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Remembering Ella Fitzgerald, Who Made Great Songs Greater

Apr 25, 2017
Originally published on April 25, 2017 5:10 pm

Ella Fitzgerald, who would have turned 100 Tuesday, was one of the most beloved and versatile singers of the 20th century. In a career that spanned six decades, Fitzgerald recorded hundreds of songs, including definitive versions of many standards. Along the way, she influenced generations of singers.

But the first thing that strikes you about Fitzgerald is that voice.

Cécile McLorin Salvant, who won a Grammy last year for Best Jazz Vocal Album, says a combination of qualities made Fitzgerald's voice unique. "When you hear the tone of her voice — which has kind of a brightness, kind of a breathiness, but it also has this really great depth, and kind of a laser-like, really clear quality to it — it hits you," she says.

Salvant, 27, says she learned to sing jazz standards by listening to Fitzgerald's versions.

"I remember being 17 and living in France and feeling really homesick and wanting to go back to Miami, and listening to Ella Fitzgerald singing 'I Didn't Know What Time It Was,' " Salvant says. "And I would listen to that all day. All day. For, like, weeks. And it felt — it created a home for me."

Fitzgerald had perfect pitch, impeccable diction and a remarkable sense of rhythm. And it all came naturally to her, as she told the CBC in 1974.

"What I sing is only what I feel," she said. "I had some lady ask me the other day about music lessons and I never — except for what I had to learn for my half-credit in school — I've never given it a thought. I've never taken breathing lessons. I had to go for myself, and I guess that's how I got a style."

That style was an immediate hit. Fitzgerald was discovered at an amateur contest and began her professional career when she was only 16, singing with the Chick Webb Orchestra at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. When she was 21, she became internationally famous with a hit record based on a nursery rhyme, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket."

Tony Bennett says that when he was starting out as a young singer, Ella Fitzgerald was his idol. "She was a complete swinger," he says. "She just understood the whole art of jazz phrasing."

Bennett is now 90 years old, and Fitzgerald is still his idol. (A portrait he painted of her is even in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History's collections.) He says she was the quintessential performer.

"She loved performing. She loved it. And the audience knew it right away," Bennett says. "The minute she walked out on that stage, they knew she was ready to give them the best she could ever imagine for them. She couldn't wait to get on that stage and hit the back of the house, and have them react to her right away."

In the 1940s, Fitzgerald took part in late-night Harlem jam sessions with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Those sessions would give rise to bebop — and Fitzgerald embraced bebop scat singing, using her voice like a horn.

"She knew how to improvise better than anybody I ever listened to," Bennett says. "Just like an instrumentalist would take a jazz solo, she would do that vocally, and it would be perfection."

Fitzgerald toured and recorded constantly, producing one hit record after another. Music publishers wanted her to be the first to record their new songs, and she became known as "The First Lady of Song." In the 1950s, she embarked on an ambitious recording project: eight albums of standards written by prominent American composers — including Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern and George and Ira Gershwin.

Many of Fitzgerald's recordings of the musical canon known as the Great American Songbook are considered definitive versions. Ira Gershwin once said, "I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them."

Dan Morgenstern, Director Emeritus of the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, says this is what she'll be remembered for.

"She could take a great song and make it even greater," Morgenstern says. "She had a wonderful sense of melody. She had that beautiful voice. She had that perfect intonation. And she always knew what the right tempo should be. And she put so much feeling into what she did."

Fitzgerald lived for her career — and her personal life suffered. She fell in love with good-looking younger men who turned out to be scam artists. Her marriage to bebop bassist Ray Brown lasted only six years. She was insecure, got nervous before performances and cried if she got a bad review. And she was overweight for much of her life.

"She was not a sex symbol," Salvant says. "And yet she was very successful. It's a testament to both the audience and — of course, most of all — her artistry. And we're not even talking about racism. That a black woman could be so popular across the board with both black and white audiences — that's a beautiful thing."

Ella Fitzgerald sold 40 million records in her lifetime. She died in 1996 from complications caused by diabetes. She was 79 years old.

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

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Ella Fitzgerald was one of the most beloved and versatile singers of the 20th century. In a career that spanned six decades, she recorded hundreds of songs, including definitive versions of many standards. Ella Fitzgerald would have turned 100 years old today. Tom Vitale has this tribute to the First Lady of Song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE SKIES")

ELLA FITZGERALD: (Vocalizing).

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: That voice, it's the first thing that strikes you about Ella Fitzgerald.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE SKIES")

FITZGERALD: (Singing) Blue skies, smiling at me. Nothing but blue skies do I see.

CECILE MCLORIN SALVANT: When you hear the tone of her voice, which has kind of a brightness, it has a breathiness, but it also has this really great depth and kind of a laser-like really clear quality to it. It hits you.

VITALE: Twenty-seven-year-old Cecile McLorin Salvant won a Grammy last year for best jazz vocal album. Salvant says she learned to sing standards by listening to Fitzgerald sing them.

SALVANT: I remember being 17 and living in France and feeling really homesick, wanting to go back to Miami and listening to Ella Fitzgerald singing "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," and I would listen to that all day, all day for, like, weeks. And it felt - it created a home for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TIME IT WAS")

FITZGERALD: (Singing) Once I was young, yesterday perhaps, danced with Jim and Paul and kissed some other chaps. Once I was young, but never was naive. I thought I had a trick or two up my imaginary sleeve. And now I know I was naive.

VITALE: Fitzgerald had perfect pitch, impeccable diction and a remarkable sense of rhythm. And it all came naturally to her, as she told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1974.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FITZGERALD: What I sing is only what I feel. I had some lady ask me the other day about music lessons, and I've never, except what I had to learn from my half-credit in school, you know - I've never given it a thought. I never have taken breathing lessons. I had to go for myself, and that's how, I guess, I got a style.

VITALE: Fitzgerald's style was an immediate hit. She was discovered at an amateur contest and began her professional career when she was only 16, singing with the Chick Webb orchestra at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. When she was 21, she became internationally famous with a hit record based on a nursery rhyme.

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

FITZGERALD: (Singing) A-tisket, a-tasket, I lost my yellow basket. Won't someone help me find my basket and make me happy again - again?

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) Was it green?

FITZGERALD: (Singing) No, no, no, no.

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) Was it red?

FITZGERALD: (Singing) No, no, no, no.

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) Was it blue?

FITZGERALD: (Singing) No, no, no, no. Just a little yellow basket.

TONY BENNETT: She was a complete swinger. She just understood the whole art of jazz phrasing.

VITALE: Tony Bennett says when he was starting out as a young singer, Ella Fitzgerald was his idol. Now he's 90 years old, and she's still his idol. Bennett painted a portrait of Fitzgerald singing that hangs in the Smithsonian. He says Ella was the quintessential performer.

BENNETT: She loved performing. She loved it. And the audience knew it right away, you know? Just the minute she walked out on that stage, they knew that she was ready to give them the best she could ever imagine for them. She couldn't wait to get on that stage and hit the back of the house and have them react to her right away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FITZGERALD: (Singing) Grab your coat and get your hat.

(APPLAUSE)

FITZGERALD: (Singing) Leave your worries on the doorstep. Just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street. Can't you hear the pitter-patter? And that happy tune is your step 'cause life could be so sweet on a sunny side of the street.

VITALE: In the 1940s, Fitzgerald took part in late-night Harlem jam sessions with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie that gave rise to a new type of jazz. She embraced bebop scat singing, using her voice like a horn, says Tony Bennett.

BENNETT: She knew how to improvise better than anybody I ever listened to. She was able - just like an instrumentalist would take a jazz solo, she would do that vocally, and it would be perfection.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIR MAIL SPECIAL")

FITZGERALD: (Scat singing).

VITALE: Ella Fitzgerald toured and recorded constantly, producing one hit record after another. Music publishers wanted her to be the first to record their new songs. And she became known as the First Lady of Song.

In the 1950s, Fitzgerald embarked on an ambitious recording project, eight albums of standards written by prominent American composers, including Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern and George and Ira Gershwin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMERTIME")

FITZGERALD: (Singing) Summertime and the living is easy. Fish are jumping, and the cotton is high.

VITALE: Many of Fitzgerald's recordings of the musical canon known as "The Great American Songbook" are considered definitive versions. Ira Gershwin once said, I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them. Director emeritus of the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, Dan Morgenstern, says this is what Fitzgerald will be remembered for.

DAN MORGENSTERN: She could take a great song and make it even greater. She had a wonderful sense of melody. She had that beautiful voice. She had that perfect intonation, and she put so much feeling into what she did.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR")

FITZGERALD: (Singing) I want something to live for.

VITALE: Ella Fitzgerald lived for her career, and her personal life suffered. She fell in love with good-looking, younger men who turned out to be scam artists. Her marriage to bebop bass player Ray Brown lasted only six years. She was insecure and nervous before performances. She cried if she got a bad review, and she was overweight, says Cecile McLorin Salvant.

SALVANT: She was not a sex symbol. I'm sure she would have enjoyed being a sex symbol, maybe. But she wasn't, and yet she was very successful. It's a testament to both the audience and, most of all, her artistry. And we're not even talking about racism, that a black woman could be so popular across the board with both black and white audiences is - that's a beautiful thing.

VITALE: Ella Fitzgerald sold 40 million records in her lifetime. She died in 1996 from complications caused by diabetes. She was 79 years old.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH, LADY BE GOOD")

FITZGERALD: (Singing) Sweet, lovely lady, be good. Oh, lady, be good to me 'cause I'm so awfully misunderstood. Oh, lady, oh, lady, oh, lady, be good to me. See I'm all alone in this big city of New York. Won't... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.