Happy Birthday, Ella!
Gino Francesconi, director of Carnegie Hall’s Archives and Rose Museum, looks back at his encounters with Ella Fitzgerald in honor of what would have been her 100th birthday.
Working backstage as the artist attendant at Carnegie Hall for nearly 10 years, I had the extraordinary privilege of finding myself one on one with some of the most famous musicians of our time, greeting them at the door, escorting them to their dressing room, bringing them to the stage, and walking them back to a waiting car at the end of the event.
One of most special people I had the honor to meet was Ella Fitzgerald. Even today, more than 20 years after her death, I could have simply typed Ella—no last name—and that would be immediately recognizable to most. Between 1976 and 1983, I worked 11 of her events, 10 of those as double performances—a show at 7 or 7:30 PM, followed by another at 10 or 10:30. More often than not, everyone just remained backstage between shows, and part of my job was to run out if anyone needed anything. Ella was easy. She required nothing. That made an impression, especially when for other events an entourage preceded the arrival of an artist with a list of requirements. Ella arrived calmly—the first time for me was when she was 60 years old, carrying her own gown draped over her arm—with her secretary and road manager, Pete Cavallo, helping her up the stairs while I led them to her dressing room.
Ella Fitzgerald with Dizzy Gillespie and His Orchestra, 1946
It was remarkable for me to experience one of the greatest singers of our time sitting quietly in her dressing room, waiting for her cue to go on. She was kind and reserved, almost shy, not nervous, but anxious to get out on stage. She never vocalized or warmed up. When her cue came and we walked down the stairs to the stage door, which at that time was located in a narrow corridor at the top of three steps, we stood by the door waiting for her to be introduced. And as I gave the cue to the crew for “house lights to half,” the applause from the audience began, leading to a roar that you could feel through the floor. She seemed so frail as we helped her up the three steps, only for her to get to center stage and become a presence that dominated and was in complete control of her surroundings.
To give just a few lines of her history, she was born in Newport News, Virginia, on April 25, 1917. Her family was poor and her father disappeared shortly after she was born. Her mother moved them in with a relative in Yonkers, New York, where Ella did well in school, sang, and wanted to be a dancer. Her mother died suddenly in a car accident when Ella was 15. She dropped out of school, doing any kind of odd job she could find, including working for local gamblers. At times living on the street, Ella found herself arrested and in the Colored Orphan Asylum in Riverdale, where she endured severe beatings. Entering a contest in Harlem as a dancer, she was so terrified listening to the audience booing the contestants before her, she quickly changed her talent card to singing. She won the contest and then another. Bandleader Chick Webb hired her, and she began touring the country and recording. Her recording of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” when she was 21 years old sold more than one million copies. Extraordinary for the day, Ella took over the band when Webb died, renaming it “Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band.” It was her association with impresario Norman Granz that made her famous around the world, first with his Jazz at the Philharmonic series, and then with the “Songbooks” he would have her record, such as the songs of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and (perhaps most famously) George and Ira Gershwin. She was one of the most recorded singers of all time, recording more than 2,000 songs on over 200 albums, including Live from Carnegie Hall in 1973. In 1958, she and Count Basie were the first African Americans to win Grammy Awards.
Ella was on the road nonstop for 40 to 45 weeks a year all over the world for most of her life. She appeared every year at Carnegie Hall from 1947 until 1958, and then from 1967 until the late 1980s. Even with failing health, she continued performing, her last appearance being at Carnegie Hall on June 26, 1991, at the age of 74. She died five years later in Beverly Hills, California.
At one time, it was Carnegie Hall’s policy that if an artist wanted to see the public at the end of a concert, we would stay backstage until the last person left. Sometimes that took longer than the performance! My first time with Ella, not thinking, I stupidly asked if she wanted people backstage, and before I could correct myself, she replied, “Oh yes, better let them back—someday they may not want to come.” An artist of her genius, at the peak of her fame … It was an extraordinary moment to see such humility a few minutes before a sold-out concert!
At the end of every one of Ella’s performances, I watched her walk from center stage to the stage door, drying her forehead with her ever present handkerchief, completely spent. She would pause and not speaking to anyone in particular, say something like, “Well, I hope they liked that.” The first time I heard her say that, I remember thinking incredulously that she sounded like she really meant it. I looked to Pete, asking, “She hopes?” He just smiled, while looking passed her to the audience in the Hall, everyone refusing to go home, all on their feet, screaming “El-la, El-la, El-la.”