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David and Art - The One and Only Ella

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

Her voice was one of the dominant voices in American music in the 20th century, and today is her birthday.

The first time I ever heard of her was in a television commercial for Memorex audio tape. It showed a scene of a singer whose voice was breaking a wine glass. The catch phrase was “Is it live or is it Memorex?” It was 1972 and little me had no idea who the singer was. I had never to my knowledge heard of Ella Fitzgerald. Today would be her 105th birthday.

She was born in Newport News, Virginia on April 25, 1917, just about three weeks after the U.S. declared war on Germany in World War One. Her parents were William and Temperance Fitzgerald and they were not married. Some time before Ella turned five her father left the scene and her mother met a Portuguese immigrant named Joseph da Silva and soon the three of them moved to New York. Shortly after that, her half-sister Frances was born.

She knew hardship at a young age. Her stepfather was abusive, at least after her mom died in 1932. When she was just a little girl she worked for a gambler as a numbers runner, and another time worked as a lookout at a bordello. In 1933 she moved to Harlem to live with her Aunt and get away from her step-father. The next year went to an amateur night at the famous Apollo Theater. She was going to do a dance—she dreamed of being a dancer—but got too scared and decided to sing a song instead.

She went on to have one of the most amazing and prolific careers in American music, recording with just about every famous musician there was, and singing just about every classic song ever penned.

While playing with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s big band she began incorporating what was called “scat singing” into her songs, saying that she was just trying to do what the horns in the band were doing. Gillespie said that Fitzgerald could sing back anything he played on the trumpet. Ira Gershwin, who with his brother George formed the greatest songwriting team in American history, said “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.”

She won 14 Grammy awards, the National Medal for the Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She gave her last public performance in 1993 and died in 1996.

On her death, New York Times reporter Frank Rich said that a black woman popularizing urban songs, that were often written by immigrant Jews, to a national audience of predominantly white Christians, was surely one of the greatest stories in all American culture. And in doing just that, Ella Fitzgerald became the voice of America itself.