Ella Fitzgerald Wins Amateur Night At the Apollo

ella-fitzgerald-apolloKnown as the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996) was an accomplished jazz musician who charmed audiences and critics alike from the time she won the Apollo Amateur Night in 1934 to her final concert in 1992. She lent her voice, characterized by impeccable pitch, superb diction, and a sweet and clear quality, to a range of musical styles that appealed to a variety of audiences. By one count, she recorded 1,117 different songs.

Fitzgerald was born April 25, 1917, to the unwed couple of William Fitzgerald and Tempie Williams Fitzgerald in Newport News City, Virginia. By the time she was four, her father had left, and her mother was living with Portuguese immigrant Joseph Da Silva. The family moved to Yonkers, New York, where Fitzgerald grew up listening to popular music and especially adored Louis Armstrong and Connee Boswell, an early and innovative white jazz singer whom Fitzgerald strove to emulate at her first Apollo appearance.

Fitzgerald’s mother died in 1932. Her mother’s sister, Virginia, soon removed her from her stepfather’s home, fearing she was being mistreated. Her half-sister soon joined them when Da Silva died as well. Fitzgerald found work running numbers and alerting a prostitution house to police presence. The authorities caught her and sent her to a reform school, where at the time black girls were placed in the worst housing, beaten, held in basements, and perhaps even tortured, according to a 1936 government report and a 1990s journalistic investigation. Fitzgerald later became known for her work on behalf of children and helped establish the Ella Fitzgerald Child Care Center in Watts, Los Angeles, in 1977.

In the fall of 1934, Fitzgerald escaped from the reform school and lived homeless in New York City to evade the authorities. By November 21 of that year, she was on stage at the Apollo, where, as the story goes, she planned to dance but decided at the Monday screening to sing. Her top prize of a week’s worth of singing engagements was not honored, possibly because of her appearance from living on the streets. Her unkempt condition later reportedly put off bandleader Fletcher Henderson. It also put off bandleader Chick Webb when he first met her. His male singer, Charles Linton, persuaded him to try her out in front of an audience.

Webb quickly came to see Fitzgerald as key to his aspirations to greater commercial success. In 1935, Fitzgerald and his band made her first record, “Love and Kisses,” and after that, Webb barely recorded without her. In 1938, Fitzgerald had her first big hit with “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” a nursery rhyme she wanted to record against the judgment of Decca recording executives. She continued to write many of her own novelty songs — with such names as “Gotta Pebble in My Shoe” and “Chew, Chew, Chew, Chew Your Bubble Gum”— and in 1940 became one of the youngest members of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). In 1939, Chick Webb, whose growth had been stunted and back hunched from a childhood disease, died of spinal tuberculosis at age 30. Fitzgerald became the leader of her own big band, an astounding feat for a female or for a vocalist, though trumpeter Taft Jordan took over most of the traditional duties. The band split up in 1942 as the big band heyday drew to a close.

Fitzgerald became interested in the emerging bop sound exemplified by Dizzy Gillespie, and indeed, biographer Stuart Nicholson calls her the only musician to successfully cross over from swing to bop. Her record “Flying Home” (1945) combined scat singing—popularized by Louis Armstrong—with bop sensibilities and became a landmark of scat, and her records “Smooth Sailing” and “How High the Moon” also exemplified bop. Such recordings also demonstrate why musicians praised the hornlike quality of her voice.

In the Down Beat readers poll for top vocalist, Fitzgerald placed first from 1937 to 1939 and again from 1953 to 1970. In the magazine’s critics poll, instituted later, she placed first from 1953 to 1971 and again in 1974. In 1974, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore named its performing arts center after her, and in 1979, she received a Kennedy Center Honors Medal. She won 14 Grammys, and in 1989, the Society of Singers named its lifetime achievement award the “Ella.”

Sherrard, Brooke. “Fitzgerald, Ella.” Encyclopedia of African American History. Ed. Leslie M. Alexander and Walter C. Rucker. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010. 196-198. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 

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