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Ella Fitzgerald, Jazz's First Lady of Song, Dies

Music: The shy entertainer with flawless talent held spotlight for decades until struck by ailments. She was 78.

June 16, 1996|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stanley Crouch, an African American writer and critic, said Fitzgerald brought unique elements to her performances. "She had that strange combination of a Negro American urban quality crossed with a wide-eyed unpretentious country girl. She could sound like someone who just got off the train with a paper suitcase and a box of chicken walking down Broadway, saying, 'Gee whiz, what tall buildings.' "

Ella Fitzgerald was born April 25, 1918, in Newport News, Va., never knowing her father, who died when she was very young. She moved to Yonkers, N.Y., with her mother, who also died early, leaving Ella an orphan. She moved in with an aunt.

When she was 16, some friends dared her to enter an amateur night contest at the old Apollo Theater in Harlem. She did not think of herself as a singer. Her ambition was to dance like somebody named Snakehips Tucker. When she got on stage, she was struck by the shyness that was to plague her all her life. She couldn't dance.

"The man said since I was up there I had to do something," Ella was to tell columnist Jack Smith in 1966 when she was named a Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year. "So I tried to sing like Connee Boswell." The latter was young Ella's favorite singer. The song she sang in imitation Boswell at the Apollo that night was "The Object of My Affection."

She won first prize and the admiration of a musician who worked for bandleader Chick Webb and who kept raving about her until Webb finally agreed to give her a tryout at a Yale dance. If the college kids liked her, Webb said, "she stays."

They did. She was immediately popular. Webb became a friend and mentor. Three years later, in 1938, she gave Webb his first big hit record, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," which she wrote with band arranger Van Alexander. The song established her as a nationally known singer.

Now 81, Alexander recalled the song's creation in 1938 during an interview Saturday:

"Ella came up to me and said, 'How about doing a song based on the nursery rhyme 'A Tisket A Tasket.' I said I would but I had other songs to do and one day she came up to me and said, 'You never did anything with that song.' I stayed up all night, working on the song.

"I brought it up to Boston. We rehearsed it. She said, 'It's great, but we have to change some of the words.' She changed 'walking' down the avenue to 'trucking' down the avenue. It was a beautiful collaboration," Alexander said. "Ella was a sweet, unassuming young lady. She never changed. I'll miss her terribly, as the world will miss her."

When Webb died in 1939, Ella took over the band as leader, but it was a difficult role for one with her shyness and she gave it up after a couple of years to become a solo performer.

Her career kept climbing. She appeared in major clubs and theaters throughout the United States and Canada, and drew big audiences on tours of Japan and Europe. She learned to sing bop by traveling with the Dizzy Gillespie band.

At the time, there were many places in the United States where Fitzgerald could not perform in front of blacks and whites at the same time. Nonetheless, writer Crouch said that in one key respect Ella benefited from the segregated world of the 1930s.

"Her race put her in the most innovative arts community in the U.S. in the 1930s," Crouch said. "When she was coming up in New York, Harlem was the capital of American musical innovation. Duke Ellington was there, Count Basie was there, everyone was there. . . . She was in the richest musical circumstances she could have been in America."

Fitzgerald also appeared in several movies, including "St. Louis Blues," "Let No Man Write My Epitaph" and "Pete Kelly's Blues."

But it took Granz to put her on the road to acceptance by a wider public with the Songbooks.

Granz subsequently admitted that when he first heard Ella he had not thought much of her. "I used only Billie Holiday in my jam sessions," he said. "I must have been deaf."

One of her more successful associations was with Duke Ellington. She sang with his orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 1958 and toured Europe with him in the mid-60s.

Among other groups with which she toured was the Oscar Peterson Trio. She married Peterson's bassist Ray Brown in 1949. It was her second marriage. The first was to musician Bernie Kornegay in 1941, something she later conceded she did on a bet. That one was quickly annulled.

She and Brown were divorced in 1952. "It was a good marriage," she was to tell Feather 30 years later. "But it's hard for two people in show business. You have to learn to really understand somebody."

Their son, Ray Jr., became a drummer and guitar player in Seattle.

It was in 1970 that eye problems caught up with the singer, threatening to end her career. "I guess 30 years of facing those powerful lights did it," she said. "It got to where I had to keep closing my eyes all the time. I was very nervous. Finally I canceled all my bookings and went in the hospital."

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