“If this woman was the greatest American singer, it was in part because she could turn any song into an oxygen rush of bouncing melody that reached the listener’s ears as pure, untroubled joy — the eternally young sound of a young country. “
– Frank Rich on the talent of Ella Fitzgerald.
The great American singer, Ella Fitzgerald was born on today’s date, April 25 in 1917. Frank Rich was speaking here on the occasion of the death of Ella which came in June of 1996. He was certainly right in his assessment that her voice brought joy and energy to everything which she sang. But her life, at least in her early years was certainly fraught with troubles. She was born on this date in 1917 in Newport News, Virginia the daughter of a common-law couple, William and Temperance “Tempie” Fitzgerald. Soon after Ella was born, her parents separated, and her mother moved with her to Yonkers, New York, wherein they lived with Tempie’s longtime boyfriend, Joseph Da Silva. The couple had a daughter together, Ella’s half-sister, Frances Da Silva, born in 1923. Ella loved music and dance as a youth. She enjoyed listening to Jazz records of such musicians as Louis Armstrong, and the Boswell Sisters. Of their lead singer, Connee Boswell (above), Ella would later remember: “My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it….I tried so hard to sound just like her.” But Ella’s mother Tempie died in 1932, leaving her 15 year-old daughter an orphan during the Great Depression, when America herself faced the hardest economic time in her history. Ella was taken in by an Aunt who lived in Harlem. But her grades in school suffered, and she soon dropped out of school altogether. She worked as a lookout in a bordello, and she worked as a courier for a local Mafia numbers-runner. Not surprisingly, this got her into trouble with the law. She was placed in the Riverdale Colored Orphan Asylum but was moved from there to a tough reformatory called the New York Training School for Girls. She ran from that place and for a time, Ella was homeless.
The Young Ella Makes Her Debut and Starts a Legendary Career
In spite of all of this turmoil in her life, the young Ella was determined to make a career for herself in music, and she made her debut at the age of 17. The legendary Apollo Theater in New York City was a venue where she pulled in a weekly audience, and won the opportunity to compete in one of the earliest of its famous “Amateur Nights” on November 21, 1934. She had intended to go on as a dancer but, intimidated by the Edwards Sisters, a local dance duo, she decided to try singing instead. Going on in the style of her idol, Connee Boswell, she sang the song “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection,” songs recorded by the Boswell Sisters, and won the first prize of $25.00. After that she had an opportunity to sing with Band leader Chick Webb, who at first was: “reluctant to sign her….because she was gawky and unkempt, a diamond in the rough.” But Webb did sign her, and after that her career gradually took off. In her long and fabulous life in music she sung with most all of the great jazz bands and musicians of her day, and recorded countless classic songs. Ella (pictured above, circa 1940) came to be called “The First Lady of Song,” and one other great, the composer Ira Gershwin: said: “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” She never spoke publicly about her tumultuous early years, but said that she did find a unique acceptance in life through her time on the singing stage: “Once up there, I felt the acceptance and love from my audience,” Ella said. “I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life.”
She was late in her career when I had the pleasure of seeing her perform at the Palace Theater in Cincinnati with the Count Basie Orchestra, and also with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra in the late 70’s. She had a full, throaty quality to her voice that added meaning to her versions of ballads like “My Funny Valentine”, to whimsical songs like “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” , but also to an odd song like “Mack the Knife” . Her intonation was perfect, and her vocal range was quite large: spanning three octaves(D♭3 to D♭6) She was famous for her purity of tone, and a “horn-like” improvisational ability, particularly in her “scat” singing, which I recall her really highlighting in the tune “How High the Moon”. She was always a joy to listen to, and as Frank Rich said she always filled her music with energy! I considered myself very lucky to have heard her do her scat* in person!!
* = Here’s an absolutely KILLER example of Ella doing “scat” with the incomparable Mel Torme’!!
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