Friday Hoyden: Ella Fitzgerald

“I know I’m no glamour girl, and it’s not easy for me to get up in front of a crowd of people. It used to bother me a lot, but now I’ve got it figured out that God gave me this talent to use, so I just stand there and sing.”

“The only thing better than singing is more singing.”

[image credit: Verve]

Ella Fitzgerald made her singing debut at the age of seventeen, winning Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York City, in 1934. She had gone there intending to dance, but switched to singing at the last minute after seeing the Edwards Sisters close the main show with a dance number. The debut (as described by

Once on stage, faced with boos and murmurs of “What’s she going to do?” from the rowdy crowd, a scared and disheveled Ella made the last minute decision to sing. She asked the band to play Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy,” a song she knew well because Connee Boswell’s rendition of it was among Tempie’s favorites. Ella quickly quieted the audience, and by the song’s end they were demanding an encore.

Fitzgerald launched her career singing with the Tiny Bradshaw Band. Chick Webb was reluctant to hire her in the beginning because of her appearance, protesting that “she was gawky and unkempt, a diamond in the rough”. But Ella’s virtuouso voice and musicality landed her the front spot, and it was renamed “Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra” four years later, on Webb’s death. Fitzgerald went on to a varied solo swing, jazz, bebop and pop career, and 22 years after her debut, released the wildly successful “Ella Fitzgerald sings the Cole Porter Songbook” album.

This one quote sums up Ella Fitzgerald’s voice for me. Johnny Mathis, on first hearing Fitzgerald sing live, said:

“It was like the greatest thing that I’d ever heard. There was nothing like it for someone like myself, who loved to sing, to listen to that music, played and sung with such joie de vivre, with such abandon. It was someone who had complete control over what they were doing, and they could do it upside down, backwards, forwards, round, down, any way. It’s mind-boggling to me.”

In the midst of 1950s segregation, Fitzgerald become the first African-American performer on-stage at the Mocambo nightclub in West Hollywood, after fellow hoyden Marilyn Monroe lobbied the owner for the booking:

“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Ella later said. “It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

Ella kept on singing well into her elder years. Accolades and awards for the “First Lady of Song” include fourteen Grammy awards, the Bing Crosby Lifetime Achievement Award, Honorary chairmanship of the Martin Luther King Foundation, five honorary Doctorates, the National Medal of Art and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Fitzgerald’s last public performance was in 1993. She died three years later, at the age of 78, surrounded by her family.

She is still in the Billboard charts right now, with the album “Love Letters from Ella”.

Enough from me: Ella Fitzgerald can speak (and sing) for herself. Some videos for you, showing some of her unsurpassed range and versatility.

It Don’t Mean A Thing If You Ain’t Got That Swing:


And my favourite Hoyden anthem, The Lady is a Tramp (starts three minutes in, after an amazing scat performance in Them There Eyes):

I’ve wined and dined on Mulligan Stew, and never wished for Turkey
As I hitched and hiked and grifted too, from Maine to Albuquerque
Alas, I missed the Beaux Arts Ball, and what is twice as sad
I was never at a party where they honored Noel Ca-ad (Coward)
But social circles spin too fast for me
My “hobohemia” is the place to be

I get too hungry, for dinner at eight
I like the theater, but never come late
I never bother, with people I hate
That’s why the lady is a tramp

I don’t like crap games, with barons and earls
Won’t go to Harlem, in ermine and pearls
Won’t dish the dirt, with the rest of the girls
That’s why the lady is a tramp

I like the free, fresh wind in her hair
Life without care
I’m broke, it’s o’k
Hate California, it’s cold and it’s damp
That’s why the lady is a tramp

I go to Coney, the beach is divine
I go to ballgames, the bleachers are fine
I follow Winchell, and read every line
That’s why the lady is a tramp

I like a prizefight, that isn’t a fake
I love the rowing, on Central Park lake
I go to Opera and stay wide awake
That’s why the lady is a tramp

I like the green grass under my shoes
What can I lose, I’m flat, that’s that
I’m alone when I lower my lamp
That’s why the lady is a tramp

Girls get massages, they cry and they moan
Tell slender Ella to leave me alone
I’m not so hot, but my shape is my own
That’s why the lady is a tramp

The food at the Dorchester is perfect, no doubt
I couldn’t tell you wha the Ritz is about
Drop a nickle in, and coffee comes out
That’s why the lady is a tramp

Like the sweet, fresh, rain in my face
Diamonds and lace, I no got, so what?!

for Frank Sinatra, I whistle and stamp
That’s why the lady is a tramp

I’m a hobo
I’m a scamp
I’m a no-good kinda tramp
That’s why the lady is a tramp

Sources and further reading:
Wikipedia: Ella Fitzgerald
Dedicated to Ella

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism, history

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