How did a young woman labeled an “ungovernable, shaggy street kid” become the “First Lady of Song?”

A new documentary on the life and music of Ella Fitzgerald does an outstanding job answering that question. The film is being released this week on pay-per-view, and is available Friday though the virtual screening room at the Jane Pickens Theatre – click here to view.

Fitzgerald, who began her career in 1934 as a shy 17-year-old at the renowned Apollo Theater, became a world-wide sensation by the 1950’s. Directed by Leslie Woodhead, the documentary traces her career, one in which she re-invented herself more than once. Her story is compelling.

Ella Fitzgerald rose from humble beginnings. After her mother’s tragic death when she was 13, she was left with an abusive step-father who she escaped by dropping out of school, ending up on the mean streets of New York City where she danced for nickels. She was declared delinquent – a stint in reform school followed, where she was beaten and abused by guards. Fitzgerald never said much about this period of her life, but all evidence suggests her reserved public persona and inner strength can be traced to those difficult teen years.

After performing at “Amateur Night at the Apollo,” she was discovered by popular bandleader Chick Webb, who was looking for a young singer. She ended up headlining the band after his untimely death, but not before recording the million seller “A Tisket, A Tasket.”

She moved from big band sounds to be-bop in the 1940’s – she “bopped with the boys” at Mintons Playhouse in New York City, hanging out with Dizzy Gillespie and later marrying Dizzy’s bass player Ray Brown. She later learned “scat” singing, and was the first woman to popularize the distinctive jazz sound made popular by Louis Armstrong.

The film includes archival interviews with Fitzgerald, as well as commentary from Tony Bennett, Smokey Robinson, Johnny Mathis, Laura Mvula, and Newport Jazz Producer George Wein. Her reserved nature is evident throughout, she was the ultimate star on stage, but her personal life was rarely covered in the press. Wein notes, “Ella was always happiest when touring.”

After many years as a celebrated jazz singer, Fitzgerald finally reached a mainstream audience in the 1950’s with her songbook series. Those albums, created by her manager, producer and Verve Records label founder Norman Granz, saw her achieve widespread commercial success. Frank Sinatra thought her interpretations so good that he never allowed anyone else to cover his catalog in the same way. Indeed, her stylings from the “Great American Songbook” are still revered by modern recording artists.

Fitzgerald was the first African-American woman to win a Grammy Award. (She won 13 in total.) Her friendship with Marilyn Monroe was helpful, especially in getting her gigs at exclusive clubs frequented by all-white audiences.

Her European tours were legendary. The film highlights some meaningful moments, notable is the story of her Grammy winning album “Mack the Knife: Live in Berlin” where she forgot the lyrics of Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife.” Listen to the recording – she literally doesn’t miss a beat, improvising lyrics and harmony without losing the essence of the song.  

The film also examines Fitzgerald’s role in the struggle for civil rights, a cause she engaged in more over the course of her career. It recounts the story of a 1955 Houston concert before an integrated audience, relatively new at that time in Texas. During intermission, she was arrested by Houston police in her dressing room for gambling. She, along with Dizzy Gillespie, Illinois Jacquet, and Manager Norman Granz were out quickly on bail, and later successfully sued the Department for false arrest. Later, Fitzgerald spoke out publicly in support of Martin Luther King Jr. and the evolving Civil Rights Movement.

Ultimately, Fitzgerald’s magnificent voice wins the day – the film includes numerous clips of her performing. “When Ella turns a phrase, it’s magic,” gushed Izsak Pearlman in the film. I couldn’t agree more.

Longtime Ella fans may not be surprised by much in the film; still, Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” is an excellent introduction to the “First Lady of Song.”

Ken Abrams

Lifestyle Editor Ken Abrams writes about music, the arts and more for What'sUpNewp. He is also a contributor to Providence Monthly, SO RI, Hey Rhody and The Bay magazines. Ken DJ's "The Kingston Coffeehouse,"...