Ella Fitzgerald en 1928.
Ella Fitzgerald en 1928. © Getty  /  ABC Photo Archives

10 (Little) Things You Might Not Know About Ella Fitzgerald

Did you know that the First Lady of Jazz originally wanted to be a dancer? Or, that she performed in several movies and wrote a song in honour of Martin Luther King?

Ella Fitzgerald's story has all the major elements of the American dream (a young woman becomes an international star despite humble beginnings, thanks only to her talent, ambition and work ethic). Her career and story are not, however, without surprises. 

On stage, she was every bit the performer, giving magnetic performances and seducing with her humour. But once the concert was over, Fitzgerald usually became shy, she was also very uncomfortable discussing her private life. 

Her rare moments of openness and stories from her relatives have however allowed us to reconstruct her story. Here are 10 (little) things that you might not have known about the First lady of jazz...

She Started Her Career As A Dancer 

Ella Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia, but grew up in the small town of Yonkers, near New York. Like many of her friends, she dreamed of success and the stage, and grew up nurtured by the musical excitement of Harlem.

Her family did not have the means to pay for music lessons, but encouraged her to pursue the arts. She was told that she should  sing, but young Ella preferred the wild rhythms of tap dancing and ragtime, the dances that shook through the streets and clubs of Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Luck of the Short Straw 

Ella Fitzgerald grew up in the Great Depression and like many others saw the entertainment industry as way to escape unemployment and poverty. To satisfy this thirst for success and artistic expression, clubs and theatres organised a large number of amateur competitions. 

Ella Fitzgerald's career was launched by one of these competitions. She however only performed in one of these amateur nights for the first time because of a bet with her friends, where she'd drawn the short straw. 

Mocked During Her First Performance 

The audience at amateur competitions were not famous for being kind... When Ella Fitzgerald performed at the Harlem Opera House, the master of ceremonies greeted her by mocking her clothes ("but who dressed you like that, honey?").
The public expected to see yet another dance number, but Fitzgerald sang a song The Object Of My Affection instead. She had to fight the audience's boos for two verses but her perseverance has paid off, she won first prize that evening ($ 25), and found her vocation.

From that point on, the teenager dominated the Harlem scene, winning first prize at almost every competition, until she was noticed by Bardu Ali...

Adopted by Chick Webb

Bardu Ali worked at the Savoy Ballroom, the most famous Harlem dance club, where New Yorkers danced to the sound of Chick Webb, a drummer and emblematic New York musician, and his orchestra.

Chick Webb felt that most singers did not have enough swing, and it took a lot of convincing on the part of Bardu Ali for the master to meet Ella Fitzgerald. And yet, it only took two small a cappella couplets from Fitzgerald to convince Webb. He wanted to hire Ella immediately, but the teenager has recently lost her mother, and her orphan status meant she could not work. Webb and his wife therefore decided to adopt Ella Fitzgerald.

Chick Webb a enseigné à Ella Fitzgerald les bases de la musique jazz, et notamment le 'beat',  ce rythme particulier qui permet de swinguer.
Chick Webb a enseigné à Ella Fitzgerald les bases de la musique jazz, et notamment le 'beat', ce rythme particulier qui permet de swinguer. © Getty  /  Gilles Petard

A Brief Career As An Actress

Ella Fitzgerald made her professional debut as a singer with Chick Webb's orchestra. They also recorded her first albums together. In 1938, her song A-tisket, A-tasket topped the charts. 

This success opened the doors to Hollywood. She appeared in the several films, such as the comedy Ride 'Em Cowboy,in which she performed her hit A-tisket, A-tasket

But the glitz of Hollywood did not appel to Ella Fitzgerald, she decide to instead focus on the stage. 

Supported by Marilyn Monroe

Ella Fitzgerald's career took flight in the 1950s, after she met manager Norman Granz. However, as a fervent defender of Black rights, Ella Fitzgerald faced discrimination. 

In Los Angeles, for example, the director of the prestigious Mocambo Club refused to put Ella Fitzgerald on the bill because of her skin color. It was until superstar Marilyn Monroe intervened that he gave in. The actress picked up the phone and promised to sit on the front row of each performance.

Ella Fitzgerald et Marilyn Monroe en 1954, à Los Angeles.
Ella Fitzgerald et Marilyn Monroe en 1954, à Los Angeles.  © Getty

Scat, obviously, but not only…

With Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald popularised scat, a jazz vocal technique, which consists of singing without words, imitating the sound of instruments.

Ella Fitzgerald was a gifted improviser, but also had a rare, beautiful voice. She could cover three octaves, and effortlessly move from her chest voice (for the bass) to her head voice (for higher notes). She was a great performer of romantic songs and ballads.

First Black American Woman to Win a Grammy 

The Grammy Awards are the most prestigious awards in the American music industry. Ella Fitzgerald won two in 1958, becoming the first African-American woman to win a Grammy.

She won twelve throughout the course of her career, paving the way for Dinah Washington, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole and many others...

Dignified in the Face of Racial Discrimination 

Though her manager Norman Granz fought against prejudice, and the press lauded her as the First Lady of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald did not escape racial discrimination.  

She was sometimes shouted at after concerts for no good reason, held up at the airport and forced to give way to white people. She chose to face this racism discretely, with dignity. In 1968, she wrote and recorded a song for Pastor Martin Luther King, who had been murdered in April of the same year.

A Life Dedicated to the Stage 

Ella Fitzgerald has spent most of her life on tour, sacrificing much of her personal life. She said that her biggest regret was not having spent more time with her son, Ray Junior. 

Her loved ones say that when she left the stage, her first words were always about the audience, rather than her own performance. 

She continued to sing until the end of her life, appearing in concert and at events, before dying at the age of 79 on June 15, 1996, in Beverly Hills. 

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