When you hear the name Ella Fitzgerald, specific songs like Someone to Watch Over Me come to mind.
Yet, her career was long and varied. Starting early in the jazz world and with big bands in the swinging era, she never stayed in one lane. From bebop to pop music and blues, her voice was sweet as honey. This is why Ella Fitzgerald earned the title “The First Lady of Song”. Her ability to work her voice with a ‘horn-like’ sound while improvising earned her admiration. Respect was high for Ella which is why she also earned the nickname “Lady Ella”.
Hailing from Newport News, Virginia and later making her way to Yonkers, NY, Ella Fitzgerald traveled the world performing with the major players of her time. Not many knew that she did some ‘running’ for local gamblers, to pick up some income for her family. After the devastating loss of her sister, and shortly after her brother-in-law, she ended up in trouble with the law. Ella was sent off to a reform school from which she later escaped!
She may have wanted to be a dancer when she was young, but the music won out. Ella’s name was pulled in a drawing which won her the chance to perform at the famous Harlem Apollo Theatre. Not only did she sing her heart out, but she also won over the crowd who urged her to do an encore. For anyone who has seen an Apollo crowd, they are never easy to win over. That night she earned first prize!
Ella Fitzgerald started winning one talent show after another, though she doubted her own talents. Winning these shows earned her a special gig with bandleader Chick Webb. After she wowed the crowd at Yale University, it was obvious she was a star. Norman Granz caught wind of Ella and brought her onto the Jazz and Philharmonic Tour.
Teaming up with legends like Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin was a part of Ella’s evolution. Her lack of classical training was in her favor, as she became known for her interpretative style. She could sing anything and make you fall in love with the words. Teaming up with Louis Armstrong on Dream A Little Dream Of Me, her voice and his horn almost sing to each other. Their voices together made and still make audiences shiver.
George and Ira Gershwin brought Ella in to record the Best of Verve album, singing her now famous Someone To Watch Over Me track. This became a classic tune that still gets airplay and has been covered by many. Ella’s voice brought songs to life, leaving them to linger in memory long after her passing.
Funny enough, Ella was harassed by the law for throwing dice backstage while she was performing in the South. After realizing who she was, the law asked for Ella’s autograph. Even with all that fame, discrimination was part of what Ella Fitzgerald and other black artists had no choice but to deal with. She always credited Marilyn Monroe for helping her get booked at the famous Mocambo nightclub. Marilyn told the owner that she would reserve a table up front if he booked Ella. After he booked Ella, Marilyn kept her promise and sat up front every time Ella performed.
Clubs and concert halls were not the only performing venues Ella played. She was a hot ticket for TV shows like The Ed Sullivan Show, The Nat King Cole Show, The Dinah Shore Show, and other popular shows. On top of this, she recorded over 200 music albums in her lifetime. This number is a feat that few modern players will ever reach. Even after her quintuple bypass when people thought her career was over, she returned to the stage with a non-stop schedule.
If one wants to listen to the best of Ella’s track, they should start with April in Paris to understand the sweetness of her tone. When she sings They Can’t Take That Away From Me, the listener’s body naturally sways. Some of her best-known songs included Cheek to Cheek and It Don’t Mean a Thing. No wonder she won thirteen Grammys and received the National Medal of the Arts.
Her passing in the 1990’s left a large void. Thanks to modern technology, we will always have her singing to us with those incredible tones.