ON NOVEMBER 21, 1934, a sixteen-year-old homeless contestant on a talent show put on a show that likely trumps any “American Idol” or “America’s Got Talent” performance you’ve ever seen. That night, Ella Fitzgerald took the Apollo Theatre stage in Harlem planning to dance, only her nervous feet wouldn’t move. Trying to sing instead, her voice croaked the first notes of a tune called “The Object of My Affection.” A compassionate master of ceremonies stepped in, got Fitzgerald to compose herself, and the singer tried again. She belted out the first song in grand fashion, then added another, closing to a thunderous ovation and taking home a $25 check as the amateur-night winner.
Ella Fitzgerald soon caught on with Chick Webb and his Orchestra. The “First Lady of Song” would sell more than 40 million records over a 60-year career and elicit the highest praise from other musicians. Some critics said her vocals lack emotional power, but most disagreed. “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them,” said legendary lyricist Ira Gershwin, and singer-songwriter Mel Torme said Fitzgerald had “the best ear of any singer ever.” Bing Crosby concluded, “Man, woman or child, Ella is the greatest.”