Thursday Open Thread | Classics Week: Ella Fitzgerald

Today’s Classic is Ella Fitzgerald.

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Dubbed “The First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald was the most popular female jazz singer in the United States for more than half a century. In her lifetime, she won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million albums.

Her voice was flexible, wide-ranging, accurate and ageless. She could sing sultry ballads, sweet jazz and imitate every instrument in an orchestra. She worked with all the jazz greats, from Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Nat King Cole, to Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman. (Or rather, some might say all the jazz greats had the pleasure of working with Ella.)

She performed at top venues all over the world, and packed them to the hilt. Her audiences were as diverse as her vocal range. They were rich and poor, made up of all races, all religions and all nationalities. In fact, many of them had just one binding factor in common – they all loved her.
Humble but happy beginnings

Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Va. on April 25, 1917. Her father, William, and mother, Temperance (Tempie), parted ways shortly after her birth. Together, Tempie and Ella went to Yonkers, N.Y, where they eventually moved in with Tempie’s longtime boyfriend Joseph Da Silva. Ella’s half-sister, Frances, was born in 1923 and soon she began referring to Joe as her stepfather.

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To support the family, Joe dug ditches and was a part-time chauffeur, while Tempie worked at a laundromat and did some catering. Occasionally, Ella took on small jobs to contribute money as well. Perhaps naïve to the circumstances, Ella worked as a runner for local gamblers, picking up their bets and dropping off money.

Their apartment was in a mixed neighborhood, where Ella made friends easily. She considered herself more of a tomboy, and often joined in the neighborhood games of baseball. Sports aside, she enjoyed dancing and singing with her friends, and some evenings they would take the train into Harlem and watch various acts at the Apollo Theater.

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A rough patch

In 1932, Tempie died from serious injuries that she received in a car accident. Ella took the loss very hard. After staying with Joe for a short time, Tempie’s sister Virginia took Ella home. Shortly afterward Joe suffered a heart attack and died, and her little sister Frances joined them.

Unable to adjust to the new circumstances, Ella became increasingly unhappy and entered into a difficult period of her life. Her grades dropped dramatically, and she frequently skipped school. After getting into trouble with the police, she was taken into custody and sent to a reform school. Living there was even more unbearable, as she suffered beatings at the hands of her caretakers.

Eventually Ella escaped from the reformatory. The 15-year-old found herself broke and alone during the Great Depression, and strove to endure.

Never one to complain, Ella later reflected on her most difficult years with an appreciation for how they helped her to mature. She used the memories from these times to help gather emotions for performances, and felt she was more grateful for her success because she knew what it was like to struggle in life.

Ella Fitzgerald Copenhagen April 1970

“What’s she going to do?”

In 1934 Ella’s name was pulled in a weekly drawing at the Apollo and she won the opportunity to compete in Amateur Night. Ella went to the theater that night planning to dance, but when the frenzied Edwards Sisters closed the main show, Ella changed her mind. “They were the dancingest sisters around,” Ella said, and she felt her act would not compare.

Once on stage, faced with boos and murmurs of “What’s she going to do?” from the rowdy crowd, a scared and disheveled Ella made the last minute decision to sing. She asked the band to play Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy,” a song she knew well because Connee Boswell’s rendition of it was among Tempie’s favorites. Ella quickly quieted the audience, and by the song’s end they were demanding an encore. She obliged and sang the flip side of the Boswell Sister’s record, “The Object of My Affections.”

Off stage, and away from people she knew well, Ella was shy and reserved. She was self-conscious about her appearance, and for a while even doubted the extent of her abilities. On stage, however, Ella was surprised to find she had no fear. She felt at home in the spotlight.

“Once up there, I felt the acceptance and love from my audience,” Ella said. “I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life.”

In the band that night was saxophonist and arranger Benny Carter. Impressed with her natural talent, he began introducing Ella to people who could help launch her career. In the process he and Ella became lifelong friends, often working together.

Fueled by enthusiastic supporters, Ella began entering – and winning – every talent show she could find. In January 1935 she won the chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House. It was there that Ella first met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb. Although her voice impressed him, Chick had already hired male singer Charlie Linton for the band. He offered Ella the opportunity to test with his band when they played a dance at Yale University.

“If the kids like her,” Chick said, “she stays.”

Despite the tough crowd, Ella was a major success, and Chick hired her to travel with the band for $12.50 a week.
Jazzing things up

In mid 1936, Ella made her first recording. “Love and Kisses” was released under the Decca label, with moderate success. By this time she was performing with Chick’s band at the prestigious Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, often referred to as “The World’s Most Famous Ballroom.”

Shortly afterward, Ella began singing a rendition of the song, “(If You Can’t Sing It) You Have to Swing It.” During this time, the era of big swing bands was shifting, and the focus was turning more toward bebop. Ella played with the new style, often using her voice to take on the role of another horn in the band. “You Have to Swing It” was one of the first times she began experimenting with scat singing, and her improvisation and vocalization thrilled fans. Throughout her career, Ella would master scat singing, turning it into a form of art.

In 1938, at the age of 21, Ella recorded a playful version of the nursery rhyme, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” The album sold 1 million copies, hit number one, and stayed on the pop charts for 17 weeks. Suddenly, Ella Fitzgerald was famous.
Coming into her own

On June 16, 1939, Ella mourned the loss of her mentor Chick Webb. In his absence the band was renamed “Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band,” and she took on the overwhelming task of bandleader.

Perhaps in search of stability and protection, Ella married Benny Kornegay, a local dockworker who had been pursuing her. Upon learning that Kornegay had a criminal history, Ella realized that the relationship was a mistake and had the marriage annulled.

While on tour with Dizzy Gillespie’s band in 1946, Ella fell in love with bassist Ray Brown. The two were married and eventually adopted a son, whom they named Ray, Jr.

At the time, Ray was working for producer and manager Norman Granz on the “Jazz at the Philharmonic” tour. Norman saw that Ella had what it took to be an international star, and he convinced Ella to sign with him. It was the beginning of a lifelong business relationship and friendship.

Under Norman’s management, Ella joined the Philharmonic tour, worked with Louis Armstrong on several albums and began producing her infamous songbook series. From 1956-1964, she recorded covers of other musicians’ albums, including those by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart. The series was wildly popular, both with Ella’s fans and the artists she covered.

“I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them,” Ira Gershwin once remarked.

Ella also began appearing on television variety shows. She quickly became a favorite and frequent guest on numerous programs, including “The Bing Crosby Show,” “The Dinah Shore Show,” “The Frank Sinatra Show,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Tonight Show,” “The Nat King Cole Show,” “The Andy Willams Show” and “The Dean Martin Show.”

Due to a busy touring schedule, Ella and Ray were often away from home, straining the bond with their son. Ultimately, Ray Jr. and Ella reconnected and mended their relationship.

“All I can say is that she gave to me as much as she could,” Ray, Jr. later said, “and she loved me as much as she could.”

Unfortunately, busy work schedules also hurt Ray and Ella’s marriage. The two divorced in 1952, but remained good friends for the rest of their lives.
Overcoming discrimination

On the touring circuit it was well-known that Ella’s manager felt very strongly about civil rights and required equal treatment for his musicians, regardless of their color. Norman refused to accept any type of discrimination at hotels, restaurants or concert halls, even when they traveled to the Deep South.

Once, while in Dallas touring for the Philharmonic, a police squad irritated by Norman’s principles barged backstage to hassle the performers. They came into Ella’s dressing room, where band members Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jacquet were shooting dice, and arrested everyone.

“They took us down,” Ella later recalled, “and then when we got there, they had the nerve to ask for an autograph.”

Norman wasn’t the only one willing to stand up for Ella. She received support from numerous celebrity fans, including a zealous Marilyn Monroe.

“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Ella later said. “It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

Ella Fitzgerald

Worldwide recognition

Ella continued to work as hard as she had early on in her career, despite the ill effects on her health. She toured all over the world, sometimes performing two shows a day in cities hundreds of miles apart. In 1974, Ella spent a legendary two weeks performing in New York with Frank Sinatra and Count Basie. Still going strong five years later, she was inducted into the Down Beat magazine Hall of Fame, and received Kennedy Center Honors for her continuing contributions to the arts.

Outside of the arts, Ella had a deep concern for child welfare. Though this aspect of her life was rarely publicized, she frequently made generous donations to organizations for disadvantaged youths, and the continuation of these contributions was part of the driving force that prevented her from slowing down. Additionally, when Frances died, Ella felt she had the additional responsibilities of taking care of her sister’s family.

In 1987, United States President Ronald Reagan awarded Ella the National Medal of Arts. It was one of her most prized moments. France followed suit several years later, presenting her with their Commander of Arts and Letters award, while Yale, Dartmouth and several other universities bestowed Ella with honorary doctorates.

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End of an era

In September of 1986, Ella underwent quintuple coronary bypass surgery. Doctors also replaced a valve in her heart and diagnosed her with diabetes, which they blamed for her failing eyesight. The press carried rumors that she would never be able to sing again, but Ella proved them wrong. Despite protests by family and friends, including Norman, Ella returned to the stage and pushed on with an exhaustive schedule.

By the 1990s, Ella had recorded over 200 albums. In 1991, she gave her final concert at New York’s renowned Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she performed there.

As the effects from her diabetes worsened, 76-year-old Ella experienced severe circulatory problems and was forced to have both of her legs amputated below the knees. She never fully recovered from the surgery, and afterward, was rarely able to perform. During this time, Ella enjoyed sitting outside in her backyard, and spending time with Ray, Jr. and her granddaughter Alice.

“I just want to smell the air, listen to the birds and hear Alice laugh,” she said.

On June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald died in her Beverly Hills home. Hours later, signs of remembrance began to appear all over the world. A wreath of white flowers stood next to her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a marquee outside the Hollywood Bowl theater read, “Ella, we will miss you.”

After a private memorial service, traffic on the freeway was stopped to let her funeral procession pass through. She was laid to rest in the “Sanctuary of the Bells” section of the Sunset Mission Mausoleum at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, Calif.


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45 Responses to Thursday Open Thread | Classics Week: Ella Fitzgerald

  1. TyrenM says:

    Good Evening 3chics. Glad I visited today. Ms. Ella was a favorite of my grandmother’s. She always sang to us “A tiskit a tasket” and “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.” Smiling while remembering.

  2. Yahtc says:

    This is so upsetting. This did not need to happen…….the banks started the economic crisis that caused the crash 2008 with their sleazy mortgage policies, etc.:

    THURSDAY, AUG 1, 2013 01:16 PM EDT
    “Wall Street decimates black America
    For families in low-income communities, the nightmarish effects of the foreclosure crisis are just beginning”

  3. rikyrah says:

    On Don Lemon, Race and “Respectability”

    • Yahtc says:

      Thanks for posting this great video, rikyrah.

      Partial transcript:

      Respectability politics–

      They’re based upon handing out advice that is valid in the abstract but totally useless in context.

      Advice that serves not to help another person with their problems, but instead to implicitly blame that person for their problems so that you can feel better about seeing them have problems. That is the function of respectability politics.

      Its function is not to help those young Black men we walk by on the street. Its function is to help us mollify our shame that we project on those young Black men when we walk by them on the street.

      Our shame…our petty, superficial shame….that far too often comes from us in tonalizing the same racism that’s really causing their problem.

      That is the function of respectability politics.

    • Ametia says:

      LOL This video was great! Love this dude.

  4. Yahtc says:

    This was what I found interesting about the gz being stopped for speeding in Texas:

    Could it be that gz always had his gun in his glove compartment when he drove his car in Sanford with the clip not attached? What if this indeed was his practice?

    That is, to wear his holster empty while driving and then only put the gun in his holster when he exited his car.

    This would mean that gz CONSCIOUSLY grabbed his gun and then his clip from the glove compartment as he exited his vehicle to chase Trayvon.

    If this were the case, the click clack click and rap rap rap sounds before and after he said his last name to the dispatcher really could have been gz arming his gun.
    If so, gz was hunting Trayvon down knowingly with his gun.

    Very incriminating!

    We know that gz had his clip separated from his gun in Texas.
    Here is what the Texas police officer says to gz:
    Timestamp 01:41 of video at this link:

    Just take it easy. Go ahead and shut your glove compartment.
Don’t load your firearm, okay?

    • Yahtc says:

      Even though the questioning in interview #3 on February 29, 2013 was about where gz was as Serino played back timestamp 2:48 to 4:03 of the NEN call, gz volunteers that the noises before and after he says “Zimmerman” the reason for those click clacking sounds:

      Serino: OK.
(plays tape 2:28 to 2:41)
Serino: OK, where you at now?

      Zimmerman: I think on Retreat View Circle.

      Serino: OK. Is that 2:41?
(plays tape 2:41 to 2:47)
Serino: OK, you’re walking back to your car?
Zimmerman: Yes, sir,
(plays tape 2:48 to 4:03 )
Zimmerman: I’m thumping the damn flashlight as I was walking through.
(call ends)

  5. Ametia says:

    Ariel Castro sentenced to life in prison without parole

    At the sentencing, one of the three women held captive and brutalized for years in Castro’s Cleveland home told a spellbound courtroom that she would overcome all that has happened to her.

    “I spent 11 years in hell,” Michelle Knight told Castro. “Now, your hell is just beginning.”
    Read more at:

  6. rikyrah says:

    Charter school scandal leads to resignation
    By Steve Benen

    Thu Aug 1, 2013 11:20 AM EDT

    We talked on Tuesday about a rather shocking scandal out of Indiana, where the former schools chief Tony Bennett allegedly manipulated state standards to boost a charter school operated by a major Republican donor — a donor who happened to contribute $130,000 to Bennett directly.

    Bennett was rejected by Indiana voters last year — before anyone was aware of the scandal — and was recruited to join Gov. Rick Scott’s (R) team in Florida. But given the severity of the allegations, and the credibility of the evidence, it appears Bennett has no choice but to quit.

    Tony Bennett is expected to resign Thursday as Florida education commissioner following two days of raging controversy over a school grading controversy in his home state of Indiana.

    Bennett, who came to Florida from the Hoosier State last January, has faced mounting calls for his resignation in the wake of revelations, first reported by The Associated Press, that he interceded on behalf of an Indiana charter school run by a prominent Republican Party donor.

    His resignation would be a major setback for Gov. Rick Scott and state education leaders, who are working to overhaul Florida’s system of school accountability and assessment in compliance with the national Common Core standards.

  7. rikyrah says:

    A debt Cuccinelli will struggle to pay
    By Steve Benen

    Thu Aug 1, 2013 12:40 PM EDT

    In Virginia, scandal-plagued Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) is scurrying to give back the luxurious gifts he received from Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams, but the governor is not the only Republican caught up in this controversy. State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R), who hopes to replace McDonnell, is involved, too.

    So, in light of this week’s developments, is there any chance the far-right candidate might follow McDonnell’s lead? Apparently not.

    Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli says he’s glad Gov. Bob McDonnell is returning all the gifts he received from a major political donor. But he has no plans to repay the more than $18,000 in gifts he received from the same benefactor.

    Cuccinelli told reporters Wednesday that Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams didn’t give him the kind of gifts that can be returned. Among the gifts from Williams listed in Cuccinelli’s financial disclosure statements are a $1,500 catered Thanksgiving dinner, private jet trips and vacation lodging. Cuccinelli said, “There are some bells you can’t unring.

    Perhaps. But ordinarily under circumstances like these, the politician interested in avoiding the appearance of impropriety can do more than nothing. Williams gave Cuccinelli private jet trips? Cuccinelli could determine the value of the trip and pay the benefactor back. Williams gave him vacation lodging? Cuccinelli could write a check for a comparable amount, and perhaps donate it to charity.

  8. rikyrah says:

    Obama gives Dems marching orders
    By Alexander Bolton – 08/01/13 05:00 AM ET

    President Obama put Republicans on notice Wednesday that he will reject any fiscal deal that only spares the Pentagon from budget cuts.

    Seeking party unity, Obama met with congressional Democrats in both chambers to prepare them for the budget battle that will greet them in the fall.

    His message was unequivocal: no negotiating with Republicans on a debt-ceiling increase and no reductions in the sequester cuts to defense unless domestic programs are spared as well.

    • rikyrah says:

      loved this comment over at BooMan about this topic:

      Re: Serious Question

      I think he’s serious and that he’s been setting up what is needed to repeal the sequester. The economy is getting better, there is more revenue,consumers are more hopeful. He’s on the road giving people the message that he’s not running for office, he just wants to help the middle class. He’s giving details about how that can happen and that the GOP is stopping it. The GOP in the Senate is starting to splinter and he has senators that are working with him now. He’s held out his hand and offered to work with him all along and they know it. He’s taken the action that he could to get his measures through with all their obstruction.

      The timing of his August speeches and OFA action is impeccable. The GOP will come back and no matter how much they stir up their base the rest of the country is taking notice. In the GOP splinter they are already talking about a shut down being stupid, let alone after a month of the President’s speeches and the awareness from action. And they will be facing 2014 elections rushing at them. Big money and business will pressure the GOP to act responsibly. And the House anyway has drawn such a stupid, intractable line in the sand that there is no way that could happen. Something’s gotta give and the President saying it won’t be him just puts more pressure. Again the great timing, before GOP goes home to hear from constituents which they don’t like. There’s been a lot of problems during their town halls before. Now there will be more attention on them than ever.

      I watched the President’s Chattanooga speech and the interviews afterward. GOP politicians were their usual stupid selves, but most of the interviewees I saw had stars in their eyes about jobs. he makes sense when he talks.

      The time is right.

      by Suzanne on Thu Aug 1st, 2013 at 12:16:46 PM EST

  9. Michelle Knight: “After 11 years, I’m finally being heard.”

    I can’t stop crying. **weeping**

  10. Yahtc says:

    This is a link to one of my favorite sites on Freedom Summer in Mississippi. If you click and search around, you can even find all the memos taken down by the volunteers answering the phones. (A few years ago, I printed out those memos, and they fill 2 notebooks.)

  11. Ametia says:

    Judge to serve 28 years after making $2 million for sending black children to jail

    Judge Mark A. Ciavarella, 63, serves as an example of why the private prison industry can do more harm than good. Ciavarella worked alongside owners of private juvenile facilities to ensure that the prison remained occupied. The more prisoners equated to more profits for the owners of the prison.

    As a result, Ciavarella would sentence offenders with small offenses to months and, at times, years behind bars. He once sentenced a teen to three months in jail for creating a MySpace page that mocked her school’s assistant principal. Ciavarella also sentenced another teen to 90 days in jail after a simple schoolyard fight.

    But after a federal investigation, it was discovered that Ciavarella and his colleague, Judge Michael Conahan, received more than $2.6 million from privately run youth centers owned by PA Child Care. In 2011, Ciavarella was convicted of racketeering and sentenced to 28 years in prison. He was also forced to pay $1 million in restitution.

    Once Ciavarella was convicted, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court tossed out 4,000 convictions issued by the judge.

    Ciavarella appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia to have his 28-year sentence overturned. On July 25, the court denied his request.

    Ciavarella’s attorneys may attempt to appeal the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

    • Yahtc says:

      He is a low down criminal.
      He should have more than 28 years in prison. They should add up the time of the sentences he handed down and that should be the length of his prison time.

  12. Yahtc says:

    I’m lovin’ listening to Ella!

    I am glad you are adding additional songs of hers.

    How does she ever do that great jazz scat singing?!

    hey whee uh do wah…..I can’t even hear it fast enough to transcribe it let alone sing it :)

  13. Ametia says:

    This one’s for you, Rikyrah:

    AIR FORCE ONE-8010298173_0a803a8b5d_h
    President Barack Obama disembarks Air Force One upon his arrival at Mansfield Air National Guard Base in Mansfield, Ohio, Aug. 1, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

  14. Ella!!!!!!!!!!!!

  15. Ametia says:

    Senate confirms ATF director for first time since 2006
    By Sari Horwitz,

    The Senate on Wednesday confirmed a director to head the agency that regulates firearms and investigates gun and explosives crimes, ending an extraordinary seven-year run in which the agency has been without a permanent, full-time leader.

    By confirming B. Todd Jones, the U.S. attorney for Minnesota and the acting part-time director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives by a vote of 53 to 42, Congress provided the Obama administration with a rare victory in its efforts to advance sweeping gun proposals. None of President Obama’s other legislative initiatives survived the congressional debate that followed the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December.

    The National Rifle Association has effectively blocked past nominees to head ATF. But NRA lobbyist Jim Baker said this week that the organization was not going to take a position on Jones and was not using the vote on his nomination to “score” senators, as the organization does with some other votes. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the group that represents firearms manufacturers, also threw its support behind Jones this week.

  16. Ametia says:

    Queen Ella! Good Morning, Everyone. :-))

  17. mhasegawa says:

    Thank you for this biography. She was my father’s favorite – and also one of mine.

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