One of the indicators that an entertainment figure is a firmly entrenched superstar, perhaps even an icon, is that people often refer to them by their first name only and everyone knows who is being spoken of.
In the R&B world, for example, just saying “Aretha,” “Stevie” or “Smokey” is enough. In the jazz realm it could be “Sarah,” “Miles” … or “Ella.”
Recently, another legendary lady of song, Nancy Wilson, aptly described Ella Fitzgerald as “the gold standard.”
The lady with the sensational voice who could “scat” like no other, was the one whose level of success and artistic achievement all other songstresses in her field aspired to. A Tina Turner song title comes to mind: “Simply the Best.”
In 1988 Fiitzgerald received the NAACP Image Award for Lifetime Achievement. Stevie Wonder honored her on his landmark “Songs in the Key of Life” album. Dee Dee Bridgewater recorded an album in her honor.
She was among those paid homage to in 1979 at the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors ceremony. April 11, 1976 was declared Ella Fitzgerald Day in Los Angeles. The United States Post Office honored her with a commemorative stamp in 2007.
And on and on the recognition goes, all of it fully deserved.
STEVIE WONDER once sang, “With a voice like Ella’s ringing out, there’s no way the band could lose.” Indeed, with regard to tone, phrasing, understanding of lyrics and nuance, improvisational ability and intonation, Fitzgerald was unequaled.
The First Lady of Song, as she was known, was born Ella Jane Fitzgerald on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia. At a very early age, she enjoyed listening to jazz and pop recordings, including those by Louis Armstrong with whom she would work so many times in the future.
It was at age 17 that she made her singing debut, and later had the opportunity to compete in the fabled Apollo Theater Amateur Night competition. Not surprisingly, she won first prize, which included $25 in cash (which was a lot more money in 1934 than it is today).
The following year she got a chance to perform with the band of Tiny Bradshaw, and it was at that venue, the Harlem Opera House, that she met famed bandleader Chick Webb. He knew talent when he heard it and hired the young Ella.
Oddly enough, it was a jazzy rendition of a nursery rhyme, “A Tisket, a Tasket,” recorded with the Chick Webb orchestra, that really put Ella Fitzgerald’s name out there, although she had made several other recordings previously.
BY 1942, Fitzgerald had begun a solo career, recognizing it as the next logical step. She was signed by Decca Records and was soon a regular attraction at the well-attended Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts.
When a form of jazz called be-bop began its rise in popularity, Ella adapted well to it. It was then that she began “scat singing.” In this regard, she was highly influenced by legendary trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.
“Scatting” is difficult to define, but perhaps Fitzgerald came closest when she said, “I just tried to do with my voice what I heard the horns in the band doing.”
It was around this time that she recorded one of her many greatest hits, “Oh, Lady Be Good.”
When her tenure with Decca was over, Ella signed on with Verve Records. She began delving into standards, making a series of best-selling, favorably reviewed and much loved “Songbook” albums.
THESE INCLUDED “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook,” “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers & Hart Songbook,” “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook,” “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook,” “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook,” “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook,” “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Jerome Kern Songbook” and “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Johnny Mercer Songbook.”
In her amazing 59-year career, the First Lady also recorded many live albums, one of the best being “Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife.” Tracks on the 1960 release include “Summertime,” “Love For Sale,” “That Old Black Magic,” “The Man I Love,” “Mack the Knife” (a hit for Bobby Darin and recorded previously by Louis Armstrong), “How High the Moon,” “Misty,” others. She had never sounded better.
BUT ELLA was willing to try unexpected new things.
In fact, in 1969 she recorded an album titled simply “Ella” that featured her interpretations of the Miracles’ “Ooo Baby Baby,” the Marvelettes’ “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game,” the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life,” the Temptations’ “Get Ready,” Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” and more.
Fitzgerald, who was at one time married to famed bass player Ray Brown, was known for being shy offstage. A member of the Chick Webb band recalled, “She didn’t hang out much.”
As Fitzgerald put it jokingly yet seriously, “I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I think I do better when I sing.”
FITZGERALD was seen regularly on television variety shows (Ed Sullivan, Andy Williams, Carol Burnett, “The Hollywood Palace,” etc.), and became familiar to a whole new generation in the 1970s when she did commercials for Memorex recording tape. The famous question was, “Is it live or is it Memorex?” She would hit a high note and a drinking glass would shatter.
Ella Fitzgerald moved on to what follows this life in 1996, having made a monumental contribution to the music world. Fortunately, most of her recordings are not difficult to find. (Recommended website to find them: amazon.com.)-SVH