Saturday, April 25, 2015

Happy Birthday, Ella Fitzgerald: The First Lady Of Song

Ella Fitzgerald in 1950                                          Photo: Carl Van Vechten

In 1934, Ella Jane Fitzgerald wanted to dance at an amateur night at the Apollo in Harlem, but was intimidated by other dancers and decided to sing instead. It was the beginning of a career that took her magnificent voice through the big bands, to jazz, bop, and the Great American Songbook. With a voice ranging from smoky to bright she put her signature on every note and sharp diction on every word. For people who like to immerse themselves in lyrics, Ella was unbeatable. And when she forgot those lyrics or just let the spontaneity flow, the scat singing was priceless.


I saw her perform once in an overcrowded and hot venue in Washington. After a few songs, the crowd didn't mind the environment. She had us wrapped in music for over two hours and left us wanting more after several encores. Everyone had a great time that night, especially Ella. Looking back on that concert, I realize how significant it was. Ella had turned 50 and completed her famous "Songbook" series a few years earlier. And though her peak years were coming to an end, what she had left exceeded the best of what most 20th century singers ever offered. She went on to perform another quarter of a century dazzling audiences everywhere. Ella passed away almost nineteen years ago, but she's still making her mark, living on through a huge discography and video record. In all, it is an immense, if not iconic 


Throughout her very public life, Ella Fitzgerald remained a private, if not shy, person. Were she receiving a birthday cake today, I can envision a broad, approving smile and nervous glances from squinting eyes behind those big bottle bottom glasses. She'd respond with a heart-felt "Thank you, thank you," and move into the comfort and safety of song.

Happy birthday, Ella. What a lady, that First Lady of Song. Thank you! Thank you!

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