Plump and homely, Ella Fitzgerald wasn’t beautiful. Nor did she wear sexy, clingy outfits that flaunted her thighs and curves. And, never one to submit to confessional interviews, what love-life she had wasn’t ever made a matter for public discussion, rumour or conjecture. With none of that going for her, she wouldn’t have had a hope of becoming a star today.
But, then, she belonged to a different era, a non-visual radio time, when the only thing that mattered was the silk of her voice, that God-given gift that dressed everything she sang with style, often with swing, and sometimes with sweet sorrow.
Think only of her rendition of the Cole Porter standard Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.
It was never a pop hit, but back in the Fifties it was such a regular choice on the Sunday lunch-time programme Two-Way Family Favourites – when Jean Metcalf in London and Cliff Michelmore in Hamburg would play records requested by and for British forces stationed in Germany – nearly half the nation must have known it.
That was where I, aged 15, first heard Ella Fitzgerald sing, so movingly about the pain of leaving and being left. ‘How strange the change from major to minor,’ she sang. Cole Porter never had a better interpreter.
Ella would have recognised that kind of pain, as Leslie Woodhead shows in his biographical film, Ella Fitzgerald: Just One Of The Things. Because, although she would die a rich, famous woman, nothing, other than that voice, had come easily to her.
Born to an unmarried couple in 1917, in the state of Virginia, her father had left the family home before she was four, and been replaced by a step-father who took Ella, her mother and baby half-sister, Frances, to live in Yonkers, New York.
Historians would see the move as part of the inter-war Great Migration of black workers from the Southern states to the northern cities in search of work and a better life. But in Ella’s case, poverty just followed them from one place to the next. Then when she was fourteen her mother died.
Growing up a poor black girl in New York in the Twenties, the outlook wouldn’t have looked promising. Leaving her step-father, about whom, for some secret reason, she would never later speak, she soon went to live with an aunt in Harlem. While there, after some truancy, she was committed to a reform school.
Solitary confinement and being beaten by male staff didn’t dent an independent spirit and she absconded twice, eventually ending up occasionally ‘running numbers’ on the Harlem streets for a Mafia run illegal lottery racket. Where she slept in those months, she never said.
She would later out the fiction that her childhood was a happy one, but it had to have been difficult. Nevertheless, her background was the making of her. The Twenties and Thirties was the great age of radio and records, and, therefore, of commercially made pop music, jazz and swing.
Like many other young black artistes, she had first begun singing at Sunday School and Bible class, where she also learned to play the piano. Unlike many singers, she could read music, something that would earn her the respect of musicians.
Her first ambition was to become a dancer. So, when she heard about an amateur night at a new Harlem club called the Apollo, she put her name down – only to withdraw her application and re-enter as a singer when she realised she would be up against a hot couple who’d had professional training.
Her singing debut, aged 17, in 1935 didn’t start well. Unwashed, without make-up, wearing old clothes and boots – the only clothes she had, she was initially barracked by the audience for her appearance. But then the mockers quietened down and began to listen. She won the competition.
Normally the winner would have been given a week’ s engagement, but with nothing glamorous to wear and greatly in need of a bath, that offer was not made to her. She had, however, been spotted. When New York big band leader Chick Webb decided he needed a beautiful new girl singer who did ‘swinging tunes’ he sent an emissary to ask around the clubs.
The message came back that no-one knew of such a creature, but there was this girl called Ella who didn’t have a phone number or a place to live, but who could be seen every day on a corner on 125th Street every day singing for pennies.
On seeing Ella, Webb’s initial reaction was to turn her down. But, in the absence of anyone prettier, he was persuaded to, at least, listen to her. That clinched it. Soon she was in the band, unpaid at first, before being invited to live with Webb and his wife who took care of her.
For the first time Ella could see some kind of future for herself. ‘It isn’t where you start, it’s where you’re going,’ would be her lifelong mantra. ‘I just kept on.’
Within six months she had made her first record, and was touring with the Chick Webb Band. Two years later she had recorded her first million selling hit, A-Tisket, A-Tasket, which was based on a nursery rhyme she’d known as a child. Many hits followed, not all of which were of the highest quality. She was a pop singer, picking up songs for kids to dance to, white as well as black. She just loved to entertain.
Inevitably there were relationships with musicians, one of which, her biographer jazz writer Stuart Nicholson believes led to a botched abortion that left her unable to have children, but she was always her own woman. She didn’t drink, do drugs or smoke, and would cover her face with her coat on the tour bus to protect her voice from the cigarette fumes of the guys in the band.
Chick Webb, who suffered from dwarfism and related problems, only achieved big radio success with his band when Ella joined him, but by 1939 his health was failing. While awaiting surgery, he told his saxophonist, ‘If anything happens to me…take care of Ella. Don’t let the guys mess up. Take care of Ella.’
A few days later Ella and the band, away on tour in Alabama, were puzzled when no-one applauded at the end of the set. Having driven all day to reach the venue, unlike the audience, they hadn’t heard on the radio that Web had died in hospital. Ella had lost more than a boss. Chick had become something of a father figure. At his funeral Ella sang ‘My Buddy’. She was still only 21.
As it turned out, the guys in the band didn’t mess up. But now they called themselves The Ella Fitzgerald Band. She had the name, although it’s unlikely that she made any of the big decisions other than what she sang.
The era of the big band was, however, coming to a close, and soon Ella began to embrace the be-bop revolution of the Forties. Influenced, like everyone at the time, by Louis Armstrong, she used her voice like a trumpet, going into extended scat riffs, in which she interpolated different numbers into the one she was singing – sometimes getting in bits of forty other songs.
It was extraordinary and jazz purists loved her, but, never a musical snob, she would record trivial pop songs, too, because she knew her audience liked them.
Pleasing the audience always came first, but she remained a lonely woman. Carelessly falling into an instant marriage with a hanger-on in 1941, she got it annulled on grounds of false pretence a few months later. As always, she moved on, never talking about the fellow in public again, sometimes affecting to hardly remember his name.
By 1947 she was married again, this time to Ray Brown, a talented double bass player with Oscar Peterson, and together they adopted the son of her half-sister, who worked for her as an assistant. They called the boy Ray Jnr. But although she and Brown remained friends for life, this marriage wouldn’t last either, as both remained committed to their own music careers
She loved children, setting up and financially supporting a charity for the orphaned and handicapped, but Ray Jnr would grow up to realise that Ella was a more dedicated entertainer than she was a mother, leaving him at home with carers while she went on tour.
She didn’t need the money. She just couldn’t help herself. Applause from anonymous audiences was her lifelong need. As the film illustrates, she never seemed so fully happy as when she was on stage and singing.
As a black entertainer she was used to the institutionalised insults of racial segregation when she sang in the Southern states of the USA, but in the Fifties, under the management of the enlightened Norman Granz all that was to change.
Considering her as a ‘national treasure’, Granz set about booking her for his Jazz at the Philharmonica concerts, for which he insisted there would be no racial segregation for the audiences at the concert halls or at the top hotels where the musicians stayed.
Fighting prejudice, however, wasn’t the only insistence Granz had. He loved music and determined that Ella’s voice would be used for music other than jazz and pop. ‘I had gotten to the point where I was only singing be-bop…’ Ella remembered. ‘So Norman produced Ella Sings the Cole Porter Song Book. It was a turning point in my life.’ And the album from which Family Favourites plucked Ev’ry Time You Say Goodbye.
As with Ella, Granz had perfect timing. The year was 1955 and the growth of the twelve inch LP was making it possible to make whole albums to preserve what he called the Great American Songbook. Other Ella albums dedicated to the work of the Gershwins and Duke Ellington would follow.
Ella suddenly had a whole new career, held in ever higher esteem by her peers in entertainment, not least Marilyn Monroe who was then at the fight of her fame. “I owe Marilyn a real debt,’ Ella would always remember. ‘It was because of her that I played the Mocambo…’ which was then big, classy Hollywood nightclub.
‘She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and that if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. The owner said “yes”, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again.’
From then on, for thirty more years Ella toured the world, including places in America where she would not previously have been welcome because of the colour of her skin. For a while, she bought a house in Denmark and lived there with a new young lover. But it didn’t last. As her son, Ray Jnr, from whom she was estranged for many years, says in the film, ‘she was always going somewhere else’.
Ella Fitzgerald worked for 48 weeks out of 52 for the best part of six decades with some of the biggest musical names of the twentieth century – Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, the Ink Spots, Duke Ellington, Andre Previn, Quincy Jones, Oscar Peterson and Count Basie. Yet she was always relieved when told that the audience had liked her. She never felt sure. On stage she seemed to shine with confidence. But those moments before she appeared were always tense.
Ella Fitzgerald’s start in life had been troubled, and her last years were to be cruel, when, in 1993, she had to have both legs amputated below the knee because of diabetes. She died at her home in Beverly Hills in 1996, aged 79, garlanded with awards, and leaving behind some of the best recordings of the best songs of our time.
Ray Connolly’s latest book, John Lennon -A Restless Life, is now on sale.