FEATURE: Female Icons: Part Twenty: Ella Fitzgerald



Female Icons


IN THIS PHOTO: Ella Fitzgerald in 1935/PHOTO CREDIT: Universal 

Part Twenty: Ella Fitzgerald


ROUNDING off my Female Icons feature…

 IN THIS PHOTO: Ella Fitzgerald in a London hotel room in 1961/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

is an artist who is seen as the Queen of Jazz. Renowned for the incredible clarity and tone of her voice, there is grace, command and incredible passion in each of her performances. Ella Fitzgerald died in 1996 aged seventy-nine but, in her career, produced some of the most emotive and memorable recordings ever put down. Born in 1917 in Virginia, Fitzgerald has gone on to influence so many modern artists. This article lists a few artists that owe a debt to Ella Fitzgerald. Adele spoke about her love of Fitzgerald:  

"There was no musical heritage in our family," she told The Telegraph in 2008.

"Chart music was all I ever knew. So when I listened to the Ettas and the Ellas, it sounds so cheesy, but it was like an awakening.

"I was like, oh, right, some people have proper longevity and are legends. I was so inspired that as a 15-year-old I was listening to music that had been made in the Forties.

"The idea that people might look back to my music in 50 years' time was a real spur to doing this".

Lady Gaga – among many other artists - is someone who has also taken some guidance and spirit from the legendary First Lady of Song:

Lady Gaga threw a career curve-ball in 2014 when she teamed up with Tony Bennett to release a jazz album, but Gaga had been listening to and loving jazz since her early teenage years.

"I started singing jazz when I was 13 and I discovered it before then," she told Vogue magazine in 2014.

"My mom used to play Billie Holiday on Sundays, I found Ella Fitzgerald - who’s my absolute favorite jazz singer - and my father listened to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.

"So part of me knew in my heart that many of my fans would fall in love with jazz the same way I did, because we’re very similar".

It is no wonder that the intoxicating music of Ella Fitzgerald still affects artists today. It is such a potent, rare and beautiful concoction, one cannot resist its potency. Like so many icons, Fitzgerald’s early life was not the smoothest. She did face some upheaval before the stability arrived. I guess music is that grounding force that can give troubled souls direction and strength – that is definitely the case when it comes to Ella Fitzgerald. Before Fitzgerald embarked on a solo career, she found success and fame with The Chick Webb Orchestra. Whilst they performed through the U.S., the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem was their home. I am not sure what Harlem’s Jazz scene is like now but, when Fitzgerald and the band played, one can only envisage the sights, smells and music in the air! Fitzgerald embarked on her solo career in 1942 but, alongside her solo work, she collaborated with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. There are countless golden moments in the catalogue of Fitzgerald but, when thinking about her finest renditions, her interpretations of the Great American Songbook spring to mind. It is clear Fitzgerald enjoyed a steady rise and came from a difficult background. It is worth looking back at Fitzgerald’s upbringing to see what inspired her path. The daughter of William Fitzgerald and Temperance Henry, the early life of Ella Fitzgerald was not the most stable.

By the early-1920s, Fitzgerald’s mother and Joseph Da Silva, her new boyfriend, moved to New York City; by 1925, the family relocated to a poor Italian area. Although Fitzgerald’s surroundings were not ideal and glamorous, she excelled at school and was a keen dancer. A gifted student and dancer, Fitzgerald performed during school and recess when she could; her early experiences in church exposed her to music and the combination opened her eyes. Listening to Jazz artists like Louis Armstrong and The Boswell Sisters, this new world gave Fitzgerald the inspiration and fuel she needed to dream. One can only imagine the feeling Fitzgerald felt when her mother used to bring her records; the sounds that came from the vinyl and how deep the music resonated. Alongside this burning love for music and discovery came tragedy. Fitzgerald’s mother died when she was fifteen and she was raised by her stepfather. There is rumour that she was abused by her stepfather and, after moving in with her aunt in Harlem, there was this hugely uncertain and unsettled period. When in Harlem during 1933/1934, Fitzgerald performed on the street and got a break when she performed at the Apollo Theatre in 1934 at the age of seventeen. Not only was there change in Fitzgerald’s personal life; there was also change in the music industry. During the early-1940s, Swing and Big Band music was still burning. By the end of the Second World War, changes were occurring and genres like Bebop came through.

 PHOTO CREDIT: Universal

This led to a change in Fitzgerald’s vocal style; a period when Fitzgerald began scatting – one of her ace cards – and used her voice more like an instrument (she said she tried to imitate the horns in the band when singing). Her earliest recordings with Decca Records were successful, but her Verve years provided turbulent. There were events during the 1950s that spring to mind; times where Fitzgerald was subjected to discrimination and attack. Fitzgerald enjoyed a successful tour of Australia in 1954 but there was an incidence of discrimination that caused her to miss her first two concerts in Sydney. As it goes, Fitzgerald and members of her band were due to fly from Honolulu to Australia but were ejected from the plane and not allowed to retrieve their luggage and items. They were stranded in Honolulu and were late for the Australian tour. There was a defence from Pan-American Airlines that the incident was not racially-motivated but one struggles to find any other explanation. Whilst Fitzgerald excelled in Bebop, she was frustrated at Verve Records because there was a feeling things were getting stagnant and routine. It was her discovery of Cole Porter that led to an awakening. Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook sounds like an artist refreshed and re-inspired; entering a new phase and taking her voice in a new direction. That collection was released in 1956 - Fitzgerald recorded eight Song Book collections with Verve from 1956 to 1964.

These stunning recordings are the bedrock of the Great American Songbook and helped bring Jazz to audiences who were not used to the genre. Fitzgerald was a pioneer. Why is Ella Fitzgerald so important? This article from June raised some theories:

Dip into any one of her Song Books, pick any track at random and you will hear perfection. Everything from the arrangements, the musicians, and the songs themselves create the perfect blueprint for Ella’s voice. Ella was 38 years old when she recorded her first song book and her voice was honed to perfection. Whether she is singing a straightforward ballad or love song or something with more than a hint of jazz about it she purrs and swings. There can be no one who has heard these records and not been totally beguiled.

It was also in 1956 that Ella recorded again with Louis Armstrong. Following a gig at the Hollywood Bowl the day before, they went to Capitol’s Hollywood studio to record Ella and Louis, arguably the greatest album of jazz duets ever. The following year they recorded Ella and Louis Again and Porgy and Bess; the latter is one of the most beautiful recordings ever made.

It wasn’t until 1964 that Ella completed her song book cycle with the Johnny Mercer album. In between there were numerous other albums with arrangers like, Russ Garcia, Paul, Weston, Quincy Jones, Frank DeVol and Nelson Riddle all adding their shimmer and gloss to a career that was the kind that other singers aspire to.

Ella’s later career while not climbing to the dizzy heights of her decade with Verve Records still produced memorable highlights, as did her concert performances around the world. In 1980, Granz, who still managed Ella, came up with the idea that was almost a songbook, Ella Abraça Jobim; her tribute to the brilliant Brazilian songwriter. She also returned to the Gershwin canon with her old friend, Andre Previn”.

Although, like other artists in this series, I cannot give too much depth and review of her albums (as there is less material available in that sense), I shall let the music do the talking. There were few harder-working artists in the world than Ella Fitzgerald. Such a prolific performer, Fitzgerald continued to perform, even when her health was declining. I will finish this feature soon but, before I do, I want to bring in this feature from Grammy Museum that talks about Fitzgerald’s later life and how her legacy is more than music: her altruism and charity rarely gets mentioned when we discuss her legacy:

Fitzgerald continued to work as hard as she had early on in her career, despite the ill effects on her health. She toured all over the world, sometimes performing two shows a day in cities hundreds of miles apart. In 1974, Fitzgerald spent a legendary two weeks performing in New York with Frank Sinatra and Count Basie. Still going strong five years later, she was inducted into the Down Beat magazine Hall of Fame, and received Kennedy Center Honors for her continuing contributions to the arts.

Outside of the arts, Fitzgerald had a deep concern for children and those in need. Though this aspect of her life was rarely publicized, she frequently made generous donations to organizations for disadvantaged youth, and the continuation of these contributions was part of the driving force that prevented her from slowing down.

In 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan awarded her 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 Fitzgerald with honorary doctorates.

IN THIS PHOTO: Ella Fitzgerald captured in 1991 at Radio City Music Hall in New York/PHOTO CREDIT: Mark Phillips/Associated Press

On June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald died in her Beverly Hills home from complications of diabetes. Hours later, signs of remembrance began to appear all over the world. A wreath of white flowers stood next to her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a marquee outside the Hollywood Bowl theater read, "Ella, we will miss you."

Ella Fitzgerald won 13 GRAMMY Awards, a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award, and has eight recordings inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame. She holds the distinction as the first African-American to ever receive a GRAMMY Award”.

I shall end things here, but I urge people to listen to Ella Fitzgerald. Not only is her work essential and hugely powerful; she has inspired so many modern artists across various genres. A true icon, grounbreaking artist and timeless force in music, there is nobody in music like Ella Fitzgerald. As I wrap up my Female Icons feature, I get to put out an Ella Fitzgerald playlist that proves what a…

MAJESTIC artist she was.