Even if you know little or nothing about jazz, you have probably heard the name Ella Fitzgerald. She is known as “The First Lady of Song,” “The Queen of Jazz,” and “Lady Ella,” just to name a few. Fitzgerald was the most popular female jazz singer in the United States for more than 50 years, won 13 Grammy awards, and sold more than 40 million albums. She was known for her incredible vocal range and incredibly diverse audience of fans, but there are a few things most people do not know about jazz’s first lady.
1. She may have worked for the mafia in high school.
Although Fitzgerald was a great student in her younger years, she spent her high school days in Harlem after moving in with her aunt in order to escape a troubled home life after her mother’s death. The New York Timesactually reported she worked for a mafia numbers runner and may have even acted as a lookout at illicit locations like local brothels. Fitzgerald’s non-school-related activities eventually caught up with her, and she was placed in an orphanage and, eventually, the state reformatory for girls. Sadly, the caretakers at the reform school beat the girls, and Fitzgerald eventually ran away. She found herself broke, alone, and living on the street, a terrible combination that ultimately set the stage for her entry onto a real stage at the Apollo.
2. She started out singing for tips on the street.
When Fitzgerald returned to Harlem, she made money by singing for tips on the street. She got a lucky break when she won an opportunity to compete at an “Amateur Night” at the Apollo Theater, where she initially planned to perform a dance routine. She changed her mind at the last minute after realizing she would have to follow the Edwards Sisters, Ruth and Louise, one of the most famous female tap-dance teams of all time. The Edwards Sisters had just closed the main show, and Fitzgerald feared any dance she presented would pale by comparison. Fortunately, her street performance experience meant she had a large vocal repertoire to choose from. She sang Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy” before obliging audience demands for an encore with the Boswell Sisters’ “The Object of My Affections.” Apollo band member Benny Carter was so impressed with her performance he began to introduce her to anyone he thought could help launch her career, and soon Fitzgerald’s career took off.
3. Marilyn Monroe gave Fitzgerald a big break.
Fitzgerald’s star was on the rise when Marilyn Monroe demanded the owner of the popular nightclub, the Mocambo, book Fitzgerald on his stage. He had previously refused to book her because he felt she lacked the “glamour” his audience demanded (some historians say he did not want to book a black musician). Monroe told the owner she would take a front table every night Fitzgerald performed, promising the “press would go wild.” They did, and Fitzgerald recalled years later that she owed Monroe “a real debt,” adding, “After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again.”
Fitzgerald was known for her incredible work ethic, and often played two shows a day in cities hundreds of miles apart. She did not slow down as she aged, refusing to slow her hectic performance schedule until after her half-sister, Frances, died and Fitzgerald took on care of her sister’s family. She received the National Medal of Arts from the United States in 1987 and a similar award from France several years later, finally giving what would be her final concert in Carnegie Hall in 1991. She eventually had both legs amputated in an attempt to control side effects from severe diabetes. Fitzgerald died in 1996, but her legacy lives on. Now, turn on a “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” or “Dream a Little Dream of Me” and take a minute to enjoy that legacy for yourself!