Nana had a big wooden box of a television in the corner of her apartment along Van Aken Boulevard in Cleveland, Ohio, known as "the Widow's Block." Brick with plenty of sunlight, there were four or five buildings of 100 or so units that housed most of our grandmothers after their husbands passed in the late '60s, '70s and even '80s. Close to the places the elegant women knew – church, grocery, movie theater, drug store, Chinese restaurant and confectionary – they played bridge, hosted dinners and maintained their friendships.
But even with that, few things tickled Nana more than when Ella Fitzgerald appeared on that chunky tube encased in heavy mahogany. With creamy perfection, the woman known as "The First Lady of Song" would bop, scat and sing. Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Rodgers & Hart and Gershwin — alongside current hits — were the milieu of a woman who won her first Grammy Award the very first time they were given out. Those classics played as Marguerite Shannon Gleason fell in love, lived, married, raised two boys and buried a husband too young.
Even more than the songs, though, Nana thrilled to see what the bespectacled songstress was wearing. Having always dressed for church in matching pastel coats and short-sleeved dresses, pocketbook in the crook of her arm, Nana didn't let her fashion sense slip because she was getting along in years – and was built more like the massive TV set in the front corner. In a time of Yves Saint Laurent gypsy dazzle, Christian Dior silhouettes and Bob Mackie's disco sizzle, there wasn't a lane for those whose bodies were miles from wide-eyed Brit supermodels like Twiggy or Chrissie Shrimpton. With First Lady Jackie Kennedy establishing high French style via Chanel, Balenciaga and Givenchy as a foundation of chic, plus Americans Oleg Cassini and Lilly Pulitzer, fashion seemed a bit beyond what many mere Midwestern mortals could pull off. Then came Diane Von Furstenberg's curve-clinging wrap dresses, which landed her on the cover of Newsweek in 1976 — and another unreachable design plateau beckoned. But if '70s fashion was about the body, Ella's success — and unstoppable joie de vivre — allowed her access to whatever made her happy. Feathers, sequins, chiffons, it was body consciousness in a succulent, fun way that gave license to me and my Nana to "have fun" with our clothes, love them like she did and watch the world fall in step.
A large woman who'd grown up rough, Fitzgerald spent time in a New York State reformatory after the death of her mother, which had left her in the care of a stepfather who most biographers suspect was abusive, and then an aunt who struggled to support her. Painfully realizing beauty eases the way, she struggled in her shabby clothes, often dancing on street corners, running numbers and somehow getting by.
When she won the Amateur Talent Night at Harlem's Apollo Theater in 1934, bringing down the house singing Hoagy Carmichael's "Judy," big-band leader Fletcher Henderson still declined to hire her. Even bandleader Chick Webb, who himself had a spinal deformity that put his looks outside the accepted norm, was reticent. In The New York Times' 1996 "Ella In Wonderland," Margo Jefferson posits: "Too ugly, said the band leader with the tubercular spine... Was he afraid the sight of two plain people onstage, one malformed, the other dowdy and gawky, presumed too much on the goodwill of his audience?"
When your dream depends on looks, that knowledge scalds. Determined once she got her break to not look back, Fitzgerald recognized she didn't possess Billie Holiday's torchy allure, Eartha Kitt's feral sensuality or Carmen McRae's sex appeal. But that wouldn't stop the woman who took her vocal cues from the horns, as well as from jazz singer Connee Boswell.
"I used to be very self-conscious. I used to wish I was pretty. My cousin Georgia always taught me that if you smile, people will like you," she was quoted in an appreciation The International Business Times published on the 101st anniversary of her birth. "Sometimes people will say something you don't like, and you get angry a bit, but you just smile. You let it go by, even if you really would like to choke 'em. By smiling, I think I've made more friends than if I was the other way."
Her smile was delightful. It invited you in, made you want to listen. It didn't hurt that as her momentum with Webb's orchestra increased, she co-wrote and recorded "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," based on the children's nursery rhyme. In 1942, she sang her sunny breakthrough hit in Abbott & Costello's Ride' Em Cowboy. Though lacking funds for glamour, she wears a broad-brimmed hat that turns back from her glossy, high-wave bouffant. Her camel coat — with a clutch of fabric flowers on the notched lapel — falls open, revealing a draped suit with large buttons and a lace collar. And yes, that smile. Irrepressible and friendly, like the song. She could be any of us.
By the time I was old enough to share Ella with my grandmother, she truly looked more like Nana than someone figuring how to be glamorous while resembling a librarian or nurse. And like Nana, she knew how to dress up, but used the old Hollywood rules to stand out. Beyond what are now considered sexy-secretary/hot-nerd glasses, she understood that nuances teased.
When Annie Leibowitz shot the famous American Express portrait that placed the icon in a tailored tomato-red dress, matching pillbox hat and her own vintage Don Loper leopard coat beside a classic Mercedes, aesthetics collided. Spunky, darling and chic, the smiling Ella with those cat's-eye glasses looked foxy in extremis.
In 1976, nine years after receiving her Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammy organization, Fitzgerald joined Mel Torme to present the Jazz category. "Explaining" what jazz was with a silky scat that punched and popped, her floor-length black dress, with a chiffon overlay and sleeves that showed her arms, rippled as she moved. And those appearances add up. The romping voice with Louis Armstrong, the bop that she and Dizzy Gillespie explored, or the way she held her own with Duke Ellington and his players on "Duke's Place C Jam Blues" — even the blowsy horn punctuating Andy Williams and Dinah Shore's "Singing The Blues" variety-show mash-up or her nightclub stylings with Frank Sinatra across the decades — she is always Ella, perfectly turned out, absolutely incandescent. To see Ella in her blue metallic brocade gown encrusted with jewels — plus a shiny Mary Tyler Moore wig — pole-vaulting through "Sunny", side-by-side in rocking chairs with shriek-inducing sex symbol of the day Tom Jones, was classic variety-show stuff. But to watch the bespectacled vocalist toy with him, joke about "rocking or singing," she reduces the Welsh vocalist to raw enamorment. Ella knows, and she knows how to use it.
Appearing late in her career on ABC's Emmy-winning Sammy Davis Jr 60th Anniversary Special in 1990, her column of black sparkle still packs wallop, making escort Michael Jackson seem like a little boy. Resplendent in a body-grazing black sequined floor-length number, with a cut-to-there slit up the front, she delivered "Too Close for Comfort" with a fluidity that made the glam seem second nature.
It wasn't, though. Fitzgerald, as she made her way, learned what worked -– and worked to take what she had and make it an asset. Ella sought designers who understood that glamour and beauty came in all sizes. They emphasized her hips, décolletage and shoulders, using luxury to create delight. For example, the pictures of her and her friend Billie Holiday together in their furs are pure little-girl glee. For Holiday, who brokered pain and sensuality, and Fitzgerald, whose joy cloaked a tough past, the extravagant clothing was as thrilling to their inner children as the grown women they were.
As the '40s turned to the '50s, Fitzgerald turned to Zelda Wynn Valdes, a breakthrough African American designer who believed dresses should heighten the woman and celebrate her attributes. The pair forged an alliance of charmeuse, hammered satin, chiffon, burned-out velvet, knits, embroidery, sequins and expert tailoring. Often credited for designing, but certainly sewing, many of Playboy's iconic original Bunny costumes, the woman who created freakum dresses for Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, Mae West and Marlene Dietrich long before Beyoncé consolidated the concept became Fitzgerald's go-to couturier.
As writer Princess Gabbara quotes Valdes on her work for Fitzgerald in a 2018 Shondaland profile, "I was able to measure her once, but thereafter she was so busy that she didn't have the time. She would order — always in a rush — and I would study photos of her and guess her increasing size. She always said they fit, and she'd order more, always three at a time. I never had more than three to four days to finish the gowns. I am pleased to say I never missed a delivery."
Beyond the sheer pleasure of dressing up, Fitzgerald used what she wore to open doors. All women did. They knew what they wore was presentational shorthand; the clothes spoke volumes about who they were, their place in society, even their personality. To dress well meant – for my grandmother, the women of all ages at church, and especially the elegantly turned-out African American ladies you'd see shopping at Halle Brothers or Higbees in downtown Cleveland – that you were elegant, respectable, of equal stature to anyone else whether in a restaurant, a department store or on the street. Clothes buttressed you from marginalizing judgments, something even more crucial for a black woman like Fitzgerald.
Dress also made you glorious, colorful, grand. It could say "I am," in a way that was more than just classic. For my grandmother, who wouldn't surrender her style, as well as all the other women who loved Ella — heck, for me as a girl wanting to wear sparkly things, chiffon layers, fun hats — Ella Fitzgerald said, "Yes, you can! Do it! Love it! Swing it with as much joy as you have in your heart."
In 2017, Dianne Reeves recalled to JazzTimes' Christopher Loudon that early in her career, still in high school, she'd gotten to see Fitzgerald at Denver's Warehouse club, where the legend "swung a series of Beatles tunes with her trio." After the show they met and Fitzgerald asked the young woman, who was performing in the club's basement, about her singing. The next night, when Fitzgerald was struck by elevation sickness, management asked Reeves to go sing to the main room.
"I hung out in her dressing room," she recalled, "and her wardrobe was still there. In the corner were these periwinkle blue pumps. I put them on and went out, and can't even remember what I sang, because I was completely focused on her shoes."
That's what Fitzgerald did: imbue awkward kids with the sense they could also be glamorous. Beyond sex, beyond fame, there was music — and if you felt it, you could find your place in clothes, too. That was powerful and alluring in not-so-obvious ways, even to a skinny kid sitting with her grandma.
In 1980, on the TV special The Carpenters: Music, Music, Music, Karen Carpenter, painfully thin in a black satin pantsuit, shared a medley of a marimba-based "This Masquerade," "My Funny Valentine," "I'll Be Seeing You," "As Time Goes By" and "Someone To Watch Over Me" with the elder songstress, who wore another chiffon overlay gown. Though born decades apart, a sisterhood between them transcends age, looks and the fact that the tomboy drummer and the former numbers runner were not born into the clothes they wear. Though many of the songs the pair sing together are sad, they pull you in and make you feel better, comfortable, okay in emotions you might not want to feel. Kind of like wearing fancy clothes when you know you're just a gawky kid – and don't think you can pull off the chic. Their effortlessness wasn't lost on a 10-year old, who recognized that Carpenter and the lady closer to Nana's age both applied the same principles to defy fashion magazine dictates. They pulled it off, especially the spirited legend, so I could, too.
"I compare her to Ella Fitzgerald," USC professor Karen Tongson, who authored Why Karen Carpenter Matters, tells RJ Smith in a 2019 Los Angeles Times piece. "Ella can be singing a sad song, but you always heard the smile in her voice. Well, Karen, she can be singing a happy song, but you hear the sadness in her voice. I think it mimics a kind of heaviness in ourselves."
Ella. Beyond the Verve Records repertoire, filled with the classic American songbook tunes, collaborations with the best jazz musicians of the day. More than the duets with everyone from Sinatra to Armstrong, Flip Wilson to Tom Jones. Even beyond the epic Memorex commercial where she shatters the wine glass, Ella made being elegant something friendly.
"I know I'm no glamour girl," she is famously quoted, "and it's not easy for me to get up in front of a crowd of people. It used to bother me a lot, but now I've got it figured out that God gave me this talent to use, so I just stand there and sing."
Fitzgerald put so much joy in what she did – many believed to mask her rough start – that the rest didn't matter. But when you look at her clothes, fancy by any standard, you realize Ella's delight made them something any of us could wear. Not just the models and the rich girls, but anybody who wanted to. Whether a young woman in with a deep, wrapped neckline or a dowager dripping sequins, she wore them with a laugh and a song — and invited all of us to come along for the party.