Ella Fitzgerald, also known as the “Queen of Jazz” or “Lady Ella”, was born April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia. Only a few years later her mother would leave Ella’s father and move to Yonkers, New York with her new partner Joseph Da Silva. She developed her impeccable tone and jazz influence by listening to artists like Bing Crosby, The Boswell Sisters, and Louis Armstrong (whom she would later work with). She was recognized for her diction and scat singing. She tackled many obstacles in her life to obtain the status that she had during her career.
After her mother died when she was only 15, she lived with Joseph, and her younger sister Frances. It was speculated that her stepfather was abusive towards her and her sister. These traumatic experiences led her to criminal activity. She was a “runner” for gamblers in the Mafia which didn’t last long. Once she was caught, she was put in the Colored Orphans Asylum. Ella escaped and was homeless during one of the worst financial crises in American History, The Great Depression.
This did not stop her ambitious spirit. She began singing on the streets of Harlem and taking what ever she could get. She soon performed at Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater. She originally planned to dance but was intimidated by a dancing duo in matching costumes, so she sang instead. She won the prize that included $25 and the opportunity to perform at the theater for a week but she wasn’t invited back because of her messy look. None the less she continued to perform and was invited to the Harlem Opera House, where she was introduced to Chick Webb, a bandleader who was looking for a female singer. He was also put off by her unkempt look but immediately changed his mind once he heard her sing.
Together, they created “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” in 1938, which was seen as the hit that really started her career. This album would go on to sell one million copies. When Webb died she took over the group and changed the name to Ella and her Famous Orchestra.
It’s amazing to read a story that can be so closely related to what we see every day living in New York. Street performers at corners, subway platforms, Times Square, etc., looking for a big break. Her unique sound set her apart from the jazz singers of her time and her life experience shaped her character on and off the stage.