Early Hardship Couldn't Muffle Ella Fitzgerald's Joy

Apr 25, 2017
Originally published on April 25, 2017 8:16 am

One hundred years ago Tuesday, in a working-poor neighborhood of Newport News, Va., a laundress and a shipyard worker had a baby girl. The father soon disappeared, and the mother and child moved north to New York. The mother died. The girl ran away and became one of the most important singers of the 20th century.

Ella Fitzgerald could sing anything: a silly novelty song, like her breakthrough hit, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." A samba that scatted. A ballad, spooling out like satin.

And, as Harlem historian John T. Reddick points out, she did it all with a certain lightness. "Despite whatever difficulties she had in her life, you could hear the joy," Reddick says.

Fitzgerald's joy rang out through what Smithsonian Curator of American Music John Hasse says were terrible days. "It was a really tough time: segregation, the Great Depression, poverty, unemployment," he says.

From early on, music was Fitzgerald's salvation. It was where she lived. She could lose herself in it and go somewhere else, no matter what was happening around her.

Northeastern University music historian Judith Tick imagines the young girl "singing by herself in a corner of a recess schoolyard and looking happy, smiling and laughing." Tick, who's writing a Fitzgerald biography, found some schoolteacher's progress reports on the young singer from ages 7 to 13, which said that Fitzgerald was an excellent student with a good memory.

"When she was 7 years old, one of her teachers called her 'self-reliant,' " Tick says. "And then a couple of years later one called her 'ambitious.' "

But everything changed when her beloved mother died. Fitzgerald, then 15, hit hard times: There was a stepfather who treated her badly and an aunt who took the teenage girl away and moved her in with her own family. So she started skipping school.

"She was on the streets of Harlem dancing for tips," Hasse says.

She earned more pennies as a lookout for cops outside a brothel. At one point, she was arrested for truancy and sent to a reform school, where she was regularly beaten. So she ran away — this awkward, gawky girl with skinny legs and old, cast-off boots — with no money, living on the streets and sleeping where she could.

Fitzgerald almost never talked about all that. What she did talk about was an Amateur Night contest at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 1934. She was 17 years old.

"I never thought I was a singer," Fitzgerald once told Brian Linehan of the CBC. "When I first went on the stage, I went out to dance. ... But I'd never been in front of the lights and I saw all of those people out there, I just got stage fright. And the man said, 'Well, you're out here. Do something!' "

But she couldn't dance, because her legs were shaking — and who could blame her?

"The Apollo audiences were ruthless," Hasse says. "Especially the upper balcony [with] the cheap seats. ... Those kids would make the upper balcony jump up and down if they liked somebody, and boo like hell if they didn't."

Fitzgerald admired singer Connee Boswell's style — rhythmic, lilting and sweet. She decided to sing like her.

"And they said, 'Oh, that girl can sing.' And I won first prize," Fitzgerald recalled.

Ambitious, she started making the rounds. At a time when female singers were slim and sexy, bandleader Fletcher Henderson thought she didn't look good enough to put onstage. Chick Webb felt the same way at first, but he took her on with his band. Four years later, in 1938, she had her first hit — with lyrics she helped write. Eventually, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" sold a million records, and Fitzgerald kept on singing for the rest of her life.

That's a good thing for more reasons than one. As she laughingly said herself, "If I was dancin', I'd have been starving a long time ago."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A hundred years ago today in a working, poor neighborhood of Newport News, Va., a laundress and a shipyard worker had a baby girl. The father soon disappeared, mother and child moved north. The mother died. The girl ran away, got in trouble. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg explores the difficult early life of the child who became the first lady of jazz.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Ella Fitzgerald could sing anything.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A-TISKET, A-TASKET")

ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) A-tisket, a-tasket, a brown and yellow basket.

STAMBERG: A silly novelty song, her breakthrough hit in 1938.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A-TISKET, A-TASKET")

FITZGERALD: (Singing) On the way, I dropped it.

STAMBERG: A samba that scats.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE NOTE SAMBA")

FITZGERALD: (Scatting).

STAMBERG: A ballad spooling out like satin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS TIME THE DREAM'S ON ME")

FITZGERALD: (Singing) Somewhere, someday we'll be close together. Wait and see. Oh, by the way, this time the dream's on me.

STAMBERG: Since the 1930s, any short list of great jazz singers has always included Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD MORNING HEARTACHE")

BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Good morning, heartache, you old, gloomy sight.

STAMBERG: Billie was two years older and her life far sadder - alcohol, heroin, arrests, jail.

JOHN T REDDICK: In Billie Holiday's voice, you hear the darkness.

STAMBERG: Harlem historian John T. Reddick.

REDDICK: You hear the sadness in her life. With Ella Fitzgerald, despite whatever difficulties she had in her life, you could hear the joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEY ALL LAUGHED")

FITZGERALD: (Singing) They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round. They all laughed when Edison recorded sound.

STAMBERG: Ella's joy rang out through what Smithsonian American Music Curator John Hasse says were terrible days.

JOHN HASSE: It was a really tough time. Segregation, the Great Depression and poverty, unemployment.

STAMBERG: From early on, music was Ella's salvation. It was where she lived. She could lose herself in it, go somewhere else no matter what was happening around her. Northeastern University music historian Judith Tick imagines the young girl.

JUDITH TICK: The image of Ella singing by herself in a corner of a recess schoolyard and looking quite happy and smiling and laughing.

STAMBERG: Tick is writing a Fitzgerald biography. She found some schoolteachers' progress reports on Ella from ages 7 to 13.

TICK: When she was 7 years old, one of her teachers called her self-reliant. And then a couple of years later, one called her ambitious.

STAMBERG: She was an excellent student, had a good memory. But when her beloved mother died, everything changed. Fifteen-year-old Ella Jane Fitzgerald hit hard times. There was a stepfather who treated her badly, an aunt who took her away and moved her in with her own family. Ella started skipping school.

HASSE: She was on the streets of Harlem dancing for tips.

STAMBERG: Again, curator John Hasse. She earned more pennies as a lookout for cops outside a brothel.

HASSE: And was arrested for truancy and sent to a reform school where she was regularly beaten.

STAMBERG: She ran away from reform school, this awkward, gawky girl with skinny legs and old cast-off boots, no money, living on the streets, sleeping where she could.

HASSE: People who knew her well said she smelled bad. She hadn't had a bath in a long time - a street person.

STAMBERG: Ella Fitzgerald almost never talked about all of that. What she did talk about was an amateur night contest at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater, Wednesday, November 21, 1934. She was 17 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHVIED RECORDING)

FITZGERALD: I never really thought I was a singer.

STAMBERG: She told the story to Brian Linehan of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FITZGERALD: When I first went on the stage, I went on to dance. But I'd never been in front of the lights. And when I got in front of the lights and I saw all those people out there and I just got stage fright. And the man said, well, you're out here, do something.

STAMBERG: But what? Her legs were shaking, and who could blame her?

HASSE: The Apollo audiences were ruthless. They were ruthless, especially the upper balcony, which were the cheap seats. And those kids would practically make the balcony jump up and down if they liked somebody and boo like hell if they didn't.

STAMBERG: Ella admired singer Connee Boswell's style. Her mother had some records - rhythmic, lilting and sweet. She always called her Miss Connee Boswell. She decided to sing like her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FITZGERALD: (Singing) Every hope of the spring, that's Judy, my Judy. And they said, oh, that girl can sing. And I won first prize.

STAMBERG: Ambitious Ella started making the rounds. Unlovely at a time when girl singers were slim and sexy, bandleader Fletcher Henderson thought she didn't look good enough to put on stage. Chick Webb felt the same way at first, but he took her on with his band. Four years later, she had her first hit, with lyrics she helped to write. Eventually, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" sold a million records. And Ella Fitzgerald kept on singing for the rest of her life, which is probably a good thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FITZGERALD: If I was dancing, I'd have been starving a long time ago (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW HIGH THE MOON")

FITZGERALD: (Singing) Somewhere there's music. How faint the tune. Somewhere there's heaven. How high the moon.

STAMBERG: On All Things Considered tonight, how Ella Fitzgerald became the first lady of jazz. On this 100th birthday, her pure, sweet, inventive, joyful voice is her gift to the world, a present wrapped in a bright ribbon of sound. I'm Susan Stamberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW HIGH THE MOON")

FITZGERALD: (Singing) Somewhere there's heaven, it's where you are. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.