Tuesday, April 25, 2017

First Lady Of Song, Ella Fitzgerald: Her Centennial Year

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the "First Lady of Song," the jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, 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 let the spontaneity flow, the scat singing was priceless. 

The First Lady of Song in 1960                             Erling Mandelmann

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 sixteen 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 legacy.

Fitzgerald and President Reagan at the White House in October 1981

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.

Here she is in 1964 performing two Johnny Mercer jazz standards for the last of the Songbook albums - eight in all - produced by Norman Grantz and released over an eight year period. The series has never been out of print and remains a hot seller after more than fifty years:

In almost sixty years, few recordings in vocal jazz can approach the significance and near-perfection of Fitzgerald's interpretation of the Great American Songbook. To me, nothing since has quite matched it and I doubt anything in the future will without some extraordinary changes within the music industry and jazz itself. 

Though she left us in 1996, Ella simply "is." I can only imagine the look on the faces of the heavenly hosts when she waltzed through those pearly gates scat singing all the way. So here's a happy centennial birthday wish going up to the First Lady of Song. Simply incomparable. Maybe too marvelous for words.  


Photos and Illustrations:
Mandelmann photo, commons.wikimedia.org
White House, Item C4495-9A, President Reagan with Ella Fitzgerald after her performance for King Juan Carlos I of Spain in the east room, 10/13/81; Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, Simi Valley, California.


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