Ella Fitzgerald Imitates Louis Armstrong’s Gravelly Voice While Singing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby”

Are great artists born, or are they made? Prob­a­bly a lit­tle of both, but I sus­pect that deep down, even if we don’t like to admit it, we know it’s prob­a­bly a lit­tle more the for­mer. We can become skilled at most any­thing with ded­i­ca­tion and hard work. Tal­ent is anoth­er matter—a mys­te­ri­ous com­bi­na­tion of qual­i­ties we know when we hear but can’t always define. Ella Fitzger­ald had it when she first stepped on stage on ama­teur night at Harlem’s Apol­lo The­ater as a teenag­er, intend­ing to do a tap dance rou­tine.

She’d only done the per­for­mance on a dare, had no for­mal train­ing out­side of singing in church, her bed­room, and the Harlem streets, and she only chose to sing that night because the act before her did a tap dance and stole her thun­der.

She blew the audi­ence away—a tough New York crowd not known for being forgiving—and ren­dered even the bois­ter­ous teenagers in the bal­cony speech­less. “Three encores lat­er,” she wrote, “the $25 prize was mine.” Fitzgerald’s gold­en, three-octave voice, impec­ca­ble tim­ing, and impro­vi­sa­tion­al bril­liance are not exact­ly the kinds of things that can be taught.

She didn’t look the part of the typ­i­cal female jazz singer, at least accord­ing to pop­u­lar per­cep­tion, writes Hol­ly Glea­son at NPR. “A large woman who’d grown up rough,” includ­ing time spent in a New York State refor­ma­to­ry, she was reject­ed by band­lead­ers even after that first, rev­e­la­to­ry per­for­mance, and the press fre­quent­ly referred to her in terms that dis­par­aged her appear­ance. “Fitzger­ald rec­og­nized she didn’t pos­sess Bil­lie Holiday’s torchy allure,” Hol­ly Glea­son writes, or “Eartha Kitt’s fer­al sen­su­al­i­ty or Car­men McRae’s sex appeal. But that would not stop the woman who took her vocal cues from the horns, as well as from jazz singer Con­nee Boswell.”

It did­n’t stop her from win­ning a Gram­my in the Gram­my’s first year, or hav­ing a record label, Verve, found­ed just to put out her music. Ella’s range and pitch-per­fect ear meant she could imi­tate not only the horn sec­tion or her favorite singer Boswell but just about any­one else as well, from pop­u­lar jazz singer Rose Mur­phy, with her high, car­toon­ish voice, “chee chee” affec­ta­tions, and “brrrp” tele­phone sound effects, to the low, grav­el­ly rasp of Fitzgerald’s long­time duet part­ner Louis Arm­strong. See her do exact­ly that in the clip at the top, mov­ing effort­less­ly in “I Can’t Give You Any­thing but Love, Baby” from her own voice, to Murphy’s, to Armstrong’s in the space of just a few min­utes.

What­ev­er obsta­cles Fitzger­ald faced, her voice seemed to soar above it all. In becom­ing a glob­al jazz star and “The First Lady of Song,” says jazz writer Will Fried­wald, “she showed peo­ple that this is music Amer­i­cans should be proud of.”

via Ben Phillips

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

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

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

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

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

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