The Incomparable Ella Fitzgerald Part 1

For more than half a century Ella Fitzgerald was the most popular female jazz singer in the United States. Known as the first lady of song, she filled concert halls around the world. Her audiences consisted of all races, religions, nationalities, rich and poor, She was known for her phrasing, timing, impeccable diction, purity of tone, infallible intonation, and her phenomenal scat singing.

Ella was born in 1917 in Newport News Virginia. Her father and mother separated shortly after her birth, after which Ella and her mother then moved to Yonkers, New York, where they lived in a mixed neighborhood with her mother’s boyfriend, Joe. Eventually her mother gave birth to Ella’s half sister, Frances. They were a poor family. During her childhood she was an active churchgoer, an excellent student, and learned how to read music and play the piano. One of her childhood friends remembered that even from a young age Ella loved to dance and was determined to hit the big time. “She would tell us, ‘Someday you’re going to see me in the headlines. I am going to be famous.’ We’d all laugh, oh yeah, sure!”

When Ella was just 15 her mother suddenly passed away from a heart attack and Joe mistreated her, resulting in Ella and Frances being taken in by their mother’s sister, Virginia in Harlem. Soon afterwards Joe also passed away from a heart attack. Ella became unhappy, her grades dropped dramatically, she often played hooky from middle school, and eventually dropped out of school. Ella began running numbers for an illegal lottery run by the Mafia and worked as a lookout for a bordello. She was picked up by the police and was sent first to the Colored Orphan Asylum in the Bronx, and was then moved to a state reformatory for girls a few hours north of New York City where she was beaten by the male caretakers. Fortunately she was able to escape.

15 year-old Ella found herself broke, alone, and living on the streets of Harlem during the Great Depression. She survived by singing outdoors for spare change. She later reflected on these difficult years with appreciation for how they helped her to mature, and felt grateful for her success because she learned early on what it was like to struggle in life.

When she was 17 Ella won the opportunity to compete in amateur night at the Apollo theater in Harlem. Ella was shy and reserved, self-conscious about her appearance, and for a while even doubted her abilities. On stage Ella felt at home and had no fear. She said: “Once up there, I felt the acceptance and love from my audience. I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life.”

She was only 18 when she made her very first recording: Love and Kisses.

In 1935 she won the chance to perform for a week at the Harlem Opera house, where Ella first met drummer and band leader Chick Webb. At first he was reluctant to hire her because she was unkept. Fortunately he changed his mind. Chick Webb’s manager said that the first time he saw her “she looked incredible. Her hair disheveled, her clothes terrible. She didn’t use soap and water. She was in bad shape.” Ella always sang in her street clothes because that’s all she had.

She taught herself how to sight read music and wrote the lyrics down on flashcards, shuffling them faster and faster until she had the lyrics perfectly memorized. Ella’s musical education came from the band members, who were top-notch jazz musicians.
She admired the singing of Bing Crosby and the Boswell sisters and was greatly influenced by Louis Armstrong. One of her early musical mentors was Dizzy Gillespie. She said “I learned a lot from those musicians and by following Dizzy around to these different places. I just tried to do with my voice what I heard the horns in the band doing. I feel that was my education. I am very grateful to him. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie have stimulated me more than I can say.” She often sounded like another instrument in the band. From the very beginning, musicians were impressed by her incredible rhythm.

The first recording of hers that became legendary was If you can’t sing it you’ll have to swing it from 1936. The title was later changed to Mr. Paganini and she sang it throughout her career.

A-Tisket, A-Tasket was a popular childhood nursery rhyme from the 19th century. Her 1938 recording of it became a major hit on the radio, and one of the biggest selling records of the ‘30s. It eventually became a million seller, and became her theme song all over the world. Because of A-Tisket, A-Tasket and the radio exposure from singing with Chick Webb’s band, at age 21 Ella had become the most popular female vocalist in America, even more so than Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey.

Chick Webb had been afflicted with tuberculosis of the spine from early childhood. In 1939, he died in his mother’s arms from Pott disease. He was only 34. Ella continued singing with his band as its band leader!

In 1941 Ella surprised her colleagues when she suddenly married Benny Korngay. Ella’s manager, Moe Gale, was suspicious because Korngay had borrowed money more than once that he didn’t pay back. Private investigators discovered that Korngay had a criminal record, had been convicted of drug charges and had served time. The marriage was annulled.

Fitzgerald played herself in the 1957 film St. Louis Blues and also appeared in the films Pete Kelly’s Blues, and Let No Man Write My Epitaph. Her first film was the 1942 Abbott and Costello movie Ride ‘Em Cowboy, singing A-Tisket, A-Tasket.

Ella’s 1945 recording of Flying Home was her 1st completely wordless scat recording. An even bigger hit than Flying Home was Ella’s first attempt at Calypso: Stone Cold Dead in De Market, which demonstrated her ability to sing with a Caribbean accent.

In 1947 Fitzgerald made her Carnegie Hall debut and performed there every year for the next 44 years! Also in 1947, while performing and touring with Dizzy Gillespie’s band, Ella married the band’s bass player, Ray Brown, who was nine years her junior. They eventually adopted a young boy named Ray Jr., who may have been the illegitimate son of Ella’s sister Frances. Ella and Ray divorced after 6 years, but continued to perform together, and remained friends. Their son was basically raised by Ella’s aunt Virginia because Ella preferred to be on the road performing and was hardly ever home. Ray Jr. was not the most important thing in her life and this became a source of tension between them. As she said, “The only thing better than singing is more singing.”

In 1937 Ella allegedly had an abortion. The operation had gone wrong and she would never have children, a cause of great sadness later in life. She said: “My one regret in life is that I loved a little too easily and a little too often.”

In 1946 Ella made her first two recordings with Louis Armstrong, for whom she had incredible admiration: You Won’t Be Satisfied and The Frim Fram Sauce.

Ella always suffered from performance anxiety before going on stage and no matter how famous and beloved she was, she always had self doubt. Ella never turned to drugs nor alcohol to relieve stress; she turned to food. Ella gained a lot of weight and it was a problem that she battled throughout her life, alternately dieting and going on eating binges.

The most important thing to her was music and performing. Her contracts were signed by her agent, who had power of attorney. In this way, her approach to life resembled that of Louis Armstrong, who was only interested in playing the trumpet, and left all the mundane tasks of his personal and business life to others.

In 1946 Fitzgerald recorded one of the biggest hits of her entire career, Lady be good.

Between 1956 and 1964, Fitzgerald recorded her incredibly popular songbook series, which included songs by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwin’s, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rogers and Hart. Her legendary album, The George and Ira Gershwin Songbook includes 53 Gershwin songs. Even though it is a 5-record set, it sold more than 100,000 copies in its first 60 days. Ira Gershwin said: “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.”

In 1953 Ella made a cross country tour of North America and Hawaii, and then sang 24 concerts in Japan. It was the first time an American jazz ensemble performed for civilian audiences in Japan. The Japanese were so enthusiastic that a ticker-tape reception was given for her in Tokyo! A recording of one of the performances includes Frim Fram Sauce featuring Ella’s incredible impersonation of Louis Armstrong.

She was a favorite and frequent guest on many TV shows including the Bing Crosby Show, the Dinah Shore Show, the Frank Sinatra Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Tonight Show, the Nat King Cole Show, the Andy Williams Show, and the Dean Martin Show.

Despite all her success and popularity, towards the end of the 1950s Ella felt alone and vulnerable. She had no one to share her life with. She said, “I want to get married again. I’m still looking. Everybody needs companionship.”

By 1954 she had sold 22 million records and that year recorded the album, Lullabies of Birdland that includes some phenomenal scatting in the song, Later.

What pianist, Paul Smith said was echoed by several other musicians: “Music, singing is her life. It was the time she came alive, when she went on that stage. The rest of her life, well, she didn’t have any family to speak of.” Pianist Ray Bryant remembered that she got very nervous before a show, and this continued throughout her career. Paul Smith commented: “No matter how successful she was, and I don’t think anyone could be more successful, she always had that little anxiety before she went on stage about whether people would like her. She’d look around the curtain and say ‘I hope they like me’. I’d say how can they not like you!

“The best thing I can say about Ella is that she is an accompanist’s dream. Ella was always very consistent in what she did. She never speeded up. She never did anything that wasn’t very musical. You knew where she was going to hold a note and where she was going; a lot of singers aren’t like that. You don’t know where the heck they’re going. They’re going to do it one way in rehearsal, and then they do it another way on stage. Ella was so musical; she made it very easy to play for her. She wasn’t always the same, but the general continuity was always very easy to follow.”

Ella’s 1958 performance in Rome was published as the album, Ella in Rome. Pianist, Lou Levy recalled: “God! We were swinging our cans off. It was just great! So much spirit and drive on it. You could never get it if you went into a studio. We were on tour; you do it every night, and you’re in great shape. You’re like a sporting team, the more you play, the better it gets. It’s just got to be at fever pitch.”

Ella’s manager, Norman Granz, felt very strongly about civil rights and required equal treatment for his musicians. Granz refused to put up with any type of discrimination at hotels, restaurants, or concert halls, even when they traveled to the Deep South. Interestingly, Ella recalled the assistance she received from Marilyn Monroe. “I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt. It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the 50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman, a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

In 1960 Ella performed for an audience of 12 thousand in Berlin. During Mack the Knife, she forgot the words and made the most out of the situation with fast thinking, humor and her impression of Louis Armstrong!
She followed that song with How High the Moon. The recording of the concert was one of her best selling albums, Ella in Berlin, for which she won 2 Grammys!

In 1961 Ella sang at the inauguration of President Kennedy. Soon after that, she performed again in Berlin and the recording of that concert, the album, Ella Returns to Berlin features some of her best performances. She went on to sing in Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Iran, and Israel, where she sang for the Israeli army.

Also in 1961 Ella had a one-year-long affair with a Danish young man, with whom she lived in a house she purchased in Denmark.

In 1962 she sang a 46-week European tour with very little time off. The pianist Paul Smith said “We could never understand how she did it. She had done it for years before, and she did it for years afterward. That’s when she comes alive, when she goes on stage. When the show was over, she usually went back to her hotel with her maid. It was kind of a lonely life.”

A close associate who traveled the world with Ella remembered: “She was working her ass off. Sometimes she was double booked in two different cities on the same night. She loved to sing as many performances as possible. It was not unusual for her to sing a 7 pm show in one city, and then race to the airport to fly to another city and sing another show at 11 pm. She always did two shows a night. At dinner, she’d be talking about songs, trying them this way and that, worrying that the show wasn’t good enough, that the audience didn’t like her. She wasn’t a doper, she wasn’t a big drinker. Her traveling companions made sure she got where she needed to go, would get her back to the hotel, put her to bed, get her up in the morning, and off we’d go to the airport and onto the next show. No shopping, no movies, no television, no friends, and no contact with family, unless they needed money, just hard, hard work until she dropped. Don’t get me wrong, she loved it, but everyone deserves to have a life.”

In 1963 she recorded the album Ella and Basie with Count Basie. It’s one of her greatest albums. She also recorded an entire album of classic blues called These Are the Blues. Her version of W.C. Handy’s song St. Louis Blues on this album is perhaps closest to Handy’s original.