I fell in love with Ella Fitzgerald in 1980. I had listened to her for years on television, on the radio and in the occasional movie that featured her. Of course, she was an great singer, but often seemed to me, old fashion. For example, her breakout hit, which occurred when she was a still teenager, and I was not yet born, was in 1938, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”
I had never owned any of her records despite my being the editor of Black Creation: The Quarterly of Black Arts and Letters, Soul, the magazine of black music, and Neworld: The Multi-Cultural Magazine of the Arts.
However, that changed when I received two CD sets from a record company that wanted me to review them in Neworld Magazine. They were The George and Ira Gershwin Songbook, and The Cole Porter Songbook. In a few shorts months after receiving them, hating LA so much that I turned and gave it the finger as I rode the Greyhound bus out of town, I packed up everything I owned, including the unopened CD’s, closed my beloved magazine down, and moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
However, I was still teaching a Magazine Making and Publishing course at USC, one night a week, the first such magazine course of its kind on the West Coast. I would take the Greyhound in the morning and take the redeye bus at night, right after my class was over.
To deal with the tedium of sitting on a bus for so many hours, for some reason, I first brought along the Gershwin songbook, plugged in my earphones, and soon fell deeply in love with such a marvelous voice.
Now I knew why Downbeat, the renown jazz magazine, year after year, named her the number one jazz singer in the world.
Ella, like many black singers born at the time, was born in 1918 in Newport News, Virginia, and was the product of a broken home of common-law parents.
Her mother Tempie and her father William, soon separated, and Tempie moved the family to Yonkers, in Westchester County, New York. Mother and daughter moved in with Tempie’s Portuguese lover, Joseph Da Silva, often referred to as Ella’s stepfather. Ella always said nice things about him to the press, but author Geoffrey Mark uncovers the sex abuse that he inflicted on her when she was a child.
They lived in an ethnically mixed area of Italians, Spanish and blacks. Her mother died at the age of 38. The reason for her early death is murky, and afterwards things because rough for the young Ella.
Writes Mark, “Ella’s aspirations for Yonkers success were ended when her hardworking mother died in 1932. The next two years were perhaps Ella’s most difficult. Joe Da Silva turned increasingly to alcohol and increasingly turned his attention to young Ella. Whether he was simply comforting himself from grief, taking out his anger and grief on the youngster, or actually saw her as a sex object, the man was sexually abusing her.”
Two years later Ella left his house and moved in with her mother’s sister’s home on 145th Street in Harlem. That didn’t work out well, and she tried to run away. She was caught by the authorities and sent to the New York State Training School for Girls.
Writes Mark, “It boggles the mind that this Dickensian institution had Ella Fitzgerald in their midst but would not allow her to sing in the choir. It was restricted to white girls only.”
She was asked to come back after she became famous, but “turned them down in colorful language.”
She finally fled from the Institution and became semi-homeless on the streets of Harlem, sleeping where ever she could, hanging out with “Ladies of the Night” and becoming a number runner at the height of the Great Depression. But she found out that she could sing.
As almost always for blacks, it started in the church, in this case the Bethany African Methodist Episcopal Church of Harlem.
At this time black Harlem had three major assets: music, dance and singing. One white wag even noted, “The Negro is in trouble again, and yet again, trying to sing his way out of it.”
Well, Ella did manage to sing her way out of harm’s way big time. Writes Mark, “The Apollo Theatre had a policy of having an amateur night, a performance of new talent after the ‘real’ show was over. The concept of having these showcases began at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre on 132nd in 1933. The winner received a prize of a trophy, cash, or perhaps a professional booking.”
In January 1934, Ella’s life changed forever. She got her shot at the Apollo amateur night and sang a song named, “Judy.” When she finished, the often-unruly crowd quieted, and “you could hear a rat piss on cotton,” someone wrote.
She then sang “Believe It Beloved”
Said Mark, “Ella brought the house down, winning first prize, and a reportedly $25.00. Had she not won the contest, Ella would have never pursued a career as a vocalist. She called the evening, ‘the turning point of my life. Once up there, I felt the acceptance and love from the audience—I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life.’”
And she did just that with successes almost unparallel in American history. She died on June 18, 1996, at age 78, just a few years after her last performance.
Her contemporary, Billie Holiday (Lady Day) and later, Tina Turner, both got their day on the big screen. Giving what I now know about Ella Fitzgerald, she should also be given the honor of the big screen. After such a harrowing childhood, she rose to be the leading lady of American song. How many Americans can say that! This is America at its finest.
This book will give you a great tour of Ella’s music career, along with passing glances of her private life. It is well worth purchasing.
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