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How Ella Fitzgerald Found Her Voice

Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)

Though she was blessed with impeccable intonation, a distinctive sound, and a superb sense of timing, Ella Fitzgerald was hindered in her early years by the limitations of the repertoire she sang. It took some time, determination, and visionary collaboration for Ella to find her voice.As jazz lovers around the world celebrate Ella Fitzgerald’s birth on April 25th, WRTI’s Debra Lew Harder and Bob Craig take a look at the key element Ella Fitzgerald needed to become the "First Lady of Song."

Radio script:

[MUSIC: “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” Ella Fitzgerald with the Chick Webb Orchestra]

Debra Lew Harder: A hit song at 21 would seem a blessing for any singer. But in the decade after 1938, when she recorded “A Tisket-A Tasket,” Ella Fitzgerald was labelled...

Bob Craig: ...kind of a gimmicky singer.

It was her collaboration in the late '50s with producer Norman Granz that made her the Queen of Jazz.

DLH: WRTI’s Bob Craig

BC: She was recording songs like "The Muffin Man," "Dipsy Doodle,” and "I'm Just a Jitterbug." These were like nothing songs.

DLH: ...that made her seem frivolous compared to her peer Billie Holiday. People wondered...

BC: ...what kind of career is this person going to have? But in the late 1940s, Ella Fitzgerald started experimenting with jazz singing. She was scatting, she was doing be-bop, she gave a dynamic version of "How High the Moon."

[MUSIC: "How High the Moon,” by Nancy Hamilton and Morgan Lewis; Ella Fitzgerald with The Daydreamers]

BC: That really established herself as one terrific jazz singer.

DLH: Her jazz prowess deepened with her 1950 album of Gershwin songs, with pianist Ellis Larkins.

[MUSIC: "But Not For Me," by George and Ira Gershwin; Ella Fitzgerald, vocals; Ellis Larkins, piano]

DLH: But it was her collaboration in the late '50s with producer Norman Granz that made her the Queen of Jazz. Her albums, The Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and George and Ira Gershwin Songbooks, comprised over a hundred songs that showed every aspect of Ella’s voice and versatility.

BC: It was a masterpiece...

[MUSIC: "The Man I Love," by George and Ira Gershwin, arr. Nelson Riddle, Ella Fitzgerald with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra]


DLH: Ella dominated jazz singing until her death almost 40 years later. Like an actress who needs good roles to achieve her finest work, Ella mastered jazz to develop from gimmicky singer into one whose impact remains timeless.

You can celebrate Ella at these upcoming Philly Pops concerts on March 31, April 1, and April 2!

Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.