Ella Fitzgerald’s voice means warmth, joy, careless brilliance, strength wrapped in velvet. But her early life was cold, rough, harsh.
It’s Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday today, and on NPR’s Morning Edition, Susan Stamberg reports that Fitzgerald, born poor, was orphaned at 15. Her surviving stepfather was hard on her, and she lived for a time with an aunt, but then started skipping school, eventually living on the streets.
“She was on the streets of Harlem dancing for tips” [Smithsonian Curator of American Music John] 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.
Around this time, Fitzgerald used to say, she first began to sing on stage. She was 17, and found herself terrified in front of a brutal audience at Amatuer Night at the Apollo. She had been planning to dance, but her legs shook too badly; so instead, she sang. And everyone loved it, so she kept on singing. At least that’s the way she tells it.
Who can describe her voice? Instead of talking about it, let’s listen. The velvety ballads are my favorites. Here’s one of the greatest:
Oh, how I need. What a miracle of vocal engineering that she goes all high and hoarse without losing an ounce of power. Happy birthday, you beautiful woman. Someone I’d really like to know.
Image: Ella in 1940, photo by Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons