“It isn’t where you came from, it’s where you’re going that counts.” — Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born on this day in Newport News, Va. in 1917. Today is the 96th anniversary of her birth.
Her parents, William and Tempie Fitzgerald split when she was an infant and Ella and her mother moved to Yonkers, New York. Tempie fell in love with Joe Da Silva and the couple had a baby girl, Ella’s half-sister, Frances in 1923. When Joe couldn’t make ends meet with his part-time chauffeuring gig he dug ditches. Tempie worked at a laundromat. Even little Ella helped out, she was a runner for local gamblers.
Ella enjoyed sports as a child and liked to dance and sing with her friends. “some evenings they would take the train into Harlem and watch various acts at the Apollo Theater.” [The Official Website of Ella Fitzgerald] She was inspired by Louis Armstrong and the Boswell Sisters, a trio from New Orleans who specialized in tight harmonies and intricate rhythms.
She had to grow up fast in 1932 when her mother died from injuries she received in a car crash. Joe died shortly thereafter, and Frances shortly after him. Ella lived with her Aunt Virginia for a while.
Her grades dropped dramatically, and she frequently skipped school. After getting into trouble with the police, she was taken into custody and sent to a reform school. ….Eventually Ella escaped from the reformatory. The 15-year-old found herself broke and alone during the Great Depression, and strove to endure….. [Ibid]
She was homeless for a while and on the run. But her luck turned around when she was 17. She was at the Apollo Theatre and her name was selected to compete at “Amateur Night.” Although she was planning to dance she changed her mind when she saw another act win the crowd over with their spectacular dancing. She would have to do something else. She decided to sing instead. She chose an old Boswell song, “Judy,” that she knew by heart.
Ella could be shy off stage, but on stage she lit up like a Christmas Tree. The audience loved her song and demanded an encore (she did the song from the flip side of the Boswell record). She was fearless and she won the talent show and took home the $25 prize. “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.” [Ibid]
She began to enter every talent show she could find. And she won them all. She met drummer/bandleader Chick Webb and signed a contract with him to front his band for $12.50 a week. In 1936 she recorded “Love and Kisses” on the Decca label. At 21 She recorded “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” her first #1 hit.
When Webb died his band changed its name to “Ella and her Famous Orchestra.” She recorded 150 songs with the group, but it wasn’t until she left, in 1942 that her career really began to take off. She signed with Decca records and did a series of “songbooks” by famous jazz composers. From Irving Berlin to Duke Ellington to Cole Porter she reinterpreted jazz standards for a new audience.
“I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them,” Ira Gershwin once remarked. [Ibid]
She also began to work with Norman Granz on his Jazz at the Philharmonic and her sound morphed from big band to bebop and she began to master scat singing.
She received the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan in 1987. She gave her final concert in Carnegie Hall in 1991. She died on June 15, 1996 in Beverly Hills, California
Here she is scatting away and doing a Broadway standard: