The Incomparable Ella Fitzgerald Part 2

In 1965 she appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. Among the songs she sang was a medley of Ellington songs performed without words such as I am Beginning to See the Light, and Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.

In 1972 she sang at the All-Star Swing Festival at Lincoln Center, and at the end of the performance Dizzy Gillespie came out on stage and took Ella by surprise by dancing with her!

In 1966 Ella was performing at the jazz festival on the Cote d’Azur on the French Riviera when her sister passed away. Ella flew home to Los Angeles for the funeral, and then turned right around and flew back for the following night’s performance. Ella gave herself no time for mourning or embracing the emotions she was feeling. She simply rushed back to work. There was also no consoling her son, who lost his aunt, and who may have been his biological mother.

She began having many health issues but at this point she had no life except for her music. For the rest of her life, she consistently defied her doctors who insisted she retire or at least slow down, but she kept working at a hectic pace.

About her scat singing, Mel Torme said: “Anyone who attempts to sing extemporaneously, that is, scat, will tell you that the hardest aspect of that kind of singing is to stay in tune. You are wandering all over the scales, the notes coming out of your mouth a millisecond after you think of them. A singer has to work doubly hard to emit those random notes in scat singing with perfect intonation. Well, I should say all singers except Ella. Her notes float out in perfect pitch, effortless, and most important of all, swinging. She had those extraordinary ears. She grew up surrounded by great musicians and she kept those extraordinary ears open and listening. So she assimilated all of this. How do you describe it? It’s a God given talent. It’s the only way I can describe it.Ella and Mel Torme were mutual admirers of each other. In 1976 Ella won her 8th Grammy Award and she and Mel Torme sang together again. Torme called it one of the highlights of his life.

Ella was paid $500,000 for her first series of commercials for Memorex audio tape. And the 6 figure contract was renewed several times!

In 1968 she said: “Being at the top is a strain. The first time you get hoarse or aren’t up to par, you think you’re slipping. Anytime you think that you’re at the pinnacle, that you’ve made it, then you’re nothing.

Ella loved to sing ballads sometimes even more than the fast songs.

By 1970 Ella was dealing with several health issues including treatments and surgeries to save her eyes. Having diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure were very serious for an exhausted woman who was extremely overweight. And yet, by the middle of 1971 she sang in New York’s Central Park to an audience of 200,000 people.

Despite her doctors warning her to slow down during the 1970s, Ella continued to ignore their recommendations, performing two shows a night as many times as six nights a week. Her blood pressure was high. It became more difficult to get around. And her eyesight and arthritis worsened.

Beginning in 1983 Ella lost nearly 100 lbs in 2 years. This was after she fell onstage due to dizziness, medication, and the loss of footing caused by the amputation of one of her toes, due to diabetes. In 1985 she began suffering from fluid buildup in her lungs.

The following year Ella suffered from congestive heart failure, had quintuple coronary bypass surgery, and had a valve in her heart replaced. Ella continued performing an exhaustive schedule despite protests from her doctors, her manager, her family and friends.

Her biographer, Stuart Nicholson, wrote: “It’s ironic that Ella, who so loved her audiences and who throughout her life has given unstintingly of herself, should have remained such a lonely figure. Apart from her 6-year marriage to Ray Brown, her life was spent in a series of affairs that have never led to the security and happiness of which she sang and which she sought so desperately. But she found fulfillment through her music and in the warmth and joy she received from her audiences.

When asked about her favorite singers, she replied: Sarah Vaughn, Gladys Knight, Natalie Cole, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Mel Torme.

There was a beautiful humility about Ella Fitzgerald. Mel Torme said “She doesn’t know how good she is. I’m presenting an award to her on the 4th of July 1991, a Black Achievement Award at the Palladium, and I consider it a signal honor. But believe me, when she gets that award it’s going to be like all the other awards she has received: ‘What did I ever do to deserve this?’ That’s the way she is.

Two years before her death another of her biographers, Geoffrey Fidelman wrote: “She was a legend who is still nervous about being good enough. Ella never really accepted the fact that she was so popular, or that she was unconditionally loved from the moment she walked on stage. Humble as ever, when she received another Grammy award in 1991 she said to a friend: “They’re just giving it to me ‘cause I’m old and still around.

In 1992 a second toe was amputated due to diabetes.

Ella loved to laugh and her favorite subject to talk about was music and songs. Her social life was practically non existent. In her later years when she was at home a lot of time her favorite activity was watching soap operas on TV. Ella was not social. She seldom left the house, did not chat on the phone to friends, and spent little time with family. She lived to perform.

Ella never healed from the operations to remove her toes. Because of severe diabetes, her eyesight greatly deteriorated, gangrene set in and in 1993 both her legs were amputated.

Ella Fitzgerald died in her home from a stroke in 1996. She was 79. The majority of her media and memorabilia is at the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress. She recorded well over 200 records, and during her lifetime sold over 40 million albums. The Cole Porter songbook and the two My Fair Lady albums became the largest selling record albums in history. She was inducted into the Down Beat Magazine Hall of Fame, and is the recipient of 13 Grammy awards, a Grammy lifetime achievement award, the Grammy Hall of Fame Award, honorary membership in the nation’s oldest and largest African-American sorority, Alpha, Kappa, Alpha, the first New York City Cultural Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, the National Medal of Arts, France’s Commander of Arts and Letters Award, the Peabody Medal, the UCLA Medal for Musical Achievements, the NAACP Image Award for Lifetime Achievement, the first Society of Singers Lifetime Achievement Award named the “Ella” in her honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the George and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement, the Univ. of Southern California Magnum Opus Award, and honorary doctorates from Talladega, Howard, Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale and Harvard universities.

The University of Maryland created the Ella Fitzgerald Center for the Performing Arts, Ella Fitzgerald Days were proclaimed in New York and Los Angeles. A theater in Newport News, Virginia was named after her, and there is a bronze sculpture of Fitzgerald in Yonkers, New York, across from the railroad station. Another statue is located at Chapman University in Orange, California. The United States Postal Service issued a stamp bearing her image and the most recent documentary, Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things was released in 2019.

In 1947 Ella began helping orphaned and disadvantaged children, an act of compassion that continued for the rest of her life. She became the chairperson of the Foster Parents Plan, which supported orphanages and disabled children in war-ravaged Europe. And she funded a place in a home for a young orphan in Naples, Italy. Though it was rarely publicized, throughout her career she gave pro bono concerts and charitable donations to many causes, culminating in The Ella Fitzgerald Child Day Care Center in the Watts section of Los Angeles, which she helped establish in 1977 and of which she was a long time supporter. In her later years her main social concern was fighting against child-abuse, for which she raised hundreds of thousands of dollars through annual benefits that featured many popular entertainers. She sang for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to benefit international refugees from various wars, plagues, and political struggles. She also performed to raise money for the Retina Foundation. In 1968 she accepted the honorary chairmanship of the Martin Luther King Foundation, and in 1974 she sang with the Boston Pops and Arthur Fiedler to benefit the Retire Association.

She supported the Dream Street Foundation, that provides camping experience for children with life-threatening diseases. In 1990 at Lincoln Center a star studded show raised money for the American Heart Association to establish the Ella Fitzgerald Research Fellowship.

She also supported the City of Hope organization, dedicated to cancer research, treatment and prevention. In 1993 Fitzgerald established the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation focusing on academic opportunities for children, music education, basic care needs for the less fortunate, and medical research of diabetes, heart disease, and vision impairment.

She always did her charity work very quietly, shunning publicity. Almost no one knew of her work with inner-city youth in Los Angeles, or of her help to children everywhere. Many of her hundreds of concerts per year were sung either gratis or at greatly reduced fees to benefit children.

Ella defied the traditional expectations of a black person in a predominantly white society. She endured discrimination with dignity, and she was acknowledged as a legend in her own lifetime. She once said: “It isn’t where you came from, it’s where you’re going that counts.”