Looking at the Stars: The First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald

“Man, woman or child, Ella is the best.” – Bing Crosby

It was in 1979 that President Jimmy Carter decreed June to be Black Music Month. President Obama later changed the official designation to African-American Music Appreciation Month. Although it is astonishing that it took until the late 1970s for the talents of African-American vocalists, musicians, composers and artists to be recognized, we’re happy it happened. The work of many of African-Americans have influenced music the world over. With this humble homage to a legend, Classic Movie Hub joins the celebration.

African-American Music Appreciation Month has been intended as the focus of this month’s Looking at the Stars column for some time. A problem arose, however, as the attempt was made to narrow the focus to a single aspect, group or person given the depth of black talent we have enjoyed for over a century. In the final analysis I had to go with the one many consider the greatest female vocalist of the 20th Century, a Jazz pioneer of whom this blogger is a devoted fan. This month we honor the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald.

Ella Fitzgerald

“I never considered myself a singer. My real ambition was to dance.” – Ella Fitzgerald

When Ella Fitzgerald was 15 years old, she entered an amateur night competition at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Ella and two of her friends drew straws and she picked the shortest one making her the loser, the one that had to perform a dance. When her time came to perform, however, young Ella was unable to move from fright and decided to sing a song instead. She followed with three encores and took home the 25 dollars prize money. That night no one could have known that Ella Fitzgerald would later be considered a supreme master of her craft, one honored by presidents, the greatest artists of our times, and an enduringly adoring public.

The night at the Apollo led to many other amateur night wins for Ella Fitzgerald until she landed a gig with Chick Webb and his orchestra. The rest is legend. Throughout her storied career Fitzgerald has been honored with numerous hall of fame inductions, recorded over 70 albums and thousands of songs, performed alongside some of the greatest entertainers in history, and was a sought-after guest on every variety show imaginable on radio and television.

“The one radio voice that I listened to above others belonged to Ella Fitzgerald. There was a quality to her voice that fascinated me, and I’d sing along with her, trying to catch the subtle ways she shaded her voice, the casual yet clean way she sang the words.” - Doris Day

Ella Fitzgerald appeared in only four movies, which is a shame. The first of these is Arthur Lubin’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy starring Abbott and Costello. Ella plays a maid named Ruby and I have a vivid memory of the first time I saw her sing her hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” on a bus in the movie. I became her fan that very day.

Fitzgerald’s next feature film appearance came thirteen years later in Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955). Here Ella plays night singer, Maggie Jackson and her musical performances alone are worth the price of admission. One can only imagine what a thrill it was for Webb to have Ella a part of his movie. Pete Kelly’s Blues was first a radio show conceived by Jack Webb thanks to his love of Jazz.

Jack Webb and Ella Fitzgerald on set of PETE KELLY'S BLUES

Allen Reisner’s St. Louis Blues (1958) and Philip Leacock’s Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960) complete Ella’s filmography. The first is a biopic based on the life of the “Father of the Blues,” composer/musician, W. C. Handy played by Nat “King” Cole in the picture. This is a great viewing choice for African-American Music Appreciation Month with such luminaries as Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, Eartha Kitt, Mahalia Jackson, and Ruby Dee joining Cole and Fitzgerald.

Let No Man Write My Epitaph is a straight drama with an outstanding cast besides Ella Fitzgerald who recorded several songs for the soundtrack and received the best acting notices of her career. In this sequel to the 1949 Nicholas Ray film, Knock on Any Door, Ella plays a drug-addicted woman in a tenement where neighbors band together to save a boy. Her performance here provides a glimpse into what could have been had Ella Fitzgerald been offered other dramatic roles. It is difficult to complain about that with sincerity, however, when this amazing talent has left us gold in her life’s work.

Ella Fitzgerald’s style has influenced numerous generations of singers, but for this fan, she is a go-to for serenity. Ella’s voice is magic – it delights with scat and turns the coldest winter’s day to summertime. If you listen to one artist this month – or any month – let it be the First Lady of Song.

Similarly themed pages…

Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky (19430)

Ethel Waters page

Movie musicals page

…..

Until next month,

–Aurora Bugallo for Classic Movie Hub

Aurora Bugallo is a classic film-obsessed blogger, and co-founder and co-host of the Classic Movies and More Youtube show. You can read more of Aurora’s articles at Once Upon a Screen, or you can follow her on Twitter at @CitizenScreen.

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