NOVEMBER 21: “Ella is the greatest”

fa1e2fcbf246307220a6414f9f8bcEIGHTY YEARS AGO today, a sixteen-year-old homeless contestant delivered a talent-show performance that trumps any “American Idol” or “America’s Got Talent” number you’ve ever seen.

On November 21, 1934, 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, and then added another, closing to a thunderous ovation and taking home a $25 check as the amateur-night winner.

The “First Lady of Song” would sell more than 40 million records over a 60-year career and elicit the highest praise from other artists. Some critics said her vocals lacked emotional power, but most disagreed. “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them,” legendary lyricist Ira Gershwin said, 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.”

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