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Early Hardship Couldn't Muffle Ella Fitzgerald's Joy

Music was always her refuge, but Ella Fitzgerald never thought she would be a singer until she won an Amateur Night contest at the Apollo Theater in 1934.
The Rudy Calvo Collection Cache Agency
Music was always her refuge, but Ella Fitzgerald never thought she would be a singer until she won an Amateur Night contest at the Apollo Theater in 1934.

One hundred years ago Tuesday, in a working-poor neighborhood of Newport News, Va., a laundress and a shipyard worker had a baby girl. The father soon disappeared, and the mother and child moved north to New York. The mother died. The girl ran away and became one of the most important singers of the 20th century.

Ella Fitzgerald could sing anything: a silly novelty song, like her breakthrough hit, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." A samba that scatted. A ballad, spooling out like satin.

And, as Harlem historian John T. Reddick points out, she did it all with a certain lightness. "Despite whatever difficulties she had in her life, you could hear the joy," Reddick says.

Fitzgerald's joy rang out through what Smithsonian Curator of American Music John Hasse says were terrible days. "It was a really tough time: segregation, the Great Depression, poverty, unemployment," he says.

From early on, music was Fitzgerald's salvation. It was where she lived. She could lose herself in it and go somewhere else, no matter what was happening around her.

Northeastern University music historian Judith Tick imagines the young girl "singing by herself in a corner of a recess schoolyard and looking happy, smiling and laughing." Tick, who's writing a Fitzgerald biography, found some schoolteacher's progress reports on the young singer from ages 7 to 13, which said that Fitzgerald was an excellent student with a good memory.

"When she was 7 years old, one of her teachers called her 'self-reliant,' " Tick says. "And then a couple of years later one called her 'ambitious.' "

But everything changed when her beloved mother died. Fitzgerald, then 15, hit hard times: There was a stepfather who treated her badly and an aunt who took the teenage girl away and moved her in with her own family. So she started skipping school.

"She was on the streets of Harlem dancing for tips," Hasse says.

She earned more pennies as a lookout for cops outside a brothel. At one point, she was arrested for truancy and sent to a reform school, where she was regularly beaten. So she ran away — this awkward, gawky girl with skinny legs and old, cast-off boots — with no money, living on the streets and sleeping where she could.

Fitzgerald almost never talked about all that. What she did talk about was an Amateur Night contest at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 1934. She was 17 years old.

"I never thought I was a singer," Fitzgerald once told Brian Linehan of the CBC. "When I first went on the stage, I went out to dance. ... But I'd never been in front of the lights and I saw all of those people out there, I just got stage fright. And the man said, 'Well, you're out here. Do something!' "

But she couldn't dance, because her legs were shaking — and who could blame her?

"The Apollo audiences were ruthless," Hasse says. "Especially the upper balcony [with] the cheap seats. ... Those kids would make the upper balcony jump up and down if they liked somebody, and boo like hell if they didn't."

Fitzgerald admired singer Connee Boswell's style — rhythmic, lilting and sweet. She decided to sing like her.

"And they said, 'Oh, that girl can sing.' And I won first prize," Fitzgerald recalled.

Ambitious, she started making the rounds. At a time when female singers were slim and sexy, bandleader Fletcher Henderson thought she didn't look good enough to put onstage. Chick Webb felt the same way at first, but he took her on with his band. Four years later, in 1938, she had her first hit — with lyrics she helped write. Eventually, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" sold a million records, and Fitzgerald kept on singing for the rest of her life.

That's a good thing for more reasons than one. As she laughingly said herself, "If I was dancin', I'd have been starving a long time ago."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 25, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of the Smithsonian Curator of American Music. It is Hasse, not Haase.
Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.