Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Ella Fitzgerald: The First Lady of Song

The spotlight this week is on Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song. In this featured video clip, Ella Fitzgerald sings Mack the Knife.

The original song was by composer Kurt Weill  & playwright Bertolt Brecht for Die Dreigroschenoper, or The Threepenny Opera, which was first performed in Berlin's Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in 1928. A number of English translations of the German song have been commissioned, but the best known is the one by Marc Blitzstein (1954).

Great Artists 
I stole everything I ever heard, but mostly I stole from the horns.
Ella Fitzgerald

Just don't give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong.
Ella Fitzgerald

It isn't where you came from, its where you're going that counts.
Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald [1917-1996]: A young 22-year-old Ella: January 19, 1940. She performed for almost 60 years, claiming new fans along the way: " Coming through the years, and finding that I not only have just the fans of my day, but the young ones of today— that's what it means, it means it was worth all of it."
Photo Credit: Carl van Vechten (1880-1964).
Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Van Vechten Collection

Ella Fitzgerald had a vocal range of more than two octaves, an excellent ability for a world-renown mezzo-soprano singer, but she was not an opera singer but a singer of jazz, scat, bebop, and pop. Then, again, Ella Fitzgerald defied definitions. She once said that she loves singing and appreciated all kinds of music. The genres, which critics and musicologists use as needed classifications and demarcation points, mattered little to The First Lady of Song.

She achieved perfection in intonation, diction and a heightened sense of rhythm, which all combined to give the effect, common in the best performers, of effortlessly hitting it every note. It's a talent combined with hard work.

Small wonder, then, that Ella was the most popular female jazz singer in the United States for more than half a century, from the 1930s to the early '90s. In her lifetime, she had recorded more than 200 albums, won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million records. Two things stand out about Ella—the devotion of her fans and the range of her voice, says her official site:
Her voice was flexible, wide-ranging, accurate and ageless. She could sing sultry ballads, sweet jazz and imitate every instrument in an orchestra. She worked with all the jazz greats, from Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Nat King Cole, to Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman. (Or rather, some might say all the jazz greats had the pleasure of working with Ella.)

She performed at top venues all over the world, and packed them to the hilt. Her audiences were as diverse as her vocal range. They were rich and poor, made up of all races, all religions and all nationalities. In fact, many of them had just one binding factor in common—they all loved her.
As did the countless music professionals she performed with—from Frank Sinatra to Perry Como to Richard Rodgers. She reached the same notes as an alto saxophone, which might have caused Arthur Fiedler, the famed conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, to conclude: "Ella's voice becomes the orchestra's richest and most versatile sound."

Early Life Was Difficult

Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia, on April 25, 1917 to Temperance (Tempie) and William, who left shortly after her birth. Tempie and Ella went to Yonkers, New York, where they eventually moved in with Tempie's longtime boyfriend, Joseph Da Silva. Ella's half-sister, Frances, was born in 1923 and soon she began referring to Joe as her stepfather.

To support the family, Joe dug ditches and was a part-time chauffeur, while Tempie worked at a laundromat and did some catering. In 1932, her mother died from a heart attack. This affected Ella greatly, to the point that her grades suffered, and she was often did not attend classes.

The reasons are sadly clear, reports the New York Times in a 1996 article on a painful period in her life:
Abused by her stepfather after her mother's death in 1932, Ella Fitzgerald was taken in at 15 by an aunt in Harlem -- the equivalent of today's kinship foster home, but without the financial support. The girl who had excelled in her old Yonkers school dropped out to scrounge for money; she ran numbers at one point and worked as a lookout for a "sporting house," knocking on the door in warning if the police were around.
She then spent a year (1933) at New York State Training School for Girls at Hudson, N.Y, an orphaned teenager locked away in a reformatory. It was a period in her life that Ella Fitzgerald, understandably, wanted to keep silent about, and this silence is understood by this writer.

Although one could say she got a lucky break, it would diminish the role talent  and opportunity played. She started her professional career at age 17 on November 21, 1934, at an amateur contest at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York. Initially she was prepared to do a dance number, but changed her mind and snag instead a song recorded by the Boswell Sisters, says CNN.com:
"The man said, 'do something while you're out there,' the singer later recalled. "So I tried to sing 'Object of My Affection' and 'Judy,' and I won first prize."

For the victory, Fitzgerald took home $25, and soon signed with Chick Webb and his band, shooting to fame in 1938 with "A-Tisket, A-Tasket."
Ella kept entering more talent shows, including in January 1935, when she won the chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House. It was there that Ella first met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb. She impressed him and soon won a spot traveling with Chick Webb for $12,50 a week.

In 1936, she made her first recording, Love and Kisses, with the Decca label, which achieved only moderate success. But she was busy performing with Chick Webb's Band at the Harlem Savoy Ballroom, a prestigious venue. It was then that Ella's started playing around with bebop, and her voice started to take on its horn-like sound. She would soon master scat singing and bring it into a high art-form.

Fame at 21

Fame was around the corner. In 1938, at age 21, she recorded A-Tisket, A-Tasket. The album sold one million copies, hit number one, and stayed on the pop charts for 17 weeks. Ella Fitzgerald became famous. Chick Webb died on June 16, 1939. Afterward,  Ella became a bandleader, under Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band.

When Ella met jazz impresario Norman Grantz, a lifelong relationship was formed, first as a performer at the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts (JATP) in Los Angeles, California, and then as her manager.
Under Norman's management, Ella joined the Philharmonic tour, worked with Louis Armstrong on several albums and began producing her infamous songbook series. From 1956-1964, she recorded covers of other musicians' albums, including those by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart. The series was wildly popular, both with Ella's fans and the artists she covered.
But Ella still faced discrimination in certain quarters, which her manager worked hard to defeat. As did, Marilyn Monroe in a famous story, oft-told, but it's worth retelling if only to show how to fight discrimination using the power of fame:
"I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt," Ella later said. "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. She told him - and it was true, due to Marilyn's superstar status —that the press would go wild. 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."
She repaid that debt many times over.  In 1993, she established the charitable foundation that bears her name, She was a generous woman, but did not make a public display of it, her biography says:
Outside of the arts, Ella had a deep concern for child welfare. Though this aspect of her life was rarely publicized, she frequently made generous donations to organizations for disadvantaged youths, and the continuation of these contributions was part of the driving force that prevented her from slowing down. Additionally, when Frances died, Ella felt she had the additional responsibilities of taking care of her sister's family.
Ella Fitzgerald performed her final concert at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1991, the 26th time at that famous venue.

Ella was married twice: first to Benny Kornegay in 1941, which was annulled; and then to Ray Brown, a famous bass player, in 1947.Together they adopted a child born to Frances, Ella's half-sister, and named him Ray, Jr. They were married until 1953.

She suffered from diabetes, and in 1993, 76-year-old Ella experienced severe circulatory problems and was forced to have both of her legs amputated below the knees. She never fully recovered from the surgery, and afterward, was rarely able to perform. She made the best of it.

During the last few years, Ella enjoyed sitting outside in her backyard, and spending time with Ray, Jr. and her granddaughter, 12-year-old Alice.  "I just want to smell the air, listen to the birds and hear Alice laugh," she said.

Ella Fitzgerald died from the effects of diabetes in her home in Beverly Hills, California, on June 15, 1996. She was 79. After a private memorial service, she was buried at the Sunset Mission Mausoleum at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. Ella Fitzgerald continues to give the world much joy.