Although most notable for her contributions to jazz and the unique, velvety voice she wooed audiences with, Ella Fitzgerald was also a pioneer for the civil rights movement.
During her life, she was awarded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Equal Justice Award and the American Black Achievement Award, among other well-deserved accolades. Though she remained dignified in the face of racial discrimination, Fitzgerald still spoke from the heart about such matters, something which can be heard in this rare 1963 interview with New York radio host Fred Robbins that has emerged after going unheard for decades.
Speaking in the interview of the discrimination she faced while performing, Fitzgerald said, “Maybe I’m stepping out (of line), but I have to say it because it’s in my heart. It makes you feel so bad to think we can’t go down through certain parts of the South and give a concert like we do overseas and have everybody just come to hear the music and enjoy the music because of the prejudiced thing that’s going on.”
She continued: “I used to always clam up because you (hear people) say, ‘Oh, gee, show people should stay out of politics.’ But we have traveled so much and been embarrassed so much. (Fans) can’t understand why you don’t play in Alabama, or (ask), ‘Why can’t you have a concert? Music is music.’”
When Fitzgerald’s career began to pick up in the 1950s, venues had a hard time denying Fitzgerald access based on race due to her passionate and growing fan base, which included icon Marilyn Monroe, nonetheless. In October of 1957, Monroe wanted to show support to Fitzgerald after being constantly disrespected, so she called Los Angele’s Mocambo nightclub and made a deal with them using her popularity. If the club let Fitzgerald perform, Monroe promised that she would take a front-row seat every night, which, when it played out, tremendously boosted the club’s image. As a result, Fitzgerald became the first African American to perform at Mocambo.
While this move boosted Fitzgerald’s career to new heights, in the interview, she touched on the unwillingness of some people to change their mindsets. “The die-hards, they’re just going to die hard,” she said. “They’re not going to give in. You’ve got to try and convince the younger ones, they’re the ones who’ve got to make the future and those are the ones we’ve got to worry about. Not those die-hards.”
After the interview was over, Robbins assured Fitzgerald it would be made public globally, but for unknown reasons, it was never released. In 2018, at the Paley Center for Media, author Reggie Nadelson discovered the lost recording.
Although throughout her career Fitzgerald was often reserved when it came to speaking out due to the negative effect it would have on her career, she was grateful for the opportunity to speak her mind freely in this setting.
After the on-record portion of the interview was over, Fitzgerald showed her worry. “I really ran my mouth. Is it going down South? You think they’re going to break my records up when they hear it? This is unusual for me.” After the moment of apprehensiveness, she continued, “I’m so happy that you had me, because instead of singing, for a change, I got a chance to get a few things off my chest. I’m just a human being.”
Listen to Ella Fitzgerald’s lost interview about racism below.