Tuesday, February 12, 2008
A tribute to Ella Fitzgerald
My ladies of jazz tribute would not be complete without the inclusion of the late great Ella Fitzgerald.
Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Va. on April 25, 1917 to William and Temperance (Tempie) Fitzgerald.
Her parents separated early on and Tempie and Ella moved to Yonkers, N.Y. where they lived with her mother's longtime boyfriend, Joseph Da Silva, a laborer and part-time chauffeur.
Ella grew up in a hard-working family in a racially mixed neighborhood. Her mother worked at a laundromat and did some catering. Even young Ella took on small jobs to contribute money which sometimes included being a runner in a gambling ring. Asides from that she enjoyed dancing and singing with her friends, and some evenings they would take the train into Harlem and watch various acts at the Apollo Theater.
Tragedy struck when her mother passed away in 1932 as a result of a car accident. Ella took the loss very hard. She and her younger sister, Frances remained for a time with her stepfather, Joe but eventually relocated back to Virginia with one of her mother's sister. Her stepfather, Joe soon thereafter suffered a heart attack and died.
Back in Virginia, Ella now a troubled youth, started doing poorly in school and getting into trouble with the police. This led to her being taken into custody and being sent to a reform school.
The Reform school was very harsh since she suffered many beatings at the hands of her caretakers which eventually led Ella to escape. The then 15-year-old found herself broke and alone during the Great Depression so she struggled just to survive but the Lord was on her side.
In 1934, Ella's name was pulled in a weekly drawing at the Apollo and she won the opportunity to compete in Amateur Night. Ella had planned to dance but was intimated by the previous act and facing boos from the crowd, she made the choice to sing instead. And "Oh Boy" was that the right choice. Her performance earned her a standing ovation and was the catalyst for something far bigger than she could have ever imagined.
In the band that night was saxophonist and arranger Benny Carter. Impressed with her natural talent, he began introducing Ella to people who could help launch her career. In the process he and Ella became lifelong friends, often working together.
Fueled by enthusiastic supporters, Ella began entering - and winning - every talent show she could find. In January 1935 she won the chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House. It was there that Ella first met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb. Although her voice impressed him, Chick had already hired male singer Charlie Linton for the band. He offered Ella the opportunity to test with his band when they played a dance at Yale University. Lets just say, she passed the test with "flying colors". The audience and the band loved her so she was hired to travel with the band for $12.50 a week.
In 1936, Ella made her first recording. "Love and Kisses" was released under the Decca label, with moderate success. By this time she was performing with Chick's band at the prestigious Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, often referred to as "The World's Most Famous Ballroom."
Shortly afterward, Ella began singing a rendition of the song, "(If You Can't Sing It) You Have to Swing It," once of my personal favorites.
In 1938, at the age of 21, Ella recorded a playful version of the nursery rhyme, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." The album sold 1 million copies, hit number one, and stayed on the pop charts for 17 weeks. This catapulted Ella Fitzgerald to national fame.
On June 16, 1939, Ella mourned the loss of her mentor Chick Webb. In his absence the
band was renamed "Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band," and she took on the overwhelming task of bandleader.
Ellas also married, bassist Ray Brown. The two were married and eventually adopted a son, whom they named Ray, Jr. Unfortunately, the two divorced in 1952, but remained good friends for the rest of their lives.
Ella continued to work hard despite obtstacles including discrimination and it brought her international fame.
She worked with some of the best of the best including Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman or should I say, they worked with her.
She received many esteemed awards, was inducted into Hall of Fame and received Kennedy Center Honors for her continuing contributions to the arts.
Outside of the arts, Ella had a deep concern for child welfare. Though this aspect of her life was rarely publicized, she frequently made generous donations to organizations for disadvantaged youths, and the continuation of these contributions was part of the driving force that prevented her from slowing down.
In 1987, United States President Ronald Reagan awarded Ella the National Medal of Arts. It was one of her most prized moments. France followed suit several years later, presenting her with their Commander of Arts and Letters award, while Yale, Dartmouth and several other universities bestowed Ella with honorary doctorates.
By the 1990s, Ella had recorded over 200 albums. In 1991, she gave her final concert at New York's renowned Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she performed there.
On June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald died in her Beverly Hills home. The end of her mortal life on earth but her music still lives on and is legendary.
She is remembered as "The First Lady of Song." Her wide-ranging, sultry, sophisticated and angelic voice is timeless and ageless. She could sing sultry ballads, sweet jazz and imitate every instrument in an orchestra.
My personal favorites are, "Lullaby of Birdland," "Sophisticated Lady," "Miss Otis Regrets," "Shiny Stocking" and "A Night In Tunisia."
I will end this with the words to her song "A Night In Tunisia" but ask that as you read it replace the word Tunisia with the word, "heaven" because that is where I know she is and Oh what a choir they have going on up there with Ella as one of the lead vocalists!
The moon is the same moon above you
Aglow with it's cool evening light
But shining at night, in tunisia (heaven)
Never does it shine so bright
The stars are aglow in the heavens
But only the wise understand
That shining at night in tunisia (heaven)
They guide you through the desert sand
Words fail, to tell a tale
Too exotic to be told
Each night's a deeper night
In a world, ages old
The cares of the day seem to vanish
The ending of day brings release
Each wonderful night in tunisia (heaven)
Where the nights are filled with peace
Can wait to meet you Ella and enjoy each wonderful night in Tunisia (Heaven).