In the pantheon of jazz and blues queens that included Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Peggy Lee, one woman emerged as the 20th-century’s First Lady of Song: the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald. Composer Ira Gershwin said of her: “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” Crooner Bing Crosby called her, “the greatest”, and band leader Mel Torme said she had “the best ear of any singer ever”. Fitzgerald demurred, commenting: “Everybody wants to know about my style and how it came about. It’s no big secret. It’s the way I feel.”
The fundamental difference between Fitzgerald and great torch singers such as Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland was empathy rather than experience. Her New York Times obituary in 1996 nailed it: “Where Holiday and Sinatra lived out the dramas they sang about, Miss Fitzgerald, viewing them from afar, seemed to understand and forgive all. Her apparent equanimity and her clear pronunciation, which transcended race, ethnicity, class and age, made her a voice of profound resonance and hope.”
However, Fitzgerald’s upbringing gave her plenty to sing the blues about. Born in Newport News, Virginia in 1917, she was raised in Yonkers, New York, where her mother Temperance worked in a laundromat and her stepfather Joe was a manual worker. As a child, Fitzgerald earned pocket money running bets for the local rogues and prostitutes. After “Tempie” and Joe died in quick succession in 1932, Fitzgerald began to play truant and was sent to reform school where she was beaten by the carers. She ran away aged 15 at the height of the Great Depression. But, in 1935, she entered herself for amateur night at the legendary Harlem Apollo. She intended to dance but the previous act – the Edwards Sisters – was evidently better so she asked the conductor if she could sing Hoagy Carmichael’s Judy. She brought the notoriously rowdy audience at the Apollo to its feet.
The teenage Fitzgerald was shy, reserved and self-conscious about her figure but would later say of her Apollo debut: “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.” Winning every competition she entered, Fitzgerald came to the attention of band leader Chick Webb at a Yale dance and she sang with him until his death in 1939 when the group was renamed Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Band. Making her first recording for Decca in 1936, 21-year-old Fitzgerald laid down one of her greatest hits, A-Tisket-A-Tasket, in 1938 on an album that sold a million copies, went to Number 1 and stayed in the chart for 17 weeks.
Finding Her Voice
Fitzgerald’s perfect diction, vast range and exuberant style lent itself to 1940s Be-Bop with its breakneck pace and phrases of improvised, wordless “scat” that she would use to great effect on recordings of How High is the Moon and Mack the Knife. It helped that she could imitate every instrument in her band. But Fitzgerald’s professional success was not matched in her personal life. In 1941, she married Benny Cornegay but separated a year later on discovering his convictions for drug dealing. In 1947, she married bass player Ray Brown with whom she adopted a son but they divorced in 1953. Arguably the most important relationship for Fitzgerald was her manager Norman Granz.
Fitzgerald joined Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic tour and by the early 1950s was a world-class artist. But racism was still endemic in showbusiness. In 1954, an ugly incident saw her and several band members evicted from their first-class seats on a Pan Am flight to Australia because of the colour of their skin. Granz wouldn’t allow Fitzgerald to perform in establishments that people of colour were not allowed to patronise. In 1955, Fitzgerald-fan Marilyn Monroe told the management of Hollywood’s Mocambo club that she would take a ringside table every night if Ella Fitzgerald was booked. Fitzgerald would later say: “I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt… After that I never had to play a small jazz club again.”
In 1956, Granz struck a deal with Verve to record Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook. According to Fitzgerald, “it was a turning point in my life”. Between 1956 and 1964 Fitzgerald would record albums dedicated to the composers of the Great American Songbook: Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, George & Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer and Rogers & Hart. For purists, these recordings are definitive, as are the albums she cut with Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Count Basie.
Despite two cameo appearances on film in Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955) and St Louis Blues (1958), Fitzgerald was more at home at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, with Sinatra or touring solo where she recorded landmark live albums in Newport with Billie Holiday (1958), Hollywood (1961), Juan Les Pins (1964), the Cote d’Azur (1966), Carnegie Hall (1973), Stockholm (1966), Budapest (1970), Nice (1971) and London (1974).
In Time with the Music
A treasured possession was a wristwatch engraved “To Ella, Love Frank”. A gift from Frank Sinatra, the current whereabouts of the watch are unknown, although it is listed in an itinerary of lots sold by Sothebys in 1997 in a sale entitled Entertainment Memorabilia Including Property from The Estates of Ella Fitzgerald and Dorothy Lamour. A similar watch – a 1936 Patek Phillipe platinum and diamond piece with white-gold bracelet – was offered for sale that same year by Antiquorum with an estimate of CHF6-8,000. Eschewing jewelled timepieces, in later life Fitzgerald preferred to perform wearing a yellow-gold Rolex King Midas. When not on stage, she wore a distinctly masculine Cartier Baignoire with a black strap – the same watch she sported when receiving her National Medal of the Arts from President Reagan in 1987.
For Fitzgerald aficionados, 1979 was a valedictory year when her voice had mellowed to perfection. She recorded an intimate set at London’s Ronnie Scott’s jazz club and won the 1980 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance for her set at the Montreux Jazz Festival with Count Basie. Peggy Lee presented Fitzgerald with her Kennedy Center Honor, quoting Sinatra as saying: “She’s the boss lady, man, and that’s the truth of the matter.” She even made a rare appearance singing with jazz peers Pearl Bailey and Sarah Vaughan at a tribute concert to Bailey. In every performance Fitzgerald proved her adage: “By smiling, I think I’ve made more friends than if I was the other way.”
Despite undergoing a quintuplet coronary bypass in 1986 and failing eyesight, Fitzgerald continued to perform for the rest of the 1980s; her voice as sweet, pure and agile as it was in the 1930s. Her final Carnegie Hall concert in 1991 was her 26th performing in New York’s “Cathedral of Song”. Of her longevity, Fitzgerald would say, “God gave me this talent to use, so I just stand there and sing”. The last years of this great lady’s life were blighted when both her legs were amputated below the knee. On the night, she died in her Beverly Hills home in 1996 aged 79, the 18th Playboy Jazz Festival opened at the Hollywood Bowl. In sombre tribute, the sign on the marquee at the entrance echoed the thoughts of every music lover: “Ella, we will miss you.”