With little prediction that she’d become an American legend and a universal music icon, the woman born Ella Jane Fitzgerald came into the world on April 25,1917 in Newport News, Virginia. Throughout her decades-spanning career, this extraordinary performer would be nicknamed “Lady Ella”, The First Lady of Song”, and “The Queen of Jazz”… but to millions of her fans in the worlds of jazz and beyond, simply “Ella” was often enough to evoke her inimitable aura. Ms. Fitzgerald’s artistic appeal transcended race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, and musical genre. Musically, Fitzgerald was noted for the “purity” of her tone. She was praised for her impeccable diction, phrasing, and intonation. As a performer, she possessed the superior ability to improvise, which made her a pioneer in scat singing. Ms. Fitzgerald died on June 15, 1996, but her legacy is stronger than ever as we enter the second half of 2018.
Speaking of nicknames… Emmy Award-winning and Grammy Award-nominated performer/author Geoffrey Mark has been called “a walking encyclopedia of show business history”. Originally from Brooklyn, Mr. Mark is an off-Broadway veteran, singer, and stand-up comedian in nightclubs and cabarets. He has hosted radio series, written comedy for several stand-up comedians, and writes and produces documentaries and reality shows for cable television. Now living in Rancho Mirage, California, Mark has three best-selling books, including The Lucy Book, a retrospective of the five-decade television career of another American icon, Lucille Ball. He is the producer of Nigel: Come Back to Me, a CD with a seventeen piece Big Band. Geoffrey Mark knows more than a thing or two about Ella Fitzgerald. He personally saw Ella 25 times in concert. He was privileged to assist her during the later years, by providing playlists which utilized songs that fit her vocal range, in the order in which they should be performed. Geoffrey Mark’s new book is a all-embracing, 464-page biography of the ageless star, called ELLA: A Biography of the Legendary Ella Fitzgerald. ELLA chronicles the ultimate rags-to-riches embodiment of the American dream, whose personal life was one of the best-kept secrets in show business—until now. The Centennial Birthday Edition of ELLA is illustrated with dozens of photos of Ms. Fitzgerald, including artifacts from her life and her internationally acclaimed , seven-decade career. Developed with material from the archives of her estate, ELLA promises to reveal the unknown side of the famous vocalist. The book features many never-before seen photos, interviews, and anecdotes, and delivers for the first time the true, untold story of Ella the woman. A Deluxe Edition of the book is also available, which includes an exclusive 2-CD set of forty studio and live tracks. These tracks were lovingly and carefully selected by Mr. Mark from all four of her major recording labels, gathering for the first time ever in one collection the best of her work from 1938 through 1990, and programmed as she would have sung them in live performance.
With his new book, Geoffrey Mark is determined to bring his reader into the world that Fitzgerald lived in during her turbulent lifestyle. The author tells me:
The book will inform you what it was like in show business in the 1930’s, and especially what it was like for African-Americans. The home of the Chick Webb Orchestra was the Savoy Ballroom, which is why the song “Stomping at the Savoy” was written… and Chick’s band was the house band there after Ella came along. Chick was not in the same class as Count Basie and Duke Ellington before Ella came along. After Ella, they were “the big three”. There were two revolving stages at the Savoy Ballroom, so you could have “Battle of the Bands”. They had battles with Benny Goodman, battles with Duke Ellington, with Count Basie… They had battles with Billie Holiday singing for the other band. Chick and Ella almost always won. The were so wild in their playing that they would literally blow the windows out. The best comparison to the Savoy Ballroom in the 1930’s was comparable to Studio 54 in the disco era. Everyone went– black and white, rich and poor, young and old–to dance the night away until sunlight, drink a lot, smoke reefer, do cocaine… I mean, one of Ella’s songs was called “Wacky Dust”. It wasn’t about flour! (Laughs) That was the life. It kept up until World War II. I also talk about that in my book: How World War II changed show business and changed Ella. I talk about what happened to Ella’s career in the 1940’s when she was no longer the number one singer; now she was in the Top 20 of singers… and how a chance meeting with Norman Grant changed her life. Norman Grant became her manager, first for her live performances and then eventually for her recordings. We talk about how she went from being a 16-year old, completely brand spanking new green-as-grass singer and 20 years later, she’e a legend. How did that happen? It didn’t happen in a steady line! It was ups and downs, ups and downs. Everything she recorded is talked about, whether it was released or not. All the albums she made are discussed at great lengths by the fans who really want to know the stories behind the music. But for the people who want to know, “What was her love life like?” “What were her friends like?” “What was she as a mother?” “What were her religious beliefs?”, I go into those things as well. We go back and forth between the career-heavy and the personal life-heavy. The only thing I avoided was sensationalizing any of her personal life. I don’t believe that any good biography author writes with prejudice. You write with what you find, and you tell the story. You don’t tell the story hoping that the story is good National Enquirer material, or that TMZ is gonna pick up on it. You write the truth. I wrote the truth, with love and with respect. But it’s truth!
Currently in the middle of an ELLA book-promoting and a performing tour, Geoffrey Mark took the time to speak with me about all things Ella:
JR: Hi, Geoffrey! Congratulations on the new book!
GM: Thank you. The book is doing tremendously well. I could not be more pleased.
JR: That’s great to hear.
GM: We won’t get figures from the publisher until about after six months– but everywhere I’m going, the book is selling out, and we’re getting incredible reviews. We have two versions of the book. The book itself is over 450 pages and has over 270 photos in it. We also have a Deluxe Version with music in it. Everyone is spending a little more money and getting the Deluxe Version, which is blowing me away. The fans are just loving this.
JR: That’s terrific. I think that that’s the perfect “Ella experience”– listening to her music while reading about her life!
GM: I would think so! It all came about so innocently. There was no, “Ooh… I have a plan!” I was doing a show last April in honor of Ella’s 100th birthday, with the wonderful Patti Austin, at The Grammy Museum. Universal Music, which is a holding company for lots of music companies, had their representative there. We just started talking, and he mentioned to me that Decca, her first company, and Verve, her second company, were now under one umbrella. I’ve worked for both companies. I’m Grammy-nominated for working for Decca. I was happy to see that they’re both under one roof, because it all makes so much sense. Also, I learned that Ella’s Capitol music is also under that same umbrella. I was like, “Wow! That’s everything from 1935 to 1968.” He also told me that Pablo Records was a company that they now distribute. We had all this stuff under one corporate umbrella, which is all of her work minus two or three years from the late sixties. I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could put some of this music into the book?” That started the wheels turning. I’ve written a lot of album notes for Ella Fitzgerald CD’s and collections of her work. I thought that we could use something that already had my name on it and put it in the book. They came back to us and said, “You know… it would be just as expensive to do something new as it would to reprint something old. Why don’t we do something new so that you’re not competing with yourself on the market?” That led to what we have now: One CD of 20 songs which I feel is her best work in the studio, from the late ’30’s until 1990, sequenced just the way as if she were singing them at a concert… plus one CD of live stuff, which is Ella from the late ’40’s to the 70’s: the best of her live work, again sequenced exactly the way she would sing them at a concert. The response has just been tremendous. I don’t know why they didn’t think of it first– but I’m glad they didn’t! (Laughs)
JR: Yes! We can all be grateful for that. So… As you mentioned, Ms. Fitzgerald would have been 100 years old on April 25th, 2017. She left us in 1996, but to say her legacy is timeless would be a huge understatement. What inspired you to write a book about Ella… and what made this the right time for you to do it?
GM: Well, I’ve been working on it for 28 years…
JR: Oh, wow!
GM: It’s not like I woke up six month ago and said, “OK, I’ts 2 o’clock on a Monday. I think I’ll write a book about Ella!” I’ve been working on it a very long time– and I think that her 100th birthday was the right time. People are still talking about her. People are still buying her CD’s. She’s the most recorded woman in history, other than opera singers. In the 21st century, almost everything she’s ever done is still available– either as a download, or on CD, or online. Her concerts from all over the world are available on YouTube. There’s still this huge interest in her. I wanted to make sure that she was properly brought into the 21st century. I wasn’t alone with that. The Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, with whom I am working, also wanted the same thing. So, they’re very excited about the book. A portion of the proceeds from the Deluxe Edition of the book are going to the Foundation… and also, a portion of the concerts that I’m doing around the country are also going to the Foundation. Ella’s Foundation takes the money she left behind and helps the working poor. I’m very excited to be a part of that. It was tremendously important to Ella to do this. People don’t know what a charitable person she was, because she kept her private life so incredibly private that no one knew what she was doing. But I’m happy to tell you that charity was always a huge part of her life. Even though she’s no longer walking with us, her legacy isn’t just musical. It is financial as well. Her Foundation benefits the working poor. If you are a husband and wife who are working two jobs so that you can put your kids through school and live in a decent neighborhood– and heaven forbid one of you loses your job, or you need a computer for your kid, or you miss a mortgage payment, or you’re short on rent because your rent has increased– then the Foundation can help you. It helps people who are helping themselves, which was very important to Ella. Ella believed in that tremendously: that it’s important for people to help themselves, but that it’s important to remember that even with our best efforts, sometimes we all need extra help too. So, I guess politically, she was right down the middle. If you take the two ideologies of the very liberal Democrats and the very conservative Republicans, she’s down the middle. She didn’t believe that people should just “get stuff” because they felt like it, but she didn’t believe that we should turn our backs on people where they’d be on their own. She was down the middle, which makes sense to me.
JR: Right! She also unified all ethnicity, all classes, all ages, and music lovers of all types through her artistry. In that way, she was probably one of the most unifying voices in music history.
GM: Absolutely! I honestly believe that she’s the first African-American female singer– maybe just “singer”, but we’ll say “female” for the moment– where her work didn’t just appeal to African-Americans, or she didn’t only try to appeal to white folks. She appealed to music lovers, and she didn’t really care if you were black or white or Asian or Latino or gay or straight or young or old; she cared that you liked her music. That was her emphasis. Because of that, she was an influence on several generations of other singers. Behind the scenes, this shy– I mean VERY shy– and extraordinarily private woman was kicking in doors for other people to walk through, regardless of what your challenges were. Let’s start with African-American performers first: Because there was an Ella, there was a Lena Horne, and there was a Pearl Bailey, and there was a Sammy Davis Jr., and there was a Sarah Vaughn, and there was a Carmen McRae, and there was a Michael Jackson, and there’s a Diana Ross, and there’s a Diahann Carroll, and there’s a Beyonce, and there’s a Queen Latifah… because Ella made it possible first. But then you talk about non-African American performers: I had the pleasure of dining with Patti Andrews of The Andrews Sisters. I told her, “You know, Ella’s early work kind of sounds like you.” She said, “Hon-EY! You’ve got it backwards! I was copying Ella! She was the high water mark. And it wasn’t just me. Dinah Shore was copying her. Doris Day was copying her.” She mentioned three or four others of the big band era singers. She told me, “Whether it was a band or it was just a solo singer, Ella was the innovator. We were all trying to be like her.” Later on, in a separate meal–because they didn’t speak– I had dinner with Maxine Andrews. She said that because Patti was– well, not imitating Ella, but being highly influenced by her– that she and Laverne had to sing the same way, because they blended. So, Ella had this huge influence on the sound of The Andrews Sisters. So, she paved the way not just for African-American females, but for all women to not be treated like– and I don’t to sound so cliched– second-class citizens. She paved the way for women not to be taken for granted at a time when women were expected to put on an apron and stay in the kitchen. Ella said “No! I’m a career woman, and that’s OK.” She believed in “girl power” before there was such a phrase.
JR: Wow! So, you’ve actually worked with Ella herself, and have seen her perform many times, and you’ve been working on this project for 28 years…but was there anything new that you learned about Ms. Fitzgerald while writing this book?
GM: A lot! Her entire childhood. The public version of her childhood had been sanitized for her protection. Today, if you’ve got some incredible backstory to your life, they want to hear all about it. The more you suffered, the more fans you got!
GM: It’s true! When Ella was coming up in the 1930’s, there was no such thing. Your personal life had to be exemplary and perfect and scandal free. No matter who you were, if your father was a drug dealer and your mother was a prostitute, in newspapers they’d say that your father was a broker and your mother was a decorator. They just sanitized everything to make it sound good to the people who were buying tickets. Once you start your background that way, you’re kind of stuck with it. So, Ella bought into the press agentry– and never talked about the realities of her beginnings. But they were nightmarish. This was a young lady who never knew her birth father, and who was taken from the city she know as a toddler and moved to Yonkers, New York. Her mother had a Portuguese lover. It was a mixed relationship when that was not allowed. As you well know, New York City was always a melting pot– but the Irish lived “over here”, and the Latinos lived “over here”, and the Jews and Italians lived together “over there”, and the African-Americans lived “over there”, et cetera… with each neighborhood respecting the other. If you grew up in New York City, you knew when the Catholic holidays were, and you knew St. Patrick’s Day was important… but you still lived in your own neighborhood. In Yonkers, everyone lived together– and NOT happily. So, from when she was first aware of things, Ella knew that folks were judging her because she was African-American, and that her mother and mother’s lover weren’t married… and she was expected, as a girl, to learn nothing and to do nothing except to take care of the house. And that didn’t sit well with her. You and I both know that in the years that she was growing up, and the years that I was growing up– because I was born and raised in Brooklyn– that New York was a very Jewish and a very Catholic city. I don’t know if it still is, but those were the predominant religions back then. It doesn’t mean that New York was necessarily liberal all the time. The Catholic Legion of Decency was around. Jewish people had their own beliefs about certain kinds of ethics. That is what drove the culture of where she lived. We haven’t even spoken yet about the mental abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, rape, and torture that happened to this woman before she met Chick Webb. This was a young woman who was mentally abused, beaten, tortured, and raped before she was 15. She lost her mother and ended up in a home for wayward girls that makes a Charles Dickens novel look like luxury. She ended up on the streets of Harlem homeless and foodless. I think that a lot of human beings who had been in that situation would have folded up their cards, folded up their tents, turned to drugs, taken their life… in short, taken the easy way out. Ella just took all of that information and stuffed it all inside of herself and said, “No! I am going to persevere!” What she wanted was to be a dancer, not a singer. She saw show business as the way out. That much she did see! She wanted to call herself “Snake Hips Fitzgerald” and be a vaudeville dancers. She began “running numbers”. She was a messenger for the illegal lottery. She picked up the money and handed out the money. She was also a lookout for a house of prostitution. She was not a sex worker– not that I have anything against sex workers at all; I think they serve a purpose in society. She lived with them, and for room and board, she would be the lookout: If anyone looked like a cop, or cops came down the street, or she “smelled” a detective, she’d let everyone know, and they’d start knitting and crocheting instead of what they were really doing. She put in to perform at an amateur hour in Harlem, and she gave the house of prostitution’s phone number. They called her, and said, “Come in on such and such a date…” She went in. This was vaudeville, and vaudeville at the time was as popular as going to the movies and going to the Broadway shows, back when regular folks could afford to go to the Broadway shows. Vaudeville theaters were all over New York City; there were dozens and dozens of them in all of the boroughs. Ella wanted to be a part of that world. She went into a vaudeville theater in Harlem. The last act on the bill was an act called The Edwards Sisters. They were an African-American sisters dancing act. Ella called them “the dancingest sisters who ever lived.” If you’ve heard of The Nicholas Brothers, who made films, they were an act like that: a flash act. It was big, fancy, and quick-quick-quick, really hard steps– one after another after another. They closed the show. And now, here’s little Ella Fitzgerald. She wouldn’t go out. She said, “I can’t follow them!” Well, her “ladies of the evening” friends literally pushed her out on stage. She got hit with the spotlight for the first time. We’ll never know who loved who more. Did the spotlight love Ella more, or did Ella love the spotlight more? But she realized on stage that she had to go somewhere. She walked over to the MC, and while she was walking, she got heckled by a guy in the audience: “What’s SHE gonna do?!” The MC whispered to her, “Look, honey, you gotta do SOMETHING! You’re out here! Can you sing a song?” She said, “I’m so nervous! The only lyrics I can think of are the Connie Boswell version of ‘Judy’.” He said, “We’ve got that arrangement. Don’t worry!” She sang the song, and she won. She won every amateur contest she entered. The voice was there. It was not the voice we think of today. It was a teenager’s voice. But whatever mysterious star quality that “it” was, she faced the audience in a spotlight and “it” was there! From one of those amateur contests, her prize was an actual paid engagement. While she was doing that, some people from Chick Webb’s orchestra saw her and brought her to Chick, who wanted nothing to do with her. She was ill-kempt, dirty, no makeup, torn dress… They said, “Chick, listen to this girl sing!” She sang, and he said, “Ooh! OK! We’re going to Yale on Thursday. If the Yalies like her, she’s in!”
For some reason, jazz is the only part of show business where you will find very few gay men. I don’t know why that is. There are plenty of lesbians, but not gay men. But there happened to be two gay men in Chick’s orchestra. They took Ella to a beauty parlor. They showed her how to apply makeup. They literally had to teach he how to wash her womanly parts regularly so that she wouldn’t have an odor. Back then in those days, women wore three or four layers of undergarments before they even put their dresses on. These men taught her how to do that, and they bought her clothes… They turned her from a ragamuffin into an attractive young woman. She was 16. They never looked back. Ella began recording within six months, her records sold well, and she went from being an extra added attraction in Check Webb’s band to being his partner. The publicist always said that he “adopted” her, but that’s not true. He did get conservatorship of her because of her age, so that no one would think that they were having sex together and that no eyebrows would be raised, because he was a married man. And, they were not having sex together. That was not their relationship. Chick was extraordinarily short: under five feet tall. He was born with tuberculosis of the spine. His body was in the shape of a question mark. It’s true! Had he lived, he’d probably be remembered as the best jazz drummer that there ever was. He’d be in the same class as Buddy Rich and those kinds of people. But he didn’t live. He and Ella had a wonderful career together in three or four years leading up to A-Tisket, A-Tasket. Six months later, he was gone… and Ella became the first African-American woman to lead her own big band, until World War II came and all her side men got drafted. That’s when Ella became the solo singer that we knew for the rest of her life!
More to come!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my exclusive interview with Geoffrey Mark!
ELLA: A Biography of the Legendary Ella Fitzgerald. is now available in hardcover and Kindle formats. Proceeds from the Deluxe Edition of ELLA will be donated to The Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation to further her desire to help people of all races, cultures and beliefs. Ella hoped to make their lives more rewarding, and she wanted to foster a love of reading, as well as a love of music, through grants and scholarships that provide music education and to provide exposure to the joys and beauty of music for children and adults. For more about the EFCF or to donate, visit: www.EllaFitzgerald.com.