Thursday, December 17, 2015

Ella Fitzgerald: Singing Out from Mean Streets to Carnegie Hall

By Jessica Mizzi

Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Va. on April 25, 1917. Her father, William, and mother, Temperance (Tempie), parted ways shortly after her birth. Tempie and Ella went to Yonkers, N.Y, where they eventually moved in with Tempie's longtime boyfriend, Joseph Da Silva. Ella's half-sister, Frances, was born in 1923 and soon she began referring to Joe as her stepfather. Their apartment was in a mixed neighborhood, where Ella made friends easily. She considered herself more of a tomboy, and often joined in the neighborhood games of baseball. Sports aside, 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.

In 1932, Tempie died from serious injuries that she received in a car accident. Ella took the loss very hard. After staying with Joe for a short time, Tempie's sister Virginia took Ella home. Shortly afterward Joe suffered a heart attack and died, and her little sister Frances joined them. Unable to adjust to the new circumstances, Ella became increasingly unhappy and entered into a difficult period of her life. Her grades dropped dramatically, and she frequently skipped school. After getting into trouble with the police, she was taken into custody and sent to a reform school. Living there was even more unbearable, as she suffered beatings at the hands of her caretakers.

Eventually Ella escaped from the reformatory. The 15-year-old found herself broke and alone during the Great Depression, and strove to endure. Never one to complain, Ella later reflected on her most difficult years with an appreciation for how they helped her to mature. She used the memories from these times to help gather emotions for performances, and felt she was more grateful for her success because she knew what it was like to struggle in life.

In mid 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." During this time, the era of big swing bands was shifting, and the focus was turning more toward bebop. Ella played with the new style, often using her voice to take on the role of another horn in the band. "You Have to Swing It" was one of the first times she began experimenting with scat singing, and her improvisation and vocalization thrilled fans. Throughout her career, Ella would master scat singing, turning it into a form of art.

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. Suddenly, Ella Fitzgerald was famous.

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. 

 In September of 1986, Ella underwent quintuple coronary bypass surgery. Doctors also replaced a valve in her heart and diagnosed her with diabetes, which they blamed for her failing eyesight. The press carried rumors that she would never be able to sing again, but Ella proved them wrong. Despite protests by family and friends, including Norman, Ella returned to the stage and pushed on with an exhaustive schedule. As the effects from her diabetes worsened, 76-year-old Ella experienced severe circulatory problems and was forced to have both of her legs amputated below the knees. She never fully recovered from the surgery, and afterward, was rarely able to perform.

On June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald died in her Beverly Hills home. Hours later, signs of remembrance began to appear all over the world. 

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 all the jazz greats, from Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Nat King Cole, to Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman. She performed at top venues all over the world, and packed them every time. Her audiences were as diverse as her vocal range. They were rich and poor, made up of all races, all religions and all nationalities. In fact, many of them had just one binding factor in common - they all loved her.

Jessica Mizzi is a senior majoring in Communication Arts at St. Thomas Aquinas College.

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