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L. A. Honors the First Lady of Song : Ella Fitzgerald Day will pay tribute to her incomparable successes over five decades

April 23, 1989|LEONARD FEATHER

She has been more famous, over a longer time span, than any other female singer. She sits in the living room of her bright, airy Beverly Hills home, dressed in a simple white outfit, slimmer than she has been since her teens. Suspended from her necklace is a jeweled golden ball, a gift from Jacqueline Picasso.

She is surrounded by countless artifacts attesting to her successes: Grammy awards, NAACP Image Awards, Down Beat trophies (she won her first in 1937). Yet Ella Fitzgerald, who will turn 71 Tuesday, remains amazingly unable to acknowledge the full measure of her fame.

The Chick Webb band singer of the 1930s, the pioneer vocal bebopper of the '40s, the Songbook Queen of the '50s and '60s (she won the first two of her 12 Grammys the year they were inaugurated, 1958, for her Berlin and Ellington albums), the world traveler of the '70s, the Memorex and American Express symbol of the '80s, is back on track after three years largely sidelined by a series of illnesses.

"I'm sure looking forward to Friday," she says. That is the day when, during a belated birthday tribute at the Beverly Hilton, she will be saluted by Mel Torme, Joe Williams, George Shearing and dozens of other admirers. She will be the first recipient of the Ella, a lifetime achievement award being instituted by the Society of Singers. Mayor Tom Bradley will be on hand to assure her that it will indeed, officially, be Ella Fitzgerald Day in Los Angeles.

Felled by a heart condition in August, 1986, Fitzgerald underwent quintuple bypass surgery and was off for nine months, then resumed work on an occasional basis, but other physical problems led to another long stretch of semi-inactivity.

"I've had some wonderful doctors," she says. "I go for therapy twice a week. Now they're letting me do more than one concert--last month I played three nights in Palm Springs, so it looks like I'll be working more regularly."

So how has she spent these long periods of convalescence?

"Staying home and being bored. I miss the road. I miss going overseas. Certain cities are almost like home, because I've made so many friends there."

The Ella Fitzgerald story clearly would never make a motion picture; she has had no troubles with booze or drugs, is friendly with her ex-husband, Ray Brown, and virtually defies any scavenging reporter to find a negative comment or even the whisper of a scandal. Who wants to see a movie about that kind of stuff?

She has few regrets and a few ambitions. "I love music so much, but I never really had any schooling. I can read music, but not fast. One time Chick Webb was going to have a lady help me to study voice, but she said I already had a style, so she didn't want to teach me because it might ruin what I had."

Ambitions? "Maybe it sounds silly, but I'd like to do a video with some children--one in which I would sing and dance, to show how I started in the business. I'd show the kids doing their dance, then I would do a dance from my era.

"I've never been to Russia, and I would like to go. A conductor from Russia caught a show of mine at Carnegie Hall and brought me an album with my name on it in Russian. I'd love to go because I understand they love me there, and music is one of the two things that brings people close together: music and sports."

This recent series of layoffs has been by far the longest in a career that began 54 years ago. Benny Carter, the saxophonist and composer, recalls a very early encounter: "I heard Ella in an amateur night at the Apollo in 1935 and knew immediately that a star was being born. I called (talent scout) John Hammond, who was sponsoring the reorganization of the Fletcher Henderson orchestra. John and I took Ella to Fletcher's house. To my great surprise, Fletcher and his wife and John failed to share my enthusiasm. Ella remembers Fletcher saying 'Don't call me, I'll call you.' "

Perhaps the rejection was no surprise to the 17-year-old aspiring singer. "I really always wanted to be a dancer," she says. "In Yonkers, I was known as one of their great little tap dancers."

Joe Williams remembers it well, from a somewhat later period: "She originally wanted to be one of the group called Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. I remember sometimes when she came offstage, I'd carry her to the dressing room--she only weighed about 130--and she and I danced together often."

In a last minute change of heart at one of a series of amateur shows, Fitzgerald decided to sing rather than dance. "I knew three songs; I'd heard Connie Boswell sing them on the radio--'The Object of My Affection,' 'Believe It Beloved' and 'Judy.' "

One night, backstage at the Apollo, she sang for the drummer Chick Webb, who grudgingly agreed to try her out with his orchestra on a gig at Yale.

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