Ella Fitzgerald is the First Lady of Song. Considered by many to be greatest vocalist of all time, her rise to super-stardom was as unlikely as it was meteoric.
Born in Newport News, Ella never knew her father, although she was told that he was a jazz guitarist. As a child she was not a singer at all, but she loved to dance. Her mother married, and Ella moved with her mom and step-father to New York. Not long thereafter her mother passed away, and, eventually, Ella ran away from home. Ella was picked up and placed in group home, but she would always run away. She provided for herself on the streets by running numbers and dancing on the street corners for pocket change.
Ella and her friend heard about an Amateur Night coming up at The Apollo Theatre in Harlem. They would have regular live shows, and one night a week they would have an amateur hour – and the grand prize was $25! Ella decided to sign up – as a dancer.
As it turned out, the regular show that night ended with a number by the Edwards Sisters, a fiery dance duo. Ella, who was the first act of the Amateur Hour, knew that she couldn’t go onstage and dance after The Edwards Sisters. She wandered out on the stage in her old clothes and second-hand boots. The crowd, as they are apt to do even today, began laughing and mocking. Ella froze in her place. Her paralysis was interrupted by the Stage Manager shouting, “Hey girl – you’ve got to do something!”.
And that’s when she decided to sing. Her favorite singer was Connie Boswell, so she just opened her mouth and did her best Connie Boswell impersonation. The song she sang that night was “The Object of My Affection” and the crowd went wild for her. In the audience that night was the bass player for the Chick Webb Orchestra, and they had been looking for a girl singer, so he invited Ella to come sing for Chick. Chick hired her on the spot and began mentoring her on performing.
Ella’s career exploded. She literally went from being homeless to singing for heads of state.
Ella lived a very humble life. She was painfully shy and didn’t really like all of the attention she was getting. People couldn’t quite figure out what Ella was doing with her money, which was considerable. It wasn’t until after she died that people found out. Throughout her life she had been quietly building orphanages for kids who had no parents. Upon her death, she left a foundation with money to support the orphanages indefinitely.
Ella was so much more than an incredible vocalist. She was an incredible human. And her life and work teach us to not just a book by its cover.
Editor’s note: What to learn more about the extraordinary contributions African American artists have made over the last 400 years? Mark your calendar for Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South.