Ella Fitzgerald, the multi-million selling jazz singer, would have turned 100 years-old on April 25. Fitzgerald’s rise and subsequent fame were chronicled widely in the pages of the AFRO over the course of her career. In 1937, the AFRO interviewed Fitzgerald as she got her hair done at Dixon’s Beauty Shop in Baltimore when she was 22 years-old. The interview is below.
And Now She’s the Queen of Sing
Oct. 9, 1937
It doesn’t sound like it could be true, but the hardest job that “Swinging Ella Fitzgerald” had three years ago was to get somebody to listen to her!
It sounds fantastic, but the voice that sells millions of records yearly, that almost overnight became the radio sensation of the swinging rhythm, might never have been known if an orchestra leader hadn’t been so harassed by the continued visits of Miss Fitzgerald that he decided the best way to get rid of her was to listen to her for five minutes.
She told me so herself as she sat in Dixon’s Beauty Shop, between shows at the Royal Theatre, where she has been appearing.
Ella, just twenty-two now, really wanted to be a dancer, but in order to get a chance to dance on the amateur programs; one had to make some sort of effort at singing.
However, when she walked on the stage of the Harlem Opera House, during an amateur audition a little over three years ago, it was her voice that made a hit with the audience, and that won the first prize for her.
Never Got Prize
“But I never did get the prize,” she smiled. “They promised me a week’s engagement, but they didn’t give it to me.”
“Well, what did they tell you?” I wanted to know.
“The same thing they tell all the other amateurs who win prizes and don’t get them,” she said with a twinkle. Sometimes, they make you see that whereas the audience picked you for some reason or other, you’re really not good enough for the stage yet.”
After that, she appeared on the amateur hour at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem four times, and each time she won first prize, and that was the end of it.
Her songs then were “Judy,” and “The Object of M
Ardoiali, who directs Chick Webb’s orchestra, heard her on one of these programs, and suggested that she come around to the Harlem Opera House, where Chick and the band were playing for a week, and let Chick hear her voice.
She went around all right, but soon found that letting, or rather getting Chick to hear her voice was another matter, altogether.
“You know how it is,” she said, “when someone’s very busy, and there are always so many things to demand his time.”
“Well, I went back, and kept going back every day that week. Finally, it was the last day, and the shows slipped by until it was the last performance.”
“Chick Webb was playing the next day at Yale University, and he was hurrying after the show to pack up and leave, but Ardouali kept pleading for just one chance for me, and finally Chick agreed to listen to one song. I sang ‘Judy,’ just as I had done on the amateur programs, the band following me.”
Went Along to Yale
“When I was through, the boys told Chick they liked my voice, and they took me to Yale with them. I’ve been with them ever since.”
“Do you think there are many youngsters around who really have talent, but who don’t get a chance to prove it?” she was asked.
“Well, it’s hard to say that there are many,” she replied, “but the public is fickle and likes beauty, and stage managers try to please the public.”
“So,” she went on modestly, “when a girl comes up and she looks like me, she just can’t get a chance. Many of these kids are good, but if they’re not nice looking, the odds are against them.”
Has Personality Plus
However, no matter what Ella may say about her looks, she has personality plus, and she is quite as congenial and friendly offstage as she appears in the show.
“You know,” she went on seriously, “no matter how good a person may be in this line of work, unless there is someone behind you to encourage and back you, you never get very far.”
“And Mr. Webb and the boys have always been cooperative and friendly to the highest extent. Mr. Webb has been unusually kind, taking a fatherly interest and giving advice when it has been most needed, even to seeing that I take care of my money,” she smiled.