By Brenda Alford
AFRO Guest editor
During the summer of my 11th year, I was allowed for the first time to go shopping in a record store in Fells Point in East Baltimore on my own, with my own money. Enter the magic of the wondrous Miss Ella Fitzgerald! While I was browsing in the record store one afternoon, the manager played a song over their loud speaker (that’s what they did in those days). I heard something I had never heard before and I loved it! Ella Fitzgerald romping through a burning version of, “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie.” It was fast, it was crisp, it was clear, and man, did it swing! I bought that 45 r.p.m. record, took it home, played it repeatedly, and then…I discovered the treasure on the “B” side! It weakened my knees and turned me into a true jazz fan. Her “Cry Me a River” was the most amazing recording to me, and to this day, I don’t know why I was so affected by it at such a young age.
Fast forward to April 30, 1978. My best friend and I went to the Lyric Opera House to see Ella Fitzgerald in concert. Afterward, I recognized her drummer as this person who had invited us to a musician’s party in New York months before. His name was Freddie Waits. I went up to the stage while he was packing up and he remembered me, telling me that I must go backstage and meet Miss Fitz. So, he literally took me by the hand backstage, and she ushered me into her dressing room, talking with me for what seemed like hours. So much was spoken! It had been announced in the concert that she wasn’t feeling well that day, and that she wouldn’t be doing her usual post-concert 20 minute meet-and-greet, so I was in total shock at the opening of her dressing room door, the come-on-in, and the conversation that left me so filled with joy and wonder that, after I came out, I did the only cartwheel that I’ve ever done in my entire life on the sidewalk on Mount Royal Avenue in front of the Lyric Opera House in a white silk Chanel suit (with ankle length pleated skirt)!
Thank you, Ella Fitzgerald! That day, you taught me how you got through the heartbreaks in your mostly bleak young life-you told me to think good thoughts. I even wrote a song about it. That day you taught me what kindness to a stranger can mean–you shared your time, energy, and wisdom with me unselfishly although you were sick. And you taught me the power of the human spirit and how it can bring an Opera House full of people to a standing, cheering ovation in reverence and celebration of the joy you brought with your singing, despite the difficulties in your life.
Now here I am, in my 70’s, so grateful for the ladies who got me ready for such a time as this, way back in the 70’s. Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin. Thank you, ladies, for helping me become who I am today.
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