The late Ella Fitzgerald wasn’t hailed as ‘The First Lady of Song’, for nothing. The Virginia native was one of the best singers to have ever graced the earth, and without her huge strides in tone, diction and timing, the stage would not have been set for the likes of Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Adele to blow us away with their own unique styles of vocal delivery.
Fitzgerald is commended for the purity of her vocals, as well as her phrasing and “horn-like” improvisational ability, which would often find itself morphing into scat-singing and blowing audiences away. American audiences didn’t know what hit them when she burst onto the scene in the mid-’30s.
Fitzgerald’s tale is well known. She had a tumultuous upbringing but eventually found stability and musical success with the Chick Webb Orchestra, which saw her cut her teeth and perform across the US. Her redux of the traditional nursery rhyme ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ in 1938 helped establish her and Webb as household names, and after that momentous hit, her career was a distinguished one.
Famously, Fitzgerald appeared in a string of movies and had many guest appearances on the most popular television shows during the latter half of the 20th century, which only endeared her more to fans. She also collaborated with a host of iconic musicians, including Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, granting her even more artistic and commercial success.
These collaborations with others are regarded as enabling Fitzgerald to have some of her best moments, on famous cuts such as ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’, ‘Cheek to Cheek’, and ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’.
Another little known fact about Ella Fitzgerald is that she was close friends with the original Queen of popular culture, Marilyn Monroe. Once when asked about the identity of her favourite singer, the Some Like It Hot star, explained: “Well, my very favourite person, and I love her as a person as well as a singer, I think she’s the greatest, and that’s Ella Fitzgerald.”
Monroe was right in her assertion. At the peak of her powers, Ella Fitzgerald was untouchable. Undoubtedly, one of her best moments came when she and Louis Armstrong covered George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ as part of their 1958 album Porgy and Bess. The record was the third and final of the pair’s albums for Verve Records, and it is a suite of selections from Gershwin’s iconic opera of the same name.
Out of the whole selection, ‘Summertime’ is the most esteemed, and on it, Fitzgerald shines. Her vocals are potent and enchanting and listening to the isolated vocal track, you’re in dreamland. One would even argue that there has never been a voice so beautiful as Fitzgerald’s. It was simply exquisite, and she took Gershwin’s song to a different level, a testament to her skill and unmistakable style.
Listen to Ella Fitzgerald’s isolated vocals for ‘Summertime’ below.