Brisbane’s Emerging jazz vocalist Adelina Martinez leads the Savoy Swingers in a scat-singing and hip-swinging tribute to the First Lady of Song.
The story behind the ‘First Lady of Song’
The First Lady of Song was the most popular jazz singer in the US for half a century and was arguably the best female jazz vocalist of all time. Ella Fitzgerald recorded hundreds and hundreds of songs including the famous collection, The Great American Songbook, one of the biggest contributions to American culture by a single artist.
Like so many musicians of her time, Ella had to struggle in her younger life. At 13 years old her mother died suddenly and through a turn of events by 15 she was living on the streets. In 1934, Ella Fitzgerald’s name was pulled in the weekly draw to enable her to compete at amateur night at the Apollo Theatre. She had planned to dance, but after being in awe at the incredible dance performance before her, she instead sang Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy” as the Connee Boswell version was a favourite of her mothers. The audience were initially deterred by her ragged appearance but were soon calling for an encore. Fuelled by this success, Ella began entering every amateur competition she could find and in 1935 she won the opportunity to perform with the Tiny Bradshaw Band at Harlem Opera House and this is where she first met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb who hired her to travel with his band.
Between 1936 and 1938 Ella recorded a couple of songs on the Decca label to moderate success and began experimenting with scat singing, something she would later master and turn into an art form all her own. In 1938, at 21 years of age, Ella recorded a playful jazz version of the nursery rhyme “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and suddenly she was famous. The album sold over 1 million copies and hit number one, staying on the pop charts for 17 weeks!
In mid-1939 Chuck Webb passed away and Ella took over as bandleader where she stayed until going solo in 1942. Once out on her own Ella performed with the who’s who of swing jazz, moving over to bebop as the jazz fashion changed and whilst she had a string of hits, Decca were at a loss as to what to have Ella sing as a soloist. That was when she met Norman Granz and he created Verve records around her, becoming her producer and manager.
Under Norman’s guidance Ella reached great success and she began singing Jazz at the Philharmonic, a concert series Granz created as well as recording several records with Louis Armstrong and later producing The Great American Songbook, a 19-volume series of songbooks which were released between 1956 and 1964. With the exception of the Louis Armstrong songbook they are not jazz based, but they increased Ella’s popularity and cemented her contribution to American culture.
Not only was Ella on stage as a singer, but she also appeared in a number of films and live television screenings and since, there have been films made about her life. Marilyn and Ella, created in 2008 depicted the time when Marilyn Monroe used her influence to have Ella play at the very swanky and exclusive Mocambo nightclub, after which, Ella never had to play small jazz bars again.
Ella continued performing and recording through the 60s but began suffering medical problems in the 70s which didn’t stop her, not even her heart surgery in 1986 could keep her from the stage. In 1993 due to complications with her diabetes Ella had both legs amputated below the knee, after which, she never performed again.
Over her career Ella garnered 14 Grammy awards, including one for lifetime achievement, as well as receiving the Kennedy Centre Honour for lifetime achievement and the National Medal of the Arts. As well as her songbooks Ella’s next most acclaimed album is Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin where she scats and improvises. If you haven’t heard it, do your ears and your soul a favour and grab a copy.