First Lady of Song Ella Fitzgerald Becomes a Cultural Ambassador
The feeling associated with a song you love is indescribable. It’s almost electrifying. When you truly love a song it usually brings about a memory, feeling, or thought. It doesn’t matter if the song is 30 years old or two weeks old when it hits you feel it.
The word song is defined as a short poem or other set of words set to music or meant to be sung. Ella Fitzgerald is referred to as “The First Lady of Song”. Apparently, she earned this term from the extraordinary use of her vocal instrument. It is said that her voice could mimic many orchestra instruments. She was well known for her genuinely unique tone, eloquence, and scat singing skills. One could even say her vocals sparked a flame to Jazz records, which is why she is also known as the Queen of Jazz.
Before winning 13 Grammy’s and becoming known as the Queen, she was born to unmarried parents in Newport News, Virginia in April of 1917. After her parents split up, Ella and her mother moved on to Yonkers, New York. This was during the time many African Americans were leaving the confederate south heading northward as part of the Great Migration. Her mother was now starting a family with her Portuguese boyfriend giving birth to Ella’s sister in 1923.
Leaving the South was a very different experience for her family. They were able to move from a studio apartment living arrangement by the time Ella started kindergarten. They settled into a home in a poor Italian neighborhood. Growing up in church gave Ella her first introduction to music. However, she gained a love for dancing as a child and would often entertain her friends at school.
The diamond in the rough
When Ella was 15 she lost her mother as a result of fatal injuries from a car accident. The following year she left the care of her stepfather to live with her aunt in Harlem. She ended up homeless in Harlem after she began skipping school and making other poor choices. Her plight was actually a blessing in disguise because at age 17 she made her debut with Amateur Nights at the Apollo Theater. Her intentions were to showcase her dancing skills on stage, but her fate and intimidation had other plans. She had always admired Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters and wanted to sing just like her. With plenty of practice emulating Connee she won first prize after deciding to sing instead. She also earned the chance to perform at the Apollo for a week but, it appears she never got that chance due to her unkempt appearance.
Although Ella Fitzgerald’s appearance was unkempt, her talent was undeniable and would prove to be viable. A string of opportunities led up to a hit record on the radio in 1938. A version of the nursery rhyme “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” was well received by the general public selling 1 million copies. She co-wrote the song when she was 21 and it became one of the biggest-selling records of the decade.
One of these opportunities came in the form of Chick Webb’s band. She was a member of his orchestra and became the bandleader following his death in 1939. They were known as Ella and Her Famous Orchestra until she left in 1942 to pursue a solo career. Changing times forced Ella to change her style in order to remain relevant. This is where she developed her scat style of singing.
Scat singing became her signature and was delightful to audiences. She is quoted saying “I just tried to do [with my voice] what I heard the horns in the band doing” in reference to her unique style. In 1945 Lady Ella released a scat recording of “Flying Home” that also became popular.
Ambassador for the culture
Nine years later she was booked to tour Australia which landed her yet another blessing in disguise. Fitzgerald missed the first two scheduled shows due to racial discrimination on a flight from Honolulu. Because of this, she won a nice settlement in a civil suit. At this point in her career, she was also recording cover versions of popular albums. These Songbooks are among some of her most famous works. This was also the era when television variety shows were popular and she was a frequent guest on these shows in the 1940s and 50s.
Lady Ella was now an international star with many accolades. She remained in the limelight touring and making music for several years. Although her health was steadily declining with age, she continued to add impressive accomplishments to her resume. At age 73 when the ’90s rolled around, she had recorded over 200 albums. Her final recording was completed in 1991.
Ella Fitzgerald’s career extends over a 50 year period and she is seen as a leading jazz vocalist. Some of her most notable work was recorded when she was between the ages of 40 and 50. This is pretty remarkable for someone who started a career at 16.
As a civil rights activist, she used her talent and fame to break racial barriers across the nation. Subsequently, she was awarded the NAACP Equal Justice Award and the American Black Achievement Award. In 1993 the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation was established focusing on charitable grants for four major categories: academic opportunities for children, music education, basic care needs for the less fortunate, and medical research revolving around diabetes, heart disease, and vision impairment.
We lost our precious jewel in 1996 after she suffered from diabetic complications for years. Ella Fitzgerald remains culturally and internationally eminent. Her contributions to society and music will impact and influence many generations. The beauty and power of her legacy is very much like a timeless song that gives you an experience words can’t describe. This type of legacy extends beyond the music and deserves to be celebrated.
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