Happy 100th Birthday, Ella Fitzgerald!
The incomparable Ella Fitzgerald was born 100 years ago today in Newport News, Virginia. Here are 10 EF Did-You-Knows:
- Though Fitzgerald’s parents were never married, they had lived together for more than two years when she was born. When Fitzgerald was still a young girl, her mother and another partner moved together to Yonkers.
- Fitzgerald was an excellent student, despite changing schools with frequency. As a young girl, she loved to dance to jazz records, often performing for friends and classmates.
- Fitzgerald’s family was active in the church, so she grew up hearing hymns and sacred songs in that setting, but she also loved listening to jazz records, especially the recordings of Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and the Boswell Sisters (Connee Boswell was a particular favorite). “My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it,” she would later say. “I tried so hard to sound just like her.”
- When Fitzgerald was 15, her mother died from injuries suffered in a car accident, and Ella was sent to live with her aunt in Harlem. That didn’t go so well, and Fitzgerald soon became truant at school, her grades soon fell off and she was running with something of a rough crowd. She was sent first to an orphanage and later to a reform school, from which she escaped and took to living (and singing) on the streets.
- In 1934, when Fitzgerald was 17, she competed in an amateur night at the legendary Apollo Theatre. Her original intention was to dance on stage, but she decided at the last minute to sing, doing her best Connee Boswell impression in performing Judy and The Object of My Affection. She won the top prize of $25.00.
- Though she’s best remembered today as the kind of grand dame of jazz who played only the classiest of venues, Fitzgerald didn’t always soar in such rarified air: She began her career as just another girl singer for the Chick Webb Orchestra, singing pop and jazz hits for jitterbuggers in dance halls and ballrooms. Not long after her win at the Apollo, she was given the opportunity to perform with Webb at a dance at Yale University as an audition for long-term employment. Webb was skeptical of the gawky and somewhat disheveled Fitzgerald’s suitability for the job, but the Yale students and Webb’s band members both responded positively to her singing, and the job was hers.
- Soon thereafter She and the Webb outfit enjoyed several chart hits and Fitzgerald became a star in her own right, so much so that when Webb passed away in 1939, the orchestra was renamed Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra.
- In 1942, the erstwhile Webb orchestra disbanded and Fitzgerald went out on her own as a solo artist. She enjoyed a number of hits as the swing era wound down and her scat singing abilities were put to good use during the bebop era. She was now viewed as one of the great jazz vocalists of the day.
- Fitzgerald eventually began to feel that she was being restricted by the public’s view of her as a bebop singer, Norman Granz, her manager, created the Verve label for her and in 1956 the pair worked together to record The Cole Porter Songbook.
- Over the next eight years, Fitzgerald recorded a series of eight songbooks, each dedicated to a different composer from the era of the Great American Songbook. It was a groundbreaking concept, one that brought Fitzgerald’s music to a new audience. The songbooks were arguably Fitzgerald’s greatest accomplishment, but she continued to work and grow as an artist as long as her health allowed it. Her last recordings were undertaken in 1991 and her final public performances came in 1993. When she died on June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald was viewed almost universally as one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th century.
Happy birthday, Ms. Fitzgerald, wherever you may be!
Happy 102nd Birthday, Billie Holiday!
The legendary Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan 102 years ago today in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Here are 10 BH Did-You-Knows:
- Holiday’s childhood was a tough one. Her parents were teenagers and never married. Her mother worked mostly on railroads and so left Holiday with her half-sister, Eva, and Eva’s mother-in-law in Baltimore. By nine, Holiday was sent to a Catholic reform school due to her truancy and other behavioral issues. Eventually, her mother opened a restaurant and Holiday dropped out of school at age 11 to help with its operation. At 12, Holiday was raped by a neighbor and, after a stint in protective custody as a state witness against the perpetrator, she began working as an errand girl for a brothel.
- At 14, Holiday was reunited with her mother, who had relocated to Harlem. Their landlady was the madam of a brothel and soon, both mother and daughter were working as prostitutes. Thankfully, Holiday, who had by then been exposed to the music of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, also began singing in Harlem nightspots. Her professional name came from actress Billie Dove and jazz musician Clarence Holiday, believed by many to be her long-absent father.
- Holiday’s close friend and musical collaborator, saxophonist Lester Young, was the person who gave her the nickname with which she would come to be so closely associated, Lady Day. She gave him his nickname, Prez, because of her deep respect for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
- Though Holiday’s singing style was distinctive and memorable, her vocal range was limited, just over one octave.
- Holiday’s 1941 recording of Gloomy Sunday, though by some to inspire suicides, was banned from airplay on the BBC until 2002.
- Holiday was a comic book fan as an adult; Captain Marvel was a particular favorite.
- Holiday, by then a heroin addict, was sent to prison in 1947 on a narcotics conviction. Eleven days after her release in March 1948, she performed before a sold-out house at Carnegie Hall.
- Holiday once named fellow vocalist Jo Stafford as her favorite musical artist; she admired Stafford, she said, because she was so ladylike.
- Nightclub performers in New York were required to have cabaret cards, a kind of municipal license to perform. Holiday’s narcotics-related legal troubles prevented her for acquiring a card, so she was unable to perform in NYC clubs for the final 12 years of her life.
- Holiday’s hardscrabble childhood left her with a lifelong fear of poverty. When she passed away, she had less than a dollar in the bank and had $750 strapped to her leg.
Happy birthday, Billie Holiday, wherever you may be!
Happy 107th Birthday, Johnny Mercer!
Lyricist, composer and singer Johnny Mercer, one of the greatest lyricists to contribute to the Great American Songbook, was born John Herndon Mercer 107 years ago today in Savannah, Georgia. Here are 10 JM Did-You-Knows:
- Mercer’s father was an attorney; his mother was his father’s secretary before she became his second wife.
- Mercer was exposed to a wide range of African-American music as a child. His aunt took him to minstrel and vaudeville shows, and he spent time with many black playmates (and his family’s servants). He also was drawn to Savannah’s black fishermen and street vendors, as well as African-American church services. As a teenager, he collected records by black artists such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.
- Mercer was singing in church choirs by age six, and within a few years, had demonstrated a penchant for memorizing all the popular songs of the day.
- His family frequently escaped Savannah’s heat at a mountain retreat near Ashville, North Carolina, and it was there that young Mercer learned to dance from none other than Arthur Murray himself.
- Mercer moved to NYC in 1928, taking bit parts as an actor and continuing to work on the songwriting he’d begun to experiment with back in Savannah. He took a job at a brokerage house to pay the bills, and began to sing around town. He once pitched a song to Eddie Cantor, and though Cantor didn’t buy the song, he was very encouraging to Mercer.
- Mercer preferred writing standalone songs to writing for musicals, where the lyrics had to fit the show, so when the revue format gave way to book musicals on Broadway, he moved to Los Angeles and took a job with RKO.
- Mercer founded Capitol Records with songwriter Buddy G. DeSylva and businessman Glenn Wallichs in 1942, investing $25,000. In 1955, he sold his share in the company for $20 million.
- Mercer was married to Ginger Mehan from 1931 until his death in 1976, but he had an on-and-off affair with Judy Garland.
- A fan once wrote Mercer, suggesting the song title I Wanna Be Around (to Pick Up the Pieces When Somebody Breaks Your Heart). Mercer quickly wrote a song by that title, and when it became a hit, he gave the fan half his royalties.
- Mercer was a distant cousin of Gen. George S. Patton.
Happy birthday, Johnny Mercer, wherever you may be!
Happy 115th birthday, Louis Armstrong!
The great Louis Armstrong was born 115 years ago today in New Orleans, Louisiana. Here are 10 LA Did-You-Knows:
- Armstrong was the grandson of slaves.
- He grew up rough in the Storyville section of New Orleans and as a sometimes-delinquent teenager, he found himself more than once sent to the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys. It was there that he honed his abilities in playing the cornet.
- The young Armstrong played with many bands in the Crescent City, but it was his time with band of Fate Marable‘s riverboat outfit that perhaps proved most influential in his style and ability. He once referred to his time with Marable as “going to the University.”
- His nickname morphed from Satchelmouth to Satchmo during a 1932 European tour when an editor of a London music magazine referred to him by that soubriquet, perhaps based on a shorthand version of Satchelmouth in his notes.
- Armstrong tended to remember faces but not names, so he made it a practice to call “Pops” anyone whose name was eluding his memory. Eventually, friends turned that around on him, and it became another of the nicknames by which he was known.
- Armstrong claimed most of his life to have been born on July 4, 1900, but some years after he died, a birth record was discovered that revealed his true birth date.
- Armstrong was unfamiliar with both the song Hello, Dolly! and the show it came from when he recorded it in 1964. It became his first No. 1 hit.
- An avid user of a herbal laxative called Swiss Kriss, he adhered to the questionable belief that the regular use of laxatives was key to good health.
- Armstrong is said to have coined the slang terms “cat” (a jazz musician) and “chops” (a musician’s skill with his instrument).
- Louis Armstrong’s home in the Corona section of Queens, New York, where he and his fourth wife, Lucille, settled in in 1943, is now a museum and remains furnished much as it was when the pair resided there.
Happy birthday, Satchmo, wherever you may be!
Happy 106th Birthday, Mary Lou Williams!
Composer, arranger and pianist extraordinaire Mary Lou Williams was born 106 years ago today in Atlanta, Georgia. Mary Lou’s mother and grandmother both worked as laundresses, but on the weekends, they drank heavily and argued. Mary Lou was a child prodigy on the piano, earning money to help support her family by entertaining at parties thrown by well-to-do white families.
As a teenager, she escaped the unhealthy home environment she’d grown up in, playing piano in traveling shows before settling in Kansas City in the late 1920s; it was an era when jazz music was dominated by men, and few were willing to give a young woman like Mary Lou a chance. Her husband, John Williams, was hired by bandleader Andy Kirk, and when Chicago record executive Jack Kapp came to town to audition local talent for the Brunswick label, Kirk’s usual pianist didn’t show. Williams, who had been touting Mary Lou’s abilities, convinced Kirk to give her a try.
Mary Lou was called and she rushed down to the club. The gig was a success, and Kapp arranged with Kirk for the band to do a recording session in Chi-town. The trouble was, when they arrived in the Windy City, they hadn’t brought Mary Lou with them, considering her just a fill-in. Kapp didn’t consider her a fill-in, though; he told Kirk there would be no recording with her. She was hastily summoned from Kansas City, and the session was a success.
With Mary Lou providing innovative arrangements and excelling in her role as featured instrumentalist, the Kirk Orchestra became more popular than ever. Eventually, Kirk and Williams began to butt heads as she continued to try to stretch out as a composer and arranger. She began to hear from other bandleaders—Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong, among them—asking her to do arrangements for them, and that perhaps understandably didn’t sit well with Kirk. For her part, Mary Lou felt underappreciated and underpaid, so she parted ways with Kirk and moved to New York, where Duke Ellington invited her to do arrangements for his orchestra.
That wasn’t a full-time gig, though, and Mary Lou was looking for her chance to shine. It came when jazz producer John Hammond arranged for her to be a featured performer at Café Society. She played there with just bass and drums as accompaniment, which required something of an adjustment on her part, after years of being a key cog in a big band. It was all on her now. Her run at the nightspot proved to be a success.
Though others of her generation rejected the innovations that came to be known as bebop, Mary Lou, ever looking to grow and stretch out, embraced them. “I tried to encourage the Modernists,” she said, “because I believed that bebop was here to stay.” This, even though she felt that many of the leaders of the new movement had borrowed from her work without giving her due credit.
Mary Lou’s NYC apartment became something of a salon where young jazz musicians would gather. She was willing to serve as something of a mentor to these young up-and-comers. She even wrote a song, In The Land of Oo-Bla-Dee, that was a big hit for Dizzy Gillespie and his band.
Sadly, at this stage of her life, Mary Lou was associated in minds of many with an older style of music and she wasn’t able to secure a recording contract, though she had a popular radio show at the time. Inspired in part by Ellington’s groundbreaking jazz suite, Black, Brown and Beige, she aimed to have a series of piano sketches she’d composed, under the name The Zodiac Suite, performed by an orchestra, and she succeeded: In 1946, an historic performance of the suite was undertaken at Carnegie Hall. But the reviews were not positive: It seemed the critics viewed The Zodiac Suite as neither fish nor foul, neither jazz nor classical.
So Mary Lou Williams, like many African-American jazz musicians before her, looked to Europe, but unlike many who preceded her in taking their talents overseas, Mary Lou found no satisfaction there. She returned to NYC and holed herself up in her apartment, putting aside music altogether as she dealt with emotional and mental distress.
As she put it, “Music had left my head.” She began to experience bad dreams, which she tried to interpret through drawings. She felt frightened when she began receiving messages from comic books, television and radio. “One day,” she said, “I heard a sound, like, ‘Go and purchase a rosary.’ I wondered what was happening; yet, I followed my sound to a Catholic church and started wailing madly. I was 44 years old and never asked God for forgiveness.”
Mary Lou found solace in the church—a “feeling of eternity,” as she put it. She joined St. Francis of Xavier church, where she met Father Anthony Woods, who encouraged her to return to her music. “Mary, you’re an artist,” he told her. “It’s your business to help people through music.” Father Woods asked Mary to consider writing a mass, and she was energized by the concept of combining her faith with her gift for music.
That request from Father Woods led Mary back into her music, and she experienced a renaissance in her career, finding herself in demand again.
Mary Lou Williams passed away from cancer in 1981, at the age of 71. She had arranged and composed more than 350 pieces of music.
Happy birthday, Ms. Williams, wherever you may be.
You think that money is everything
And yet it’s anybody’s spring.
Go make a fortune, become a king
And still it’s anybody’s spring.
And if you flash a bank roll
Do you suppose the brook would care?
Or that a rose would say
“There goes a millionaire!”
It’s more than diamonds around a ring
Because it’s anybody’s spring.
You may be born with the silver spoon
And yet it’s anybody’s moon
You couldn’t buy a ticket
To hear the first robin sing
It’s free because
It’s anybody’s spring.
Music by James Van Heusen, lyrics by Johnny Burke, 1944