Ella Fitzgerald's recordings capture many of the jazz era's best-known songs, like "Summertime," "My Funny Valentine," and "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got that Swing." Every jazz fan knows her music, or at least some of it—she was a famously prolific musician, with over 200 albums to her name. But what else do you know about the First Lady of Swing?
Ella Fitzgerald made her singing debut at age seventeen. Struggling after her mother’s death, she was living on the streets when she entered an amateur competition at the Apollo Theatre.
She had originally planned to dance that night, but was intimidated by the Edwards Sisters, two energetic and polished performers that Ella called “the dancingest sisters around.” She was too embarrassed to dance in her hand-me-down clothes, so she decided to sing Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy” instead. Though the audience expected little from the unkempt young woman, her smooth voice and remarkable three-octave range astonished them. She brought down the house and won first prize, the then-generous sum of $25.
She soon caught the attention of local musicians as well, including the drummer Chick Webb, who invited her to join his band. They recorded and performed regularly together, scoring a hit with Ella’s co-written rendition of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”
When Chuck died in 1939, Ella became leader of the newly renamed Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra. She toured around the country, performing with other jazz greats and appearing on popular television programs like The Bing Crosby Show, The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show.
Despite her popularity and her skills, Ella Fitzgerald was no stranger to racial discrimination. This excerpt from her website shares stories about two of her supporters in the face of anti-black prejudice: her manager, Norman Granz, and the actress Marilyn Monroe.
On the touring circuit it was well known that Ella's manager felt very strongly about civil rights and required equal treatment for his musicians, regardless of their color. Norman refused to accept any type of discrimination at hotels, restaurants or concert halls, even when they traveled to the Deep South.
Once, while in Dallas touring for the Philharmonic, a police squad irritated by Norman's principles barged backstage to hassle the performers. They came into Ella's dressing room, where band members Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jacquet were shooting dice, and arrested everyone.
"They took us down," Ella later recalled, "and then when we got there, they had the nerve to ask for an autograph."
Norman wasn't the only one willing to stand up for Ella. She received support from numerous celebrity fans, including a zealous Marilyn Monroe.
"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."
Ella Fitzgerald continued to hone and update her vocal style over the years, adding scat singing to her repertoire as bebop eclipsed swing. She could scat like no other, amazing listeners with her horn-like improvisations. She also attained popular and critical success with her Song Book series, a collection of albums covering songs from Duke Ellington, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, among others.
In the inaugural Grammy Awards of 1958, Ella won two Grammys for albums from the Song Book project: best individual jazz performance and best female vocal performance. Over her 60 year career, Ella Fitzgerald would go on to win 13 more Grammy awards and record an incredible 200 more albums. She was also honored with the National Medal of Arts in 1987.
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