Ella Fitzgerald: America's First Lady Of Song In the 1930s and '40s, band singers were mostly blond, sophisticated and attractive. Ella Fitzgerald was awkward, gawky and even a bit chubby by comparison — but could she sing.
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Ella Fitzgerald: America's First Lady Of Song

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Ella Fitzgerald: America's First Lady Of Song

Ella Fitzgerald: America's First Lady Of Song

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I never knew how good our songs were, lyricist Ira Gershwin once said, until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.

For our year-long series 50 Great Voices, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg celebrates the Queen of Jazz.

SUSAN STAMBERG: 1977, the New Orleans Jazz Festival, Ella Fitzgerald, age 60, calls a young singer to the stage. Theyve not met before. Here's Stevie Wonder's reaction.

Mr. STEVIE WONDER (Singer/Songwriter): Wow.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

STAMBERG: Wow, indeed, at 27, he's about to sing with a legend.

Mr. WONDER: (Singing) You are the apple of my eyes.

Ms. ELLA FITZGERALD (Singer): (Scatting)

Mr. WONDER: (Singing) Forever you be...

STAMBERG: Ella Fitzgerald whose scat - spontaneous musical invention - was as dazzling as her simplest melodic statement.

(Soundbite of song, "Easy to Love")

Ms. FITZGERALD: (Singing) ...cause you'd be oh so easy to love.

STAMBERG: This is the music that made Ella Fitzgerald a super star. She'd been a band singer then a soloist for two decades. Then in 1956, she began recording the Great American Songbook - albums of music by Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin, and was called America's First Lady of Song.

Lots of singers recorded these numbers, before and after Ella. Pianist Billy Taylor worked with many of them.

Mr. BILLY TAYLOR (Pianist): Wonderful singers who did beautiful things. But for me, Ella was the one that really touched my heart. She was so sincere.

(Soundbite of song, "How High the Moon)

Ms. FITZGERALD: (Singing) Somewhere there's heaven, its where you are...

STAMBERG: Billy Taylor accompanied Ella in the 1940s.

Ms. FITZGERALD: (Singing) Somewhere there's music how near, how far...

Mr. TAYLOR: Ella was such a great musician, that any way you went, she would get there. The feeling of music that she brought...

Ms. FITZGERALD: (Singing) ...If you would come to me soon. Until you will, how still my heart. How high the moon...

Mr. TAYLOR: ...you had swing, you had to go along with the music, go along with the words. Go along with the whole idea that she was presenting. She was really so complete.

THE MANHATTAN TRANSFER (Singers): (Singing) Somewhere there's music, how faint the tune...

STAMBERG: In 1983, the vocal group The Manhattan Transfer sang with Ella. Janis Siegel remembers their afternoon rehearsal.

Ms. JANIS SIEGEL (Member, The Manhattan Transfer): We're all around the piano. We did our little four-part harmony part, and then she scatted a couple of choruses. And she turns to us and said, was that all right? And I just - I was flabbergasted. I went, it's like God asking angels - if he just created the world and turning to them, saying, well, what do you think? The Grand Canyon, could it use a little tweaking?

Ms. FITZGERALD: (Scatting)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. TAYLOR: She never believed that she was really Ella Fitzgerald.

STAMBERG: Very little self-confidence, ever. From childhood she was painfully shy. In Newport News, Virginia, her mother was a laundress, her father left the family when Ella was three. The girl spent time with an aunt, then in foster care, a reformatory. In New York, she won singing contests, worked with bands, some hit records. This novelty tune was her first million-seller.

(Soundbite of song, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket")

Ms. FITZGERALD: (Singing) A-tisket, a-tasket, a brown and yellow basket...

STAMBERG: But her career went up and down. In the '30s and '40s, band singers were mostly blond, sophisticated, attractive. Ella was awkward, gawky, a bit chubby - in the words of one newspaper writer, A big, light-colored gal. But could she sing.

((Soundbite of song, "This Time the Dream's On Me")

Ms. FITZGERALD: (Singing) Somewhere, some day we'll be close together, wait and see. Oh, by the way, this time the dream's on me. You take my hand and you look at me adoringly. But as things stand, this time the dream's on me. It would be...

STAMBERG: Impeccable timing, pitch-perfect; band musicians said they would tune up to her voice. Ella Fitzgerald has you smiling by her second note. Endlessly inventive, only on a record does she sing a tune the same way twice. There is no sad edge to her voice, no drama.

That's fine with Janis Siegel.

Ms. SIEGEL: I never listened to Ella for, say, emotional depth, but for sheer purity of tone, musicality, playfulness, inventiveness and rhythmic, you know, virtuosity. To me, there is no one like Ella Fitzgerald.

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, she sang like an instrument - the voice was the instrument. It's like a clarinet or like a trombone or like a whatever, more so than thinking of the lyrics.

Ms. FITZGERALD: (Scatting)

STAMBERG: Ella Fitzgerald sang "How High the Moon" dozens of times. This may be her most remarkable recording of the tune. It was taped at a concert in Berlin, Germany in 1960.

Ms. FITZGERALD: (Scatting)

STAMBERG: There's something, I mean it's probably in every performance, but particularly the Berlin one, I think, where she's on another planet by the end. She can't, you feel, she cannot stop.

Ms. FITZGERALD: (Scatting)

Ms. SIEGEL: It's like she doesnt want her life to end. It's like her life will end if she gets off that stage. And while she's on stage, she's in the dream. She's in the dream. Everything is harmonious, and people love her, and she can just go for chorus after chorus of inventiveness. It's astounding.

Ms. FITZGERALD: (Singing) High, high, high, high...

STAMBERG: Even more astounding, she takes us right along with her, mopping her face with an ever-present handkerchief, holding the microphone like a cigarette, tilting her head back when she has to.

Ella Fitzgerald - she died in 1996 - is singing her heart out - always.

Im Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

Ms. FITZGERALD: (Singing) High, high, high, high is the Moon.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Ms. FITZGERALD: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: More of Ella Fitzgerald's music, plus her son on Ella's impromptu supermarket concert at NPRMusic.org.

And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

MARY LOUISE Kelly, host:

And Im Mary Louise Kelly.

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