- Kimberley Guillemet
World Changer of the Month — April 2022: Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Virginia. She was the daughter of William Fitzgerald and Temperance "Tempie" Henry. Her parents never married and her father left her mother shortly after she was born. She began her formal education at the age of six and was an outstanding student. Starting in third grade, she danced and performed for her peers on the way to school and at lunchtime.
In 1932, when Fitzgerald was fifteen, her mother died from injuries sustained in a car accident. Her stepfather took care of her until April 1933, at which point she moved to Harlem to live with her aunt. Fitzgerald soon began skipping school and her grades suffered. She worked as a lookout at a bordello and with a numbers runner. When the authorities caught up with her, she was placed in foster care and then a reformatory in New York.
During 1933 and 1934 she sang on the streets of Harlem, until she had her big break on November 21,1934, when she made her debut in one of the earliest Amateur Nights at the Apollo Theater and won first prize. She later said, "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."
In January 1935, Fitzgerald won the chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House. Although the program director, Chick Webb, was reluctant to sign her because she was a 'diamond in the rough’, he offered her the opportunity to test with the band when they played a dance at Yale University. Met with approval by both audiences and her fellow musicians, Fitzgerald was asked to join Webb's orchestra and gained acclaim as part of the group's performances at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom.
Throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s, Fitzgerald continued to win singing contests, work with bands, and record hit records. Her first million-seller, a novelty tune called "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," became a major hit on the radio and was also one of the biggest-selling records of the decade.
Despite her success, Fitzgerald faced discrimination as during that era, band singers were mostly blond, sophisticated and had mainstream physical features. Fitzgerald was often called “awkward and gawky” and in the words of one newspaper writer, "a big, light-colored gal." This superficial criticism notwithstanding, no one could dispute that Fitzgerald had impeccable timing and perfect pitch. In fact, band musicians would tune their instruments to her voice. Endlessly inventive, only on one record did she sing the same way twice. There was no sad edge to her voice — Ella Fitzgerald had listeners smiling by the second note.
Influenced by her work with Dizzy Gillespie'’s big band, she pioneered “scat” singing and incorporated it as a major part of her performance repertoire. While singing with Gillespie, Fitzgerald recalled, "I just tried to do [with my voice] what I heard the horns in the band doing."
She also began appearing on television variety shows. She quickly became a favorite and frequent guest on numerous programs, including "The Bing Crosby Show," "The Dinah Shore Show," "The Frank Sinatra Show," "The Ed Sullivan Show," "The Tonight Show," "The Nat King Cole Show," "The Andy Willams Show" and "The Dean Martin Show."
Dubbed "The First Lady of Song," Ella Fitzgerald was the most popular female jazz singer in the United States for more than half a century. In her lifetime, she won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million albums. 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 Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman and many more. 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 ethnicities, all religions and all nationalities. In fact, many of them had just one binding factor in common - they all loved Ella Fitzgerald.
To learn more about Ms. Fitzgerald’s tremendous life and legacy, please visit:
http://www.ellafitzgerald.com/about/biography, https://www.npr.org/2010/03/29/125170386/ella-fitzgerald-americas-first-lady-of-song and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ella_Fitzgerald. To view footage of Ms. Fitzgerald, please visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myRc-3oF1d0.