She was, perhaps, the greatest jazz singer of them all, a remarkable performer whose versions of the Great American Songbook, and in particular the works of Cole Porter, have never been bettered.
But for Ella Fitzgerald, fame came at a great cost, to her personal life, health and happiness, and the wonder is that she emerged to stardom from a childhood tougher than most of us would like to imagine. This new documentary charts her path to fame, and uses interviews and the recollections of friends to paint an intimate of one of the truly great musical artists of the 20th century.
Born in Virginia in 1917 to unmarried parents, Ella Jane Fitzgerald was raised in Yonkers, New York, by her mother Tempie and a Portuguese stepfather, Joseph De Silva. She had a precocious talent for singing and dancing, and fell in love with jazz at an early age. In 1932, her mother was killed in a car accident, and for a year afterwards she was left in the care of her stepfather, who may have been abusing her. But things looked up in 1933, when she moved to Harlem to live with her aunt. In 1934 she won a talent contest at the Apollo Theater, and soon after was singing with big bands.
Through the 1930s, 1940 and 1950s, Ella sang with everyone, from Duke Ellington and the Ink Spots to Dizzy Gillespie, and her gorgeous vocals sold millions of albums around the world. She became a civil-rights campaigner, and used her fame and talent to break down barriers wherever she could.
But everyone who knew her described Ella as shy. She yearned for a quiet life with her husband and adopted son, but work often got in the way. At a time when Ella was possibly the biggest singing star on the planet, a friend, the great jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, described her as "the loneliest woman in the world". Ill health dogged her later years: she was diabetic, and ended up having her legs amputated. But her voice and phrasing are immortal: 24 years after her death, Ella's records still sell like hotcakes.
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Sunday, Sky Premiere, 8pm
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Monday, RTÉ1, 9.30pm
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Tuesday, Sky Drama, 8pm
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Thursday, TCM, 10.25pm
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Monday, Channel 4, 9pm
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Tuesday, RTÉ1, 10.15pm
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Wednesday, RTÉ1, 9.35pm
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