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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,638

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This is the grave of Ella Fitzgerald.

Born in 1917 in Newport News, Virginia, Fitzgerald mostly grew up in New York. Her parents, both light-skinned African Americans, broke up, but then her mother got with a Portuguese immigrant and they moved north. I mention this fact around race to demonstrate that there’s a lot more consensual interracial relationships among the working class than we think in American history, but it also helped when the African American in this relationship had light skin and the white was someone considered of questionable whiteness at the time. Anyway, they moved to New York and it was relatively stable, but Fitzgerald’s mom died in car accident in 1932. She left home the next year to live with an aunt. There have long been rumors of abuse from the stepfather, but it is really hard to know.

What we can say is that after her mother died, Fitzgerald started spiraling out of control. She dropped out of school, got a job as a lookout for a bordello, and also worked as a numbers runner for gangsters. She got arrested eventually and spent the end of her youth in reformatories.

When Fitzgerald got out in 1933, she sang and danced on the streets of Harlem for tips and started showing at up amateur nights at the Apollo. Her singing very quickly got notice. The big whigs were a bit hesitant to sign her up because she was so wild, both in looks and behavior, though she was also painfully shy off the stage. On the other hand, she was so damn good at singing. But Chick Webb gave her a chance, though with a short lease on her behavior. Audiences loved her, so there we had it. Webb had himself a star singer.

It didn’t take Webb long to get Fitzgerald in the studio and they had hits with “(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini)” in 1936 and especially with “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” an old 19th century nursery rhyme that Fitzgerald herself reworked into a song in 1938.

In 1939, Webb died of Pott’s disease, better known as spinal tuberculosis. Fitzgerald just took over his band. Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra became of the great bands of the 1940s and she was probably the most powerful woman in jazz. But the band only lasted until 1942. Some of the musicians evidently balked about being led by her and the money wasn’t really there. That was always the problem of the big bands anyway.

So in 1942, Fitzgerald ended the band and started a solo career, working with small ensembles that worked for her voice. Recording for Decca, she began to work with various bands, including that of Dizzy Gillespie. The rise of bebop didn’t intimidate her. It just required a slight change and a new challenge. She managed that transition just fine, unlike a lot of singers. Among her huge hits in the mid-40s was the scat version of “Flying Home,” originally a hit by Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton, and “Oh, Lady Be Good!” in 1947, a song with a sizable history before this but which she did the definitive version.

Of course, Fitzgerald had to deal with racism for her whole life. Once, in 1954, she went to Australia for a tour. On the leg from Honolulu to Australia, she and the other Black people in first class from her band, which included the great pianist John Lewis, were kicked off the flight for being Black. They sued the living hell out of Pan-Am and according to Fitzgerald, the airline paid out the nose to settle.

Fitzgerald was big in these years, but it was really the mid-50s that transformed everything. She got a big gig at the Mocambo in Hollywood in 1955 and this got her tons of attention from media bigwigs. In 1956, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Songs of Cole Porter. Among other things, this was the album ever released on Verve Records and it went huge. In fact, she would record a bunch of similar albums over the next several years, as she became one of the all-time great interpreters of American song. Porter was blown away by Fitzgerald’s interpretations as well. When she did Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Songs of Duke Ellington in 1957, the great Duke joined her in the creation of it. These were classic albums. They received so much respect that other labels wanted to do similar deals with their great singers. That included Capitol, who wanted Frank Sinatra to do these albums. He flat refused, saying it was an insult to Fitzgerald to even consider it. That’s pretty high praise from a, how shall we say, prickly and difficult man.

Fitzgerald toured constantly when she wasn’t in the studio, often 40 or more weeks a year. That included a lot of foreign tours too. She briefly married a man in Norway she met there and bought a home there too, but the relationship went sour and she eventually decided to remain based in the U.S. In 1967, with the musical world in transition, MGM, which had bought Verve, did not renew her contract. But she still recorded consistently in these years, just with different labels. Later highlights include Jazz at Santa Monica Civic ’72, released in 1972, and Ella in London, from 1974. She had many, many live albums and the best are considered among the greatest live albums ever made.

I have long felt that Fitzgerald being somewhat marginalized in jazz history by the partisans of Billie Holiday had a lot to do with romanticizing the latter’s drug use and early death. This really comes through throughout Robert Gottlieb’s gigantic compendium Reading Jazz, where he reprints several debates around these singers and I was shocked to see how cutting people of the time could be toward Fitzgerald compared to Holiday. Now I will flat out admit I am not a big fan of jazz vocals, so I don’t have a huge dog in this hunt, but they both seem pretty great to me?

Fitzgerald occasionally appeared in the movies and also did a lot of commercials. The one I remember was for Memorex, the tape recording company, where she sings and the glass breaks but the tape runs and the announcer says “It is live, or is it Memorex?”

Fitzgerald had a lot of health problems as she aged. She was severely overweight and had the problems that this causes, particularly diabetes. She tried performing as long as she could, but that ended in 1990. In 1993, she lost her legs due to the diabetes. She died in 1996, at the age of 79.

There’s more to say about one of the all-time greats, but we can leave it for comments.

Ella Fitzgerald is buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, California.

If you would like this series to visit other jazz singers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Billie Holiday is in The Bronx and Sarah Vaughn is in Bloomfield, New Jersey. There’s been an expressed desire in comments for this series to cover more women. It’s hard–when you are dealing with a history of sexism dominating every American institution, a series about history is naturally going to include more men. The history of singers is definitely one area where we can cover a lot of women, so make it happen if you are so inclined. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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