The effect was sensational, with the audience rising to their feet to applaud
the 16-year-old. She obliged with an encore, singing ‘The Object of my
Affection’, a song featured by Fitzgerald’s favourite singer, Connee
Boswell, who was part of the New Orleans white vocal trio, The Boswell
Fitzgerald easily won the contest and the prize money of 25 dollars. From that
moment, she resolved to be a singer.
In March 1935, she did a few gigs with Tiny Bradshaw’s Orchestra. Then, to
show that her contest win was no fluke, she won another competition at the
world famous Apollo Theatre. The master of ceremonies was Bardu Ali, a
talent scout for the bandleader and drummer Webb (1905-1939). Webb was a
great favourite at New York’s Savoy Ballroom. He had to contend with
appalling physical problems, which had stunted his growth and hunched his
spine. Nevertheless, he became one of the leading drummers of the swing era.
Ella Fitzgerald VERVE RECORDS
Bardu Ali urged Webb to sign the young female singer but Webb was not sure he
needed another girl singer to join his then vocalist Charlie Linton. Webb’s
wife Sally and agent Moe Galewski urged him to reconsider and he signed
Fitzgerald. They later legally adopted Fitzgerald, who was still a teenager.
Life with Webb was full of do’s and dont’s. He initially kept Fitzgerald from
performing slow numbers but happily soon rescinded the ban. Webb was strict
with her, though. He barred her from dating any of the band’s musicians (and
told the band not to try to date her) but the first to ignore this was alto
saxophone player Louis Jordan (later to enjoy such success with his own
Tympany Five). Jordan’s scheme was to woo Fitzgerald into joining his own
band but a falling-out scuppered the plan. Jordan gave her the gift of a
manicure set, which she threw back at him. They slapped each other in the
face. Webb publicly reprimanded them both. Fitzgerald and Jordan made up and
became close friends, sharing many duets and Jordan even recorded her
composition ‘Oh Boy, I’m in the Groove’.
One of Webb’s first promises had been to feature Fitzgerald on record. He got
her to sing two medium-paced love songs ‘I’ll Chase the Blues Away’ and
‘Love and Kisses’. Both were recorded on June 12, 1935, and both are on the
marvellous new 10-disc box set Ella Fitzgerald: The Voice of Jazz, issued by
Verve Records. The 1935 combination of the A and B side was not a contender
for top honours but it showed Fitzgerald to be a very promising vocalist
whose intonation, diction and rhythmic phrasing were first class. She no
longer sounded nervous.
Pianist Teddy Wilson must have heard the recording, because he asked to have
Fitzgerald (working as a freelancer) on his session of March 1936. In those
days, Fitzgerald did not make any effort to keep up with fashion in the way
she dressed. Trumpeter Frank Newton was not impressed by her outfit and
said, in a stage whisper to trombonist Benny Marton, "Good God, what
have they sent us today?" He changed his attitude the moment she
started to sing. Gradually, as she earned more money and with advice from
Sally Webb, she became more glamorous.
In the Thirties, true success was gained only by having hit records so
Fitzgerald and her bandleader were always listening for possible chart
contenders. For a while, it seemed the answer might be for her to record
with vocal singing groups such as the Mills Brothers, The Ink Spots and the
Delta Rhythm Boys. Some fine music was recorded with these groups but the
hook that brings a real chart winner was missing.
When the band were playing a residency in Boston in 1938, the principal
arranger, Van Alexander, heard Fitzgerald picking out a catchy melody on the
piano. It was an old nursery rhyme (later traced back to 1879) called ‘A-tisket,
A-tisket’, which has a strong tune and charming lyrics. Alexander spotted
the commercial possibilities and wrote a neat arrangement. The subsequent
recording, in May 1938, climbed swiftly to the top of the Billboard hit
parade and stayed there for 19 weeks.
Fitzgerald had already been called "the nation’s number one stylist"
and now she was billed as "Ella – the first lady of song", a
title that produced a snort from Billie Holiday. The two divas did not
Moe Gale decided it would be wise to give Fitzgerald top billing above Webb,
who reluctantly agreed. Bookings came flooding in and offers came from the
West Coast, which led to Fitzgerald appearing at the Californian Civic
Auditorium. Bing Crosby, a local resident, decided he would join a
standing-room-only audience to hear what she was all about. He emerged from
the concert a lifelong fan and later said: "Man, woman and child, Ella
is the greatest of them all".
Peggy Lee was just as effusive, describing her as "the greatest jazz
singer of our time. The standard by which each of us is measured".
Everything changed with a decline in Chick Webb’s health and, following major
surgery, he died in his home city of Baltimore on June 16, 1939. After his
death, many remarked on his Jekyl and Hyde personality, although Van
Alexander, now 98, said: "Chick Webb was a pussy cat, very likable. A
very nice guy. I lost a boss, a friend and a real nice guy." It is
estimated that 40,000 people lined the streets on the day of his funeral. By
prior agreement, Fitzgerald took over leading the band, assisted by tenor
saxophonist Ted McRae.
Fitzgerald was keen on bebop (the hip term of the time for modern jazz) and
she was encouraged to develop her scat singing by Dizzy Gillespie, who was
nicknamed ‘The High Priest of Bop’. The scat he favoured was a wordless
vocal style consisting of up-tempo improvised phrases that matched the
accompanying chord sequences.
She worked with Gillespie in 1943 and again on a six-week tour in 1947, all
the while listening to his advice. She was soon including at least one scat
number in each show, much to the audience’s delight. ‘Oh Lady Be Good’ was a
favourite vehicle for the scat treatment and the style gradually became more
prevalent on numbers such as ‘How High the Moon’ and ‘Mack the Knife’. After
her epic version of that song was recorded in Berlin, it became a regular
performance tune for Fitzgerald.
Her tour with Gillespie brought her into regular contact with his bass player,
Ray Brown. Although Brown was nine years younger than Fitzgerald, a romance
developed and they were married in late 1947. Two years later, she adopted
Ray Brown Junior. An earlier marriage in the Forties to Benjamin Kornegay (a
dancer and photographer of ill repute) had been quickly annulled.
Fitzgerald had carried on working and managing Webb’s band and although the
musicians did not dislike Fitzgerald, they had to adjust to the fact that
someone who had recently played black-jack with them was now the boss. But
once the novelty of leading a band wore off, Fitzgerald tired of hearing the
musicians’ demands for more money (they were on $67.50 a week) and pleading
for more space for solo features.
What she needed was a good manager and she eventually found that in Norman
Granz, a Californian who was a year younger than Fitzgerald. Granz was to
help make her an artist of international renown. Granz was a great believer
in racial equality and he would not allow any of his concerts to be
segregated. He loved jazz and had begun promoting in the summer of 1944. The
billing ‘Jazz at the Philharmonic’, which was always shortened to JATP, was
a unit that featured the very best of jazz musicians, all of them prepared
to play tours that took them all over the world.
Granz became Fitzgerald’s manager in 1954 (she had previously been part of his
JATP line-ups) and he was also the manager of Oscar Peterson. Granz
continued these roles even after he moved to Switzerland in 1959. He
continued to be present at most of her engagements worldwide, including when
she performed ‘An Ella Night’ at the Hollywood Bowl, attended by 22,000
people. Her travelling companion in this period was her cousin Georgiana
Henry, who helped her conquer a fear of flying.
Even then, much of her time was spent looking for hits. Some contenders were
well-formed but frivolous (‘I want the Waiter with the Water’), or quaint
(‘The Muffin Man’) but once she was a star, various music publishers offered
good songs. When I first chatted with her during the Sixties, she told me
that she always carried a little notebook when she went to the cinema so she
could jot down the name of a featured song she liked. Sometimes finding a
good song was the result of pure luck. Once, during a visit to the
hairdresser, she heard an assistant singing an attractive calypso theme,
‘Stone Cold Dead in the Market (He Had It Coming)’. That sough-after single
had dropped into Fitzgerald’s lap.
Her partner on that recording was Louis Jordan but it was her partnership with
another Louis that won universal praise. Louis Armstrong had long been one
of her favourites and to record with him was a supreme pleasure, not least
because of his part in originating scat singing back in 1926. Their duets
(three albums in all) radiate mutual admiration. Their voices, though
different in timbre, combine beautifully, with the bonus being the seasoning
provided by Armstrong’s one-in-a-billion trumpet tone.
Although Fitzgerald could pay homage to Armstrong’s gravely-sounding scat, she
sometimes displayed a more rhapsodic, gentler style, as on ‘In a Sentimental
Mood’ with guitarist Barney Kessel. Fitzgerald was always keen to play with
jazz musicians and in 1960 her tours of Europe and South America were
enhanced by the presence of guitarist Jim Hall.
Phil Stern’s photograph of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong VERVE
Although there were a number of good songs within the hundred or so sides that
Ella made for Decca during the years 1934-1955, her most important
recordings from any era were the Songbook series (eight in all),
highlighting the work of America’s leading popular composers.
The scope of the selections has never been equalled and she is on top form
throughout. It began in 1956 with Cole Porter (Buddy Bregman was the
arranger) and went on to include Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington,
Rodgers and Hart, Harold Arlen, George and Ira Gershwin and Johnny Mercer.
The only anxious moments came in the recordings with Duke Ellington.
Fitzgerald liked to be familiar with the outlines of her accompaniment so
she could run through them before the first take. But Ellington’s habit was
to leave everything until the last minute. With Fitzgerald, he entered the
studio with his ideas mapped out on a large envelope, and that was all he
carried. She was reduced to tears. Professional to the end, she paid full
homage to his compositions and, in truth, ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’ is
one of her very finest recordings.
But it was to be some months before they worked together again, although
Ellington did write a 16-minute song called ‘Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald’.
Fitzgerald said: "All those Songbooks helped me get into spots I had
never been able to play before".
Her success was now resounding. Fitzgerald was on numerous ‘woman of the year’
listings and was immensely proud to receive a doctorate of music from Yale
University. She won Down Beat polls time and time again and won 13 Grammy
awards (as well as The Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award and
NAACP Award for lifetime achievement). She was invited to the White House by
three presidents. One place she was never particularly feted, however, was
Hollywood. She had sung briefly in the 1942 Abbott and Costello film Ride
‘Em Cowboy and had a cameo in ‘Hard Hearted Hannah’ and ‘Pete Kelly’s Blues’
along with a handful of songs in ‘Let No Man Write my Epitaph’ but overall,
her movie achievements were scarce.
She was flattered when Pablo Picasso (a friend of the art-collector Granz) did
a drawing of her but overall, despite all the adulation, nothing turned her
head. Late in life, she said: "I’m just a ballad singer" and she
always gave audiences full value with long concerts and lengthy encores
(there were always cries for ‘Manhattan’). This hard-working approach, even
into her late sixties, affected her health and she grew increasingly
disenchanted with the business side of stardom: contracts, travel
arrangements and press interviews. Her eyes had been a problem for years and
In London, during the Sixties, I heard her scream with pain as a
photographer took a flash-lit picture holding his camera very close to her
face. In 1971 she had an operation to have cataracts removed and always wore
A new avenue of work opened in 1973 when she began appearing with symphony
orchestras, featuring with 40 different orchestras over the next two years.
She worked with a number of conductors and arrangers, the most regular of
whom was Nelson Riddle. Together, they recorded almost 150 songs and enjoyed
a close friendship. Count Basie was also a regular accompanist and friend.
Two younger musicians who recorded acclaimed duets with Fitzgerald were
pianist Ellis Larkins and guitarist Joe Pass, who made several fine albums
Frank Sinatra, Basie and Fitzgerald teamed up temporarily in September 1975 to
appear for two weeks at the Uris Theatre, New York. The booking grossed a
million dollars and enjoyed similar success in Las Vegas.
She continued working during the late Seventies and early Eighties and made a
trip to London in July 1984 to appear in cabaret at the Grosvenor Hotel,
accompanied by Paul Smith on piano. He had spent nearly 30 years with her
band. Another long-term member of her unit was road-manager Pete Cavello.
She was having difficulty in walking and when I saw her backstage she was
hobbling around. But when she stepped on to the stage, she appeared to be
the same young girl who had once tap-danced in New York. She sang
magnificently, watched admiringly by Granz.
Health-wise there were no miracles and because of the complications of
diabetes, she had to have a toe removed, followed later by a leg amputation.
She spent four months recuperating at her Beverly Hills home, where she
heard the dreaded news that she would have to have a second leg amputated.
Fitzgerald stayed at home for most of her remaining years. Numerous fans sent
sympathetic messages and friends from the world of music visited her and
although her reminiscences were sometimes vague, most found her still lucid
Fitzgerald died on June 15, 1996, aged 79, and there was not a single
disparaging comment in even the most detailed obituaries. Ella has left us a
treasury of vocal performances of a standard that has never been equalled
and I believe she is the greatest singer of popular music who ever lived.
Chilton, a Grammy-winning jazz writer, has written biographies of Louis
Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Roy
Eldridge, Louis Jordan and Henry Allen, as well as The Who’s Who Of
Jazz. He was a trumpet player and leader of the Feetwarmers, who toured and
recorded with George
Melly for more than three decades.
10-disc box set Ella Fitzgerald: The Voice of Jazz is out on Verve
Records/Universal Music Enterprises.