Ella Fitzgerald’s Lost Interview about Racism & Segregation: Recorded in 1963, It’s Never Been Heard Until Now

When Ella Fitzger­ald took the stage for the first time at the Apol­lo The­ater in Harlem, “we heard a sound so per­fect” that the entire the­ater went silent, says dancer and chore­o­g­ra­ph­er Nor­ma Miller. “You could hear a rat piss on cot­ton.” Fitzger­ald was 17 years old, and she had already faced severe racial dis­crim­i­na­tion. “Every­thing was race,” says Miller, describ­ing the de facto seg­re­ga­tion in Harlem in the 20s and 30s. “You couldn’t go out of your zone… slav­ery is over, but you don’t have jobs. So the con­fine­ment meant you had to do for your­self.”

In 1917, a 2 year old Fitzger­ald had trav­eled with her moth­er and step­fa­ther from New­port News, Vir­ginia, where she was born, to Yonkers, New York. They were part of the Great Migra­tion that brought blues and jazz to North­ern cities. Fitzger­ald grew up sneak­ing into Harlem’s ball­rooms to hear Duke Elling­ton and Louis Arm­strong. Then at age 13, her moth­er died. Fitzger­ald was dev­as­tat­ed. She began skip­ping school and the police arrest­ed her for tru­an­cy and sent her to a reform school.

Black girls at the school, writes Nina Bern­stein in The New York Times, “were seg­re­gat­ed in the two most crowd­ed and dilap­i­dat­ed of the reformatory’s 17 ‘cot­tages,’ and were rou­tine­ly beat­en by male staff. There was a fine music pro­gram at the school, but Ella Fitzger­ald was not in the choir: it was all white.” Fitzger­ald escaped and made her way back to Harlem, where she slept on the streets. She stepped onstage at the Apollo’s ama­teur night as part of a dare and had orig­i­nal­ly planned to do a dance rou­tine.

The year after her Apol­lo debut, Fitzger­ald per­formed at Yale Uni­ver­si­ty with Chick Webb’s orches­tra. She released her first sin­gle, one of the biggest records of the decade, in 1938. In 1939, she took over as band­leader and carved out a career in the fol­low­ing years that includ­ed tours in Japan, Europe, and Aus­tralia, where she became a huge sen­sa­tion in 1954. In the states, how­ev­er, she was still treat­ed like a crim­i­nal. She missed her first two shows in Syd­ney because she and her pianist, assis­tant, and man­ag­er Nor­man Granz were thrown off the plane in Hon­olu­lu with­out expla­na­tion or recourse. (Fitzger­ald lat­er sued and won, as she explains in a 1970 CBC inter­view clip above.)

In 1955, Fitzgerald’s career received a major boost when Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe pres­sured the own­er of Sun­set Strip’s famed Mocam­bo to book the singer. “After that, I nev­er had to play a small jazz club again,” Fitzger­ald lat­er recalled. That same year, reports USA Today, “she was arrest­ed in her dress­ing room at an inte­grat­ed show in Hous­ton. When she arrived at the police sta­tion, an offi­cer asked for her auto­graph, Fitzger­ald recalls.” She rose above the ugli­ness with poise and grace and most­ly pre­ferred not to talk about it, though it sure­ly took its toll. “She lived, she sur­vived,” says cul­tur­al crit­ic Mar­go Jef­fer­son. “She became famous and she kept on keep­ing on—at what inner price, we don’t know.”

We do, how­ev­er, have a slight­ly bet­ter sense of how she felt thanks to clips from a 1963 inter­view with New York radio host Fred Rob­bins that have emerged after going unheard for decades (begin­ning at :30 in the video at the top). Dis­cussing her frus­tra­tion with seg­re­ga­tion in the South, she says:

Maybe I’m step­ping out (of line), but I have to say it, because it’s in my heart. It makes you feel so bad to think we can’t go down through cer­tain parts of the South and give a con­cert like we do over­seas, and have every­body just come to hear the music and enjoy the music because of the prej­u­dice thing that’s going on.

I used to always clam up because you (hear peo­ple) say, ‘Oh, gee, show peo­ple should stay out of pol­i­tics.’ But we have trav­eled so much and been embar­rassed so much. (Fans) can’t under­stand why you don’t play in Alaba­ma, or (ask), ‘Why can’t you have a con­cert? Music is music.’

The sit­u­a­tion was tru­ly “embar­rass­ing,” as she put it, for the coun­try and for her and her fel­low musi­cians. Fitzger­ald had seen enough in her life at that point to under­stand how deeply entrenched racism could become. Hope­ful about the future, she also rec­og­nized that there were some minds that would nev­er change. “The die-hards, they’re just going to die hard,” she says. “They’re not going to give in. You’ve got to try and con­vince the younger ones, they’re the ones who’ve got to make the future and those are the ones we’ve got to wor­ry about. Not those die-hards.”

Rob­bins had promised Fitzger­ald that the inter­view would air “all over the world.” Instead, for rea­sons unknown, it was shelved and for­got­ten until author Reg­gie Nadel­son dis­cov­ered the record­ing in 2018 at the Paley Cen­ter for Media. Despite her ret­i­cence to speak out, Fitzger­ald was grate­ful for the oppor­tu­ni­ty, even if it might end up cost­ing her. “I real­ly ran my mouth,” she says, wor­ry­ing, “Is it going down South? You think they’re going to break my records up when they hear it? This is unusu­al for me.” Nonethe­less, she says, “I’m so hap­py that you had me, because instead of singing, for a change I got a chance to get a few things off my chest. I just a human being.”

The clip at the top comes from a new doc­u­men­tary titled Ella Fitzger­ald: Just One of Those Things. Watch the trail­er for the film above.

via Ted Gioia

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe Helped Break Ella Fitzger­ald Into the Big Time (1955)

Ella Fitzger­ald Sings ‘Sum­mer­time’ by George Gersh­win, Berlin 1968

Miles Davis is Attacked, Beat­en & Arrest­ed by the NYPD Out­side Bird­land, Eight Days After the Release of Kind of Blue (1959)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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