Ella Fitzgerald´s first performance took place in 1934. At the time, the talented 17-year-old could not suspect that she would grow up to be the First Lady of Song. She would have been the perfect model for the Queen of Jazz versus Rock chess set.  

African-American woodwind and brass players in white suits, a bass player and a singer in a long evening gown. Even though we are talking about chess pieces here, you can almost hear the jazz tunes. This Jazz versus Rock chess set is part of the Rademaker Collection, which has been on display at the Chessmen Museum since the beginning of last year. Ella Fitzgerald could very well be the Jazz singer in white, considering she is one of the biggest stars in music history.


Little Ella did not have an easy childhood. She was born in 1917 in Virginia, in the south of the United States, where racial discrimination was widespread. She was born into a poor family and her parents, William and Temperance, divorced shortly after Ella´s birth. Mother Tempi left with Ella for Yonkers, New York, and moved in with her new partner Joseph Da Silva. Ella’s half-sister Frances was born in 1923. Tempi and Joseph tried to make ends meet as best as they could, working multiple jobs. At an early age, Ella started contributing financially by working as a ´runner´, which meant picking up completed gambling forms and taking them to the betting office.

Ella Jane Fitzgerald in 1940

Despite the poverty, Ella was a happy child who enjoyed playing baseball with her friends. It soon became clear that she was also musically gifted. She liked to sing and dance and whenever she could, she took a train to the Harlem district of New York. This is where the well-known Apollo Theater was, where famous musicians took the stage.

However, when Ella was fifteen, disaster struck. Her mother died in a car accident and shortly after, Joseph died of a heart attack. This had a huge impact on the girl. Ella and her sister moved in with their aunt, but Ella couldn´t settle in. She started skipping school more and more and she even got into trouble with the police.
She was sent to a correctional institution, the New York Training school for Girls in Hudson, where dark girls were a minority. She was discriminated against, and beaten by the teachers. Ella was so miserable that she soon ran away and started living on the streets as a homeless person. Meanwhile, the Great Depression of the 1930s had been wreaking havoc, causing extreme poverty and high unemployment. This horrible time had such an impact on the adolescent that she refused to speak about it at all until 1994.


Amatur Night in the Apollo Theater

But Ella took matters into her own hands. The Apollo Theater in New York organised amateur nights on a regular basis and on 21 November, 1934, 17-year-old Ella signed up to perform a dance act. She was so impressed with the competition, however, that she decided to take a different approach at the last minute. The audience was already booing Ella, when the shy girl started singing the first notes of her song. She had asked the accompanying band to play Hoagy Carmichael’s song Judy, one of her mother’s favourite songs. Soon, her voice made the room go quiet and at the end of the song the audience even requested encores. There was no sign left of her shyness when Ella was on stage…

The saxophone player of the band, Benny Carter, was so impressed with Ella’s performance and her talent that he took her under his wing. He introduced her to people who could help her get her singing career off the ground. She participated in all kinds of talent shows, which she often won. One of the prizes was a one-week gig at The Harlem Opera House, where she performed together with the Tiny Bradshaw Band, in January 1935. The band was very impressed by the young singer, but they had already employed a regular singer. However, when Ella caused a sensation at a student party at Yale University during that same week, she was allowed to stay on. Ella and the band soon became the regular act at the famous and chic Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom.


More than a year later, in the summer of 1936, Ella released her first album: Love and Kisses. More albums would follow. They sold pretty well, but that was it. In the meantime, Ella had started to notice that the music style was changing and there was less demand for the ‘big band’ music that she was playing with the band. The lively jazz style Bebop came into fashion and Ella started experimenting with it. In 1938, she was recording songs for a new album, and she sang one of them, the old lullaby A-Tisket, A-Tasket, in Bebop style. With this song, she had her first real hit. The album was in the charts for 17 weeks, including in first place, and sold a million times. Ella Fitzgerald became famous overnight.

She would become the most popular jazz singer in history. With her wide range and the ability to sing all kinds of different styles, Ella struck a chord with a large audience. Her fans included the rich and the poor, white people and people of colour, both in the United States and outside of the country, she had fans everywhere. The First Lady of Song would continue to perform for nearly sixty years, working together with all the important jazz musicians and all around the world. She won 13 Grammy Awards and sold over 40 million records.

Ella Fitzgerald made her last public appearance in 1992, at Carnegie Hall. The old lady was exhausted. She suffered from diabetes, her eyesight and her voice had deteriorated a lot and in the following year, her diabetes would cause her to lose both of her legs. In 1996, the musical eminence took her last breath in her house in Beverly Hills. Little Ella had never expected to become this successful.

By Marjolein Overmeer