Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born 100 years ago today, 25 April 1917, in Newport News, Virginia, in the Tidewater area. She had a difficult childhood, born to a mother who was a laundress and shipyard worker. Ella’s father, William Fitzgerald, eventually left, leaving the two to fend for themselves. Ella’s mom found a new beau, Joseph Da Silva and the small family moved to Yonkers, New York. There, Ella prospered for a while, focusing on dancing and learning about music while singing in church. It was during this period when she began listening to performers like the Boswell Sisters, Bing Crosby, and Louis Armstrong, with whom she would later make much wonderful music.
Tragically, in 1932, when Ella was 15, her mother died from injuries sustained in a car crash. Ella lived with her stepfather for only a short time before moving in with her aunt in Harlem. Things went downhill from there. According to Wikipedia, “Following these traumas, Fitzgerald began skipping school and letting her grades suffer. During this period she worked at times as a lookout at a bordello and with a Mafia-affiliated numbers runner. When the authorities caught up with her, she was first placed in the Colored Orphan Asylum in Riverdale, in the Bronx. However, when the orphanage proved too crowded, she was moved to the New York Training School for Girls in Hudson, New York, a state reformatory located about 120 miles north of New York City. Eventually she escaped and for a time she was homeless.”
Ella never talked about these times, and never let them get her down. After running away, in November 1934 she appeared on stage for the first time at the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night. She had intended to dance, but became intimidated by another act and chose to sing instead, performing in the style of her idol, Connee Boswell. Ella won first prize. Some two months later, she was singing for a week with Tiny Bradshaw at the Harlem Opera House, where she was introduced to Chick Webb, the drummer/bandleader who was raging hot at the time. Chick wasn’t interested at first, wanting a girl who had that certain look, but Ella had the sound, and Chick was hooked. Ella played with Chick’s band at the Savoy, enjoying fame until Chick died in 1939 of tuberculosis. Between when she began with the group and 1942 when she ended her run as the band’s leader, she’d recorded 150 songs, launched by her hit record, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”
Her music was always upbeat, sung with a combination of articulate lyricism mixed in with occasional purposeful scatting, and always with a lovely lightness that could only be attributed to the lady herself. Ella continued performing through her Decca and Verve years, later making numerous television appearances and becoming the grand lady of song. Ella died in 1996, in Beverly Hills, of complications from diabetes.
While she was around, however, no one ever sounded like her, and she sounded like no one else. She will long be remembered for her flawless vocals as well as her lovely spirit.
If you’re feeling that perhaps you’d like an Ella evening, here’s a YouTube playlist for your enjoyment. If you’re wondering, Ella goes best with red wine.