Friday 20 April 2018

Flashback 1964: Ella Fitzgerald jets into Dublin for her concert

This week 52 years ago, 'The First Lady of Song' Ella Fitzgerald touched down in Dublin for her first Irish concert at the Adelphi

Queen of jazz: Ella Fitzgerald arriving at Dublin Airport on April 13, 1964.
Queen of jazz: Ella Fitzgerald arriving at Dublin Airport on April 13, 1964.

Ger Siggins

By the time Ella Fitzgerald first played a concert in Ireland she was well established as one of the greatest singers of jazz and popular music. 'The First Lady of Song' came to Dublin in April 1964, shortly before her 47th birthday.

She played the Adelphi - later a cinema, now Arnotts' car park - which was Dublin's premier pop venue of the era. Among those who played there were The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Beach Boys, Johnny Cash and Louis Armstrong.

Fitzgerald had admitted to being terrified of flying, so she may have been in a poor frame of mind when she was greeted at Dublin Airport by a pair of RTÉ reporters for an interview.

She seemed irked by questions from Kevin O'Kelly such as whether her voice was affected by changes in climate, or whether her music was now less natural and "more sophisticated". She was also startled and confused when the Radio Éireann man, Seán Mac Réamoinn, interjected with a question, although she did give him a much warmer reception.

She was asked about the Irish origins of her name, and replied that this was her first visit to Ireland, although she had stopped in Shannon once before and sampled Irish coffee. When asked if she had played to Irish audiences in America, she replied that she played for one of the greatest Irishmen, "our late President," himself half a Fitzgerald.

O'Kelly also asked how she reacted to the screaming adulation of fans, to which the singer replied icily that "I don't sing the screaming songs."

'Lady Ella' was born to William Fitzgerald and Temperance Fitzgerald - who weren't married - in the city of Newport News, Virginia, in 1917. Her father wasn't around long and her mother died when she was 15. But her singing voice opened doors for her and by the late 1930s she was a chart-topper with A Tisket, A Tasket.

Fellow singers admired her amazing command of tone, phrasing and diction - Bing Crosby dropped in to see her play near his home and came out raving: "Man, woman and child, Ella is the greatest of them all." Peggy Lee called her "the greatest jazz singer of our time. The standard by which each of us is measured".

A successful career followed, perhaps peaking with a series of eight Songbook albums in the 1950s in which she focused on a single songwriter, or song writing team. As the New York Times wrote on her death: "These albums were among the first pop records to devote such serious attention to individual songwriters, and they were instrumental in establishing the pop album as a vehicle for serious musical exploration." In the same newspaper, columnist Frank Rich wrote that in the Songbook series, Fitzgerald "performed a cultural transaction as extraordinary as Elvis's contemporaneous integration of white and African-American soul. Here was a black woman popularising urban songs often written by immigrant Jews to a national audience of predominantly white Christians".

Her 1964 gig in Dublin was well received, with the Irish Independent reporting '5,000 hear Ella Fitzgerald sing'.

The reviewer wrote: "Ella Fitzgerald, the jazz singer, got a tremendous reception in the Adelphi Cinema, Dublin, last night. The audience at her two shows numbered more than 5,000 and at least 1,000 more were turned away. She sang about 15 songs, many of which have been associated with her for years, such as Miss Otis Regrets, Every Time We Say Goodbye, and Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?"

Fitzgerald returned to Dublin the following year, and to an early Cork Jazz Festival in 1982, but retired from singing in 1993 after her health declined. She died three years later with glowing obituaries pointing to her 14 Grammys, Presidential Medal of Freedom and many more awards. Late in life she played down the fuss, stating "I'm just a ballad singer".

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