‘They All Laughed:’ The Enchanting Ella Fitzgerald

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Ella J. Fitzgerald.

During the amateur hour, in 1934, on a dare, a  homeless girl, in a dirty dress, took the stage at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Originally she had planned to dance as her performance, but after realizing she was no competition for the dancing duo of The Edward Sisters, she decided instead to sing, unknowingly catapulting herself into a life-altering trajectory. That night she silenced the packed 1500-seat theatre. The rest, as they say, is history. Her name was Ella Jane Fitzgerald, and before her career was over, she would become an icon, winning 13 Grammy awards and selling over 40 million albums. She toured internationally and performed alongside fellow icons the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Louis Armstrong, whom she could perfectly mimic years before their meeting.

“I learned from all the great musicians we’ve had. That’s my education.” Ella Fitzgerald

An enchanted Dizzy Gillespie looks on as Ella croons.

One afternoon toward the end of summer I decided on visiting a nearby apple orchard at dusk as a  perfect backdrop to witness a spectacular sunset. On the way there I thought to have some accompanying music while winding through forest-laden country roads. Selecting a song I felt would set the right mood, I chose Ella Fitzgerald’s “Summertime.” I hadn’t heard Fitzgerald for a very long while on a “worthy” audio system, and as she perfectly pitched her first note, I remembered why she was named “The First Lady of Song.”  All within me immediately silenced, and I fell under her spell once again. It’s a rare occasion when a singer can suspend time with their vocals alone but somehow, skillfully, Fitzgerald does. When Fitzgerald swings, she swings, coaxing you to concoct cocktails and consider chain-smoking, at least for the duration of the song. But when she performs a ballad, a luminous fluidity within her voice appears, a knowing, an intimate purity that feels as if she is sitting right beside you. There is no need to command, coax, or force attention. Simply no other alternative exists than to willingly and gratefully oblige, and although each of her renditions is never sung the same, somehow, every version seems flawless. 

“Ella Fitzgerald is the only performer with whom I’ve ever worked who made me nervous, because I try to work up to what she does” – Frank Sinatra

A packed house. Duke Ellington admiring Ella Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald never strained for her remarkable almost three-octave range, an inheritance of her mother’s classical vocals, rather closed eyes and with a tilt of her head, the high note came pouring out. You will observe in her performances the measurable distance between herself and the microphone, and that is for good reason. Fitzgerald had powerful vocals. For those of us who remember, she was also the woman whose recorded voice on Memorex cassettes shattered glass. According to Fitzgerald, who stated there were lawyers present during her audition, her unusual talent was every bit true.

Born in Newport News, Virginia, Fitzgerald and her family migrated to Yonkers, New York, when she was 2. Coming of age during the Harlem Renaissance, she suffered a traumatic childhood, losing her mother at 15, prompting a stint in reformatory school which likely became a factor behind her deep affection for children. At 16, she became the first female to win amateur hour at The Apollo Theatre and went on to perform with the Savoy nightclub staple, The Chick Webb Orchestra. Later in her career, she would revive the American Songbook delivering elegant renditions of lyricists Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Richard Rogers, and Cole Porter.

Known for her vocals, scatting, and swing ability, Fitzgerald had the uncanny talent of mimicking instruments. Plus-sized, she did not fit the typical archetype of the smoldering nightclub singers of her time, but designer Zelda Wynn kept her tastefully yet fashionably adorned, allowing for fitted full-length dresses. Embodied within Fitzgerald was an incandescent voice, unorthodox style of turning a phrase, and a grounded personality that captivated audiences internationally, and drew an abiding affection from the individuals she performed with.

“With Ella up-front, you’ve got to play better than your best.”-Duke Ellington

Ella and Marilyn, an unlikely yet unbreakable friendship.

Black performers were not customarily permitted at The Mocambo Nightclub. An exception was made for Eartha Kitt and Dorothy Dandridge who, by the time the Mocambo came calling, were bonafide sex symbols. However, the Mocambo refused Fitzgerald until Marilyn Monroe, an avid Fitzgerald fan, proposed sitting at the front of the nightclub each evening to garner publicity in exchange for Fitzgerald’s performances. The two struck up a friendship which on the surface seemed oddly paired. Beyond Monroe’s admiration, the similarities of their painful childhoods more than likely drew them together, “After that, Fitzgerald stated, I never had to play a small jazz club again.”

Fitzgerald, shy in nature, seemed surprised by the standing ovation she received during the Kennedy Center Honors, wiping away tears as her introversion shone through. But when Fitzgerald stepped out on stage, an entirely opposite aura possessed her. A performance on The Nat King Cole Show displayed a  joyful and a light-as-a-feather Fitzgerald unabashedly showing off her admirable dancing skills.

“It’s a funny thing, like around people, if I am at a party, I’m very shy. I shy away from people, but the moment I hit that stage, it’s a different feeling. I get nerve from somewhere – I don’t know what it is, maybe because it is something that I love to do”-Ella Fitzgerald

Like most, Fitzgerald’s life was not without its share of hardship. However, she reached an iconic stratosphere reserved for the chosen few, without the architecture or stereotypical labels of what society would have designed her to be. What was thought of as commonly unconventional instead transmuted itself into authentic artistry and admirable inspiration.

“…if I might say, I’d like to feel now that a lot of the young people will say well, she did it, I can do it” -Ella Fitzgerald

Consider the pivotal moment of serendipity, where destiny met fate masking itself as what seemed an unfortunate circumstance, when a teenager, full of insecurity and vulnerability, faced a packed audience that laughed and mocked her disheveled appearance, only to abruptly realize the capacity she possessed within, “But, ho, ho, ho! Who’s got the last laugh now?”

Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

Recent releases from Verve/UMe

The Lost Berlin Tapes: Never-before-heard Ella Fitzgerald liver Berlin recording from 1962

The Complete Piano Duets: Ella Fitzgerald’s captivating, intimate duets with pianists compiled for the first time as the complete piano duets.

Download ⇒ Ella Fitzgerald 100 Songs Centennial/Playlist

Constance Cherise is a freelance writer and contributor for Turner Classic Movies. See her work here.