Unconventional Mentor no. 19 Ella Fitzgerald
"Just don't give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong."
I have had a twenty plus year love affair with Ella Fitzgerald. I can’t remember the first time I heard her voice or what the song was, but I do remember being amazed that someone could make such a rich, warm and emotion invoking sound with their voice. At the time I was singing as a chorister where my high, angelic voice sounded nothing like the sound that Ella was making, and I couldn’t work out how she could do it. I sing along to her now when I am listening at home and I can’t even get close to the sound she made or the versatility her voice had.
“It isn’t where you came from; it’s where you’re going that counts.”
Ella Fitzgerald didn’t have the easiest starts in life. Her biological father left her mother soon after Ella was born. She lived with her mother, stepfather and half-sister in Yonkers, NY until her mother was tragically killed in a car crash when Ella was 15 years old, and her stepfather died not long after too and she was brought up by her aunt. This time in her life was difficult, after skipping school and getting into trouble with the police she ended up at a reform school. Her escape came in 1934 when she took part in an Amateur night at The Apollo, singing quite by chance but discovering a talent. From here she entered every talent show going until she finally got a record label.
"The only thing better than singing is more singing."
Throughout her life Ella Fitzgerald worked incredibly hard, performing all over the world and selling millions of records. As well as dealing with the struggles that come with being a singer who toured constantly, her relationships were strained by her singing commitments, Ella also faced discrimination as a black artist in a time in America when segregation was widespread. On one occasion in Dallas she was arrested, with the police having the audacity to ask for an autograph at the police station. According to her website, Marilyn Monroe was a huge supporter of her and helped to further her career…
"I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt," Ella later said. "It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the '50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him - and it was true, due to Marilyn's superstar status - that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman - a little ahead of her times. And she didn't know it."
I love that Marilyn Monroe used her power and influence as a white woman to provide an opportunity for a black singer, a real example of women supporting women and building each other up.
"I know I'm no glamour girl, and it's not easy for me to get up in front of a crowd of people. It used to bother me a lot, but now I've got it figured out that God gave me this talent to use, so I just stand there and sing."
I was surprised that Ella Fitzgerald struggled with her appearance and her confidence. Her voice sounds so assured and she looks so glamorous in the pictures I have seen of her. In her singing Ella sounds so confident, but in the few video clips I can find of her she seems quietly confident but a bit uncomfortable being in front of the camera. I guess it goes to show that how people appear to the world and how they actually feel might be two different things.
"I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them" - Ira Gershwin
In 2017 I went to the Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie Prom at The Royal Albert Hall in London, celebrating 100 years since their birth. The songs were sung by Dianne Reeves who is an incredible vocalist (the trumpet was played by James Morrison who was just as talented) and it was wonderful to hear the music that Ella sang brought to life. What it would have been like to see her in concert!! You can see highlights of the concert here.
In 1993 Ella created The Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation to use her success to help others less fortunate than her. The foundation still exists today and provides support in education for children, supporting music students, providing food, shelter and healthcare for those in need, and providing medical care and research for diabetes and heart disease which Ella suffered from.
Ella Fitzgerald’s music continues to live on today. The 100th year of her birth saw concerts celebrating her life and albums released to celebrate her work. I know that I will continue to listen to Ella Fitzgerald for many years to come.
Mentor advice: Don’t give up trying
The advice that I take from Ella Fitzgerald is don’t give up trying at making your dreams a reality. Ella faced many challenges in her life, from grief and loss in her childhood, to discrimination as an established artist, but she never gave up on her dreams. She showed up, put the work in and believed in what she was doing. When you have a dream for your career or business you are not going to get there on the first attempt, and it may take you time, but you can guarantee you won’t get there unless you keep on trying. Don’t give up, find the love and inspiration to keep you going and try again until you do succeed. I am also reminded that just because someone looks confident and that they have everything figured out, it doesn’t mean that they feel that way. Putting on a confident performance and feeling confident about your abilities are two different things and you don’t necessarily need to have to feel confident to give a confident performance.
To find out more about Ella Fitzgerald visit the official website here.