In honor of Black History Month, I would like to celebrate the talented legend and the “First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald. In her lifetime, she won 13 Grammys and sold over 40 million records worldwide. Born in Virginia in 1917, Ella made her professional debut at the age of 17 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Despite the horrible shock and loss of losing her mother to injuries from a car accident at age 15, Ella was able to maneuver herself through the trying times and made her musical debut at only 17. She would reflect in her later years that it was looking back on her struggle could be grateful for her success.
Before she began her singing career, she worked as a runner for gamblers, picking up their bets and dropping off money. Ella worked tirelessly to establish herself and she was known for having a wide-ranging flexible voice. In 1955, a pivotal career breakthrough occurred for her when Marilyn Monroe was able to secure Ella an engagement at the Mocambo Nightclub in Hollywood. Marilyn personally lobbied that the owner book Ella. Speaking of Marilyn, Ella said according to her website, “I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt. It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.” Marilyn used her privilege for good and it was delightful.
Off stage, Ella was known for being shy and reserved, and yet, she knew that her true calling was performing in front of an audience. Ella was a remarkable woman. Moreover, she unfortunately experienced discrimination. Her manager, however, spoke clearly that Ella refused to accept any discrimination and was clear that Ella deserved equal treatment wherever she went. Ella’s star was on the rise despite all of the tremendous hurdles she faced. Outside of her musical career, she cared for child welfare and donated generously to organizations for youth. There is now a foundation in her name. Following in her footsteps, Ella’s son, Ray Brown Jr., is also a jazz musician.
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan awarded Ella the National Medal of Arts. It was one of her most prized moments. France followed suit several years later, presenting her with their Commander of Arts and Letters award, while Yale, Dartmouth and several other universities bestowed Ella with honorary doctorates. Ella passed away in her home from a stroke in 1996. Ella’s legacy will always remain, the First Lady of Song.
It’s stated on her website that by the 1990s, Ella had recorded over 200 albums. In 1991, she gave her final concert at New York’s renowned Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she performed there.