The most universally revered of all black female jazz singers, Ella evolved her own, individual ‘third person’ approach to a song: ‘You tell it like a beautiful story, and it’s always a story that happened to somebody else’. For more than half a century Tin Pan Alley supplied her with fresh material while those already established were always happy to have their material revived by her, most notably Gershwin, who claimed he never thought much of his own songs until Ella sang them. Throughout her long career, her interpretative instinct never deserted her: elegant yet spontaneous, she became Number One among jazz-singers, although she vehemently rejected so restricting a label, seeing herself in the broader rôle of ‘singer of popular songs’. Whatever the repertoire, however, scat or ballad, none can outshine her innate sense of rhythm, technical security and identification over such a wide range of styles.
Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in Newport News City, Warwick County, Virginia, on 25 April 1917. During her early childhood she and her siblings were abandoned by their truck-driver father to the devices of their laundress mother, Tempie, but despite poverty and less-than-equal odds, Ella stayed cheerful. A member of her school glee club, she also sang in the Bethany African Methodist Episcopal Church Choir, soon mastered the piano and listened avidly to the radio where she heard – and learned by heart – all the latest tunes from the Boswells and her hero Louis Armstrong. In 1932, following Tempie’s sudden death from a heart-attack, Ella was assigned to the care of her aunt in New York. A rebellious and difficult teenager, she was remanded briefly to the New York State Training School, a sort of girls’ reformatory, in Yonkers.
By 1934, however, she already aspired to a show-biz career. Quitting the reformatory she began to frequent the ‘Black Broadway’ zone around 7th Avenue and after trying her luck in various talent competitions won first prize in a Radio WMCA competition. The prize, non-monetary, consisted of airtime and a stage début at the Harlem Apollo at 253 West 125th Street. Ella’s backing group at that auspicious if fairly low-key event was led by Benny Carter (born 1907) who, impressed by what he heard, recommended her to his former boss, Fletcher Henderson. Initially, this led her nowhere (Henderson was at that time no longer in a position to take on unknown vocalists, however talented) but Ella, meanwhile, had won a prize in another Apollo contest, comprising $25 expenses plus a week’s work with the band of drummer-vocalist Tiny Bradshaw (1905-1958) at the Harlem Opera House.
Her appearances there brought her recognition and an introduction to bandleader Chick Webb (1910-1939), the Baltimore-born drummer-songwriter who had fronted his own New York-based bands since 1926 and who was fated to die prematurely from tuberculosis while resident conductor at the Savoy Ballroom. Ella was effectively adopted by Chick and his wife and initially shared credits as his vocalist with Charles Linton and others ad hoc, but by June 1935 she had cut her first discs with the band. Their first US hit, “Sing Me A Swing Song” charted at No.18 in July 1936, but Ella also freelanced and recorded elsewhere (notably with Benny Goodman, the Mills Brothers and groups fronted by pianist Teddy Wilson and saxophonist Teddy Hill), before going on to record further hits with Webb including, in 1938, their first US No.1 “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”, which charted for 19 weeks. However, as Chick’s illness progressed she herself began to front the band, in the guise of ‘Ella Fitzgerald & Her Savoy Eight’ and in 1939, following his death, she would take the reins for the next three years billed (at any rate until the musicians’ union strike of mid-1942) as ‘Ella Fitzgerald & Her Famous Orchestra’. See Naxos Jazz Legends 8.120540 and 8.120611, covering the years 1936-1941.
From late 1942 onwards Ella pursued a career as a vocal freelancer with leading contemporary bands and jazz groups and in November of that year recorded the first of several intermittent titles (pre-1952) with The Ink Spots. Three of these were awarded the distinction of hit-singles: “I’m Making Believe” and “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall” (a double-sided US No.1 in November, 1944) and “I’m Beginning To See The Light” (No.5 in April, 1945). Her other US Top 30 entries included (in 1945) a revival of It’s Only A Paper Moon (the Harold Arlen–Ed Harburg standard originally aired by Cliff ‘Ukelele Ike’ Edwards in the 1933 film Take A Chance) and in July 1946 she scored a big No. 7 success with rhythm & blues saxophonist-bandleader Louis Jordan in “Stone Cold Dead In The Market”. A No. 9 sequel to this was found, by June 1949, with “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, while her numerous collaborations with Louis Armstrong included, in 1946, “You Won’t Be Satisfied” (No.10) and in 1950, “Can Anyone Explain?” (No.30). Outstanding among Ella’s many scat performances, Smooth Sailing, with the Ray Charles Singers, clocked in at No.9 in 1951.
With her contract with Decca ongoing, from 1946 onwards Ella was an established solo jazz stylist in her own right, universally respected for her rare combination of flair and harmonic accuracy. In December 1947 she married Dizzy Gillespie’s bassist Ray Brown and toured with him with Jazz At The Philharmonic. Honed and expertly marketed by her guru Norman Granz (her personal manager who in the early 1950s made her the principal attraction of his newly-formed, prestigious Verve label) she swiftly became a media star. A rare example of a jazz-singer who won and retained a foremost niche among non-jazz audiences, into the 1970s and beyond she enjoyed a special status as an interpreter of American popular songs (her late-1950s LP albums with Buddy Bregman featuring her conspicuous fortés Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Gershwin remain classics). However, for many Ella fans the real highlight of her immediate post-war career was the 1950 Gershwin set (Tracks 8-15) which benefit from the sensitive solo accompaniments of Baltimore pianist Ellis Larkins (born 1923).
Peter Dempsey, 2003