Monday, 6 April 2015
F is for Fitzgerald
The sudden death of her mother in 1932 and abuse by her stepfather caused her to end up in a series of state institutions, from which she repeatedly escaped before eventually making a home for herself in New York City. She made her singing debut in 1934 at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and subsequently performed with a variety of bands until she was hired by bandleader Chick Webb. She recorded several songs with him, then became the bandleader herself upon Chick's death in 1939. Nearly 150 songs were attributed to her and her Famous Orchestra before it broke up in 1942.
Now a solo artist, she developed her vocal style in response to the changes in jazz music by integrating bebop and scat singing into her repertoire. She was described by the New York Times as being "dazzlingly inventive". An engagement at the Mocambo nightclub in Hollywood in 1955 was made possible by Marilyn Monroe, and this would be a pivotal event in her career as it enabled her to perform for a non-jazz audience. Her recordings of The Cole Porter Songbook and The Duke Ellington Songbook became her most commercially successful works.
By the 1960s she was touring at both national and international levels, making guest appearances on television shows, and even gaining cameo roles in a few movies. The busy schedule took a toll on her health however, and by the mid 1970s her voice was showing the strain and she chose to go into semi-retirement. It has been said that one of her unrealized ambitions was a studio album with Frank Sinatra; both had complex contractual obligations that prevented them from doing it.
Fitzgerald died in 1996 of complications from diabetes, well-loved and fulfilled. She is honoured by a statue in Yonkers where she grew up, and archival material from her career is preserved at the Smithsonian Institute.
Here Ella performs "Summertime" in a 1968 performance in Berlin.
Summertime (from Porgy and Bess)