She was called “The First Lady of Song,” an honor whose meaning is captured in a compliment paid to her by the great composer Ira Gershwin: “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” Quite apart from the quality of her voice, there was a warmth and intelligence behind it that gave even melancholy songs a plausible tilt toward optimism. Billie Holliday or Frank Sinatra might fully inhabit the dark side of a torch song, but Fitzgerald, in the words of the critic Frank Rich, “could turn any song into an oxygen rush of bouncing melody that reached the listener’s ears as pure, untroubled joy—the eternally young sound of a young country.”
Ella’s own life as a young woman, though, was far from untroubled. Her mother, Temperance “Tempie” Fitzgerald, migrated north to Yonkers, New York, shortly after Ella was born, and Ella spent her childhood there aspiring to be a dancer and traveling frequently into nearby Harlem, where she would one day get her big break. But Ella very nearly fell through the cracks. Tempie Fitzgerald died in 1932, leaving her 15-year-old daughter orphaned, broke and vulnerable at a very dangerous time in American history–the very low point of the Great Depression. Ella was taken in at first by an aunt in Harlem, but she soon dropped out of school and ran into trouble with the law while working as a lookout in a bordello and courier for a local numbers-runner. She was placed in the Riverdale Colored Orphan Asylum but soon ran away from that facility, which earned her a trip upstate to a tough reformatory near Albany called the New York State Training School for Girls.
Ella Fitzgerald never spoke publicly about this period in her life, and she certainly never betrayed any hint of it in her performances. It lends an incredible backdrop, however, to the oft-repeated story of the Apollo Theater Amateur Night performance in 1934 that put her on a path toward stardom. Still technically a ward of the State of New York, Ella was officially paroled in 1935 to Chick Webb’s orchestra, the group she would make her name with over the next seven years.
Born on this day in 1917, Ella Fitzgerald passed away in 1996 at the age of 79 in Beverly Hills, California.