Kisco music shop owned by her family—but she dreamed of making her mark as a painter, not a singer, even studying at the National School of Design for a year.
  • Hanshaw made her first professional recordings in 1926, recording a demo of six popular songs of the day for the Pathé label before recording her first commercial recordings—Black Bottom and Six Feet of Papa—in September of that year. She recorded for many labels and under many pseudonyms, including Gay Ellis, Dot Dare, and Patsy Young. She also sang in variety of styles, delivering sentimental songs in a more straightforward fashion and, when appropriate, jazzing peppy songs up a bit. She even did Helen Kane impersonations (on whom Betty Boop‘s vocal stylings were clearly based) on a number of recordings.
  • Hanshaw began to appear on the radio in 1929 and soon was a huge hit. As the twenties gave way to the thirties, she began to sing with Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, and from 1932-34, she was featured on the very popular program Maxwell House Show Boat, which aired every Thursday evening, and she later did 39 weeks on Camel Caravan. Her success on radio did little to alleviate her anxiety about performing over the airwaves. “I’m so afraid I’ll fail, not sing my best,” she said before agreeing to appear on radio. “Suppose I should have to cough. Suppose I didn’t get just the right pitch. And all those people listening.”
  • At the height of her fame, Hanshaw was known as “The Personality Girl” and her trademark was ending each recorded performance with a winsome “That’s all!”
  • Hanshaw loved singing but was not at all confident of her voice and was, at best, a reluctant star. In her later years, when asked to assess the recordings she’d made during her prime, she had not a positive word to offer. She was her own worst critic, and it may have been this tendency that led to her (extremely) premature exit from show business. “I disliked all of [my records] intensely,” she said during a 1972 interview with radio host Jack Cullen. “I was most unhappy when they were released. I just often cried because I thought they were so poor, mostly because of my work, but a great deal, I suppose, because of the recording.”
  • Hanshaw’s favorites singers of the day were Marion Harris, Sophie Tucker, Blossom Seeley, Ruth Etting, Ethel Waters, and Connee Boswell.
  • Hanshaw composed two songs—Sweet One and Till Your Happiness Comes Along—but it’s unclear if either was ever published or recorded.
  • Uncomfortable in the spotlight, Hanshaw retired from show business in 1937 at the age of 36. She considered a return in the 1950s, recording a pair of private demos to test the waters, but, alas, no comeback was forthcoming.
  • The 2008 animated film Sita Sings the Blues, which retells the Indian epic poem The Ramayana from Sita’s perspective, used Annette Hanshaw’s recordings as its soundtrack. In 2010, her 1929 recording of Daddy Won’t You Please Come Home was used in the video game BioShock 2.

Happy birthday, dear Annette, wherever you may be!

Annette Hanshaw

Happy 99th Birthday, Ella Fitzgerald!

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.

Ella Fitzgerald

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!