April 25, 1917-- Ella Fitzgerald, who, as the “Queen of Jazz” sent listeners into transports of joy for half a century, was born in Newport News, Va., in a home already broken, with parents who had separated even before her birth. By the end of her teens, she had experienced even greater trouble, as her mother died and she was sent to a reform school.
Competing in an “Amateur Night” at Harlem’s Apollo Theater broke the dreariness of her life, opened an avenue to a livelihood, and allowed her to surmount her shyness and self-consciousness about her appearance for at least a few hours onstage.
As a youngster raised on rock ‘n’ roll, it took me a while to warm to Fitzgerald. I knew her best from 1970s Memorex commercials, featuring the famous tagline, "Is it live, or is it Memorex?". In the late 1960s, perhaps advised by her management to seek out newer material, she chose to sing on The Ed Sullivan Show a tune not suited to her gifts, The Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” (though it was a hit in the UK). Even her mastery of scat singing seemed at the time to me more like vocal pyrotechnics for their own sake rather than in the service of the song.
What made me appreciate her for the first time was my discovery two decades ago of her covers of great American songwriters: Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart. The series, starting with Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book in 1956 and continuing for nearly a decade, was an extraordinary artistic success that, in the process, earned the deep gratitude of those to whom she paid musical tribute. (A typical response was from Ira Gershwin: “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.")
Like her admirer Frank Sinatra, Fitzgerald had already been a success for more than a decade, but may have achieved her greatest artistic heights in the 1950s with work that helped establish the canon of the Great American Songbook. Jazz critic-historian Gary Giddins may have summed up why she retained the loyalty of jazz fans for five decades:
“When Ella Fitzgerald was singing at her peak – in good voice, with good song, arrangement and accompaniment – nothing in life was more resplendent.”