It’s 1956 at Zardi’s Jazzland in Hollywood.
In her dressing room, the night’s main attraction, Ella Fitzgerald, slips into a pair of heels and coats her updo with a final touch of hairspray. As she inspects her appearance in the mirror… a stagehand knocks at her door and leads Ella toward the stage.
From the wings, Ella watches as the lights dim and her manager appears at the stage’s microphone.
"GRANZ: Zardi's spares absolutely no expense to bring you the greatest. As I mentioned before, for two and a half weeks now, it’s been my pleasure to make this little announcement because it’s one of the few announcements I can honestly make. This one’s for real. For me, she’s the greatest there is: Miss Ella Fitzgerald. (crowd claps)"
Ella takes her place on stage and thanks the crowd, before beginning her set with an old classic from her catalog.
"ELLA: Thank you very much. I’d like to do 'A-Tisket, A-Tasket'.
Thank you. We hope you enjoy it.
(ELLA sings 'A-Tisket, A-Tasket')"
Onstage, Ella Fitzgerald sings with the confidence and ease of a seasoned performer as she revisits the song that transformed her life and career nearly two decades earlier.
Long before Ella Fitzgerald became known as “The First Lady of Song,” she was a homeless teenager living on the streets of Harlem. But Ella’s work with a band leader Chick Webb and His Orchestra would reverse her fortunes. Together, the group would gain international fame for their jazzy reworking of an old nursery rhyme, setting Ella Fitzgerald on the path to stardom with their recording of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” on May 2nd, 1938.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is May 2, 1938: Ella Fitzgerald Records “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”.
Act One: A Rocky Start
It’s 1933 at the Riverdale Colored Orphan Asylum in the Bronx, five years before Ella will record her breakout song “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”
As its front doors open, a stream of children flood the lawn outside the orphanage. Among them is fifteen-year-old Ella Fitzgerald.
Last year, Ella’s mother died unexpectedly. Estranged from her father, Ella was sent to live with her aunt in New York City. But soon, Ella took to the city’s streets and began earning money as a lookout for a brothel. Quickly thereafter, Ella developed a habit of skipping school. And her frequent absences eventually led to her arrest for truancy and landed her in one of the city’s orphanages.
There, in the dreary confines of cinder block walls, music has been Ella’s primary salvation. She jumps at any opportunity to sing or dance with the other orphans. And today, Ella watches as the children form a circle outside and begin to recite an old nursery rhyme: “A-tisket, a-tasket / A brown and yellow basket…” As her classmates playfully chant, Ella joins in and dances around the lawn.
Over the next few months, Ella watches as more and more children flow into the orphanage. And soon, the issue of overcrowding leads to Ella’s transfer to an infamously abusive reform school upstate. There, Ella is segregated into different living quarters from the white students, shut out of the school’s all-white choir, and regularly bullied and beaten.
Eager to escape the abuse of the reformatory, Ella runs away in 1934 and heads to Harlem, the site of a flourishing artistic and social movement, a celebration of Black culture called the Harlem Renaissance. But Ella has no money and no prospects and soon, she's back on the streets.
But then a flyer, posted on a telephone pole, catches her eye. It advertises a contest for amateur performers. She decides to enter herself.
And on the night of November 21st, 1934 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, she's the wings backstage, nervously awaiting her turn to perform. As a new act goes on before her, Ella peeks out at the theater’s audience, taking in the novelty of a venue like the Apollo.
For years, Black residents were shut out of the city’s theaters, not allowed to perform or attend as patrons. But, earlier this year, the Apollo opened its doors to the city’s Black population, catering shows to the growing Black community in Harlem and turning into a new hub for New York’s jazz scene. Recently, the theater started hosting Amateur Nights to give novice performers their turn in the spotlight and the chance to win $25.
And that’s why Ella is here tonight. For months, she’s been homeless; singing and dancing on the streets to get by. Ella has longed for a proper stage. And tonight, she'll have it. But Ella’s anxiety grows as she watches the act before her, a local dance duo called the Edwards Sisters.
Watching them impress the crowd, Ella realizes the dance performance she had planned won’t measure up to theirs, so she makes the last-minute decision to sing instead.
When her name is called, Ella trembles as she walks to center stage and looks out at the crowded theater. Ella silently gathers the courage to sing, before breaking into the first notes of a popular jazz song. Immediately, Ella senses she’s off-key. She hears the audience break out in laughter and jeers.
Hearing the crowd’s boos, she wants to cry, to run away but she also has a burning desire to succeed, to get off the streets. So she doesn’t give up. She stops singing for a moment and gets her bearings. Then she takes a deep breath and starts over. This time, Ella is pitch-perfect. And the audience falls into silent reverence as Ella croons into the microphone. At the end of her performance, the crowd that just heckled her leaps to their feet.
Ella’s performance will win her first place at the Apollo’s Amateur Night. The accolade will shift Ella’s focus from dancing to singing. And soon, word of Ella’s performance will circulate all around Harlem, eventually reaching a local drummer named Chick Webb. Before long, Ella and Chick’s band will sit down face to face; a fateful meeting that will revolutionize their careers and the world of music.
Act Two: Ella and Chick Meet
It’s March 1935 at the Harlem Opera House, four months after Ella’s win at the Apollo Amateur Night.
A singer named Charles Linton stands outside the opera house’s stage door, waiting for his friend, a local chorus girl, to come outside. Charles hopes she can recommend a strong female vocalist for the musical group he recently joined: Chick Webb’s Orchestra.
Chick's group is popular in Harlem, but they haven't yet achieved commercial success. So last year, Chick hired the handsome and talented Charles to be his lead male vocalist. But still, the band’s popularity has not improved. So, at Chick’s request, Charles has begun a search for a new addition: a female singer.
Charles spots his friend coming out of the theater and gets straight to business. He asks her if she knows any beautiful girls that do swing tunes. The girl pauses, then shaking her head ‘no’. Charles lets out a defeated sigh, but then the girl offers another suggestion: “There is that girl who won first prize at the Apollo. Her name is Ella. She’s homeless, so she spends all her time out on 125th Street. I can let you know next time I see her there.”
Charles mulls this over. He’s not sure a homeless teenager is the kind of girl Chick had in mind. But Charles knows he has nothing to lose by giving her a shot.
And soon, Charles and Ella meet in person. Charles conducts a brief singing audition. Ella’s voice turns out to be more than enough to convince Charles that he’s discovered the band’s missing piece. But to get the gig, Ella will still have to prove herself to the bandleader. So Charles sets up a second audition.
Soon enough, Chick Webb is backstage at the Harlem Opera House, waiting for Ella’s arrival, and ready to see if this young singer is as good as Charles says. And just minutes later, Charles opens the backstage door, and a young girl follows in behind him. Chick calls for the band to stop, and he puts his drumsticks down.
Ella walks gingerly and awkwardly to center stage. And Chick isn't impressed. He knows beauty is a main criteria for a successful female vocalist, and he struggles to see any commercial appeal of a singer as gawky and unkempt as Ella.
Chick walks over to Charles and vents his concerns. But Charles pleads for him to listen to Ella sing before he rushes to judgment. Chick looks back at the disheveled appearance of the young girl and whispers to Charles: “You’re not putting thaton my bandstand.” And he turns to leave the room, but Charles stops him: “If you don’t listen to her sing, I'll quit!”
Chick stops in his tracks and turns back to face Ella. He motions for her to sing. Soon, the pure tone of Ella's voice cuts through the room. And though she doesn’t have the appearance of a polished artist, Chick realizes at once, she does have the voice of one. Chick agrees to give Ella a try-out period.
The band has a gig coming up at a dance at Yale University. That will be her proving round. So in the lead-up to the event, Charles works with Ella to get her ready. He pays for her food and lodging. But more importantly, he coaches her and helps her get performance-ready. But Ella doesn't need much coaching. She is a natural.
And at the event at Yale University, Ella is a hit with the all-white college crowd.
Her performance is such a success that Chick lets her join the band the following day for their first night of a brief stint at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Ella sings with the group every night of the two-week engagement. And slowly, Chick’s doubts begin to fade as he watches the crowd become enamored by Ella’s talent and charisma. Eventually, Ella will fully win over Chick Webb, and in a few months, she will enter the recording studio as the band’s permanent female vocalist.
Act Three: Recording A-Tisket, A-Tasket
It’s April 1938 at a hotel in Boston.
Ella opens the door to her room and steps inside, ready to relax.
Since joining Chick Webb’s band, Ella and the group have been touring relentlessly. Performance is nearly every night, and they've released several recordings. The reviews have praised Ella’s voice, proving to Chick that Ella could indeed be the band’s ticket to a brighter commercial future. And right now, the group is nearing an end of a months-long engagement at Levaggi’s Restaurant in Boston. By performing there, the group made history, becoming the first black band to ever play the venue. But now as Ella gets ready for bed, she reflects on the night’s performance before allowing her thoughts to wander.
Absent-mindedly, Ella begins to hum an old nursery rhyme from her childhood. As she sings, inspiration strikes. She pauses for a moment and then starts the song over, imagining the nursery rhyme set to a quick tempo and a bit of swing. As Ella continues to sing the tune, she smiles. She knows it needs some work, but she’s confident her jazzy reworking of the old ditty could be a hit.
The following day, Ella will tell her idea to Van Alexander, a composer, and arranger for Chick’s band. Together, the pair will embellish the nursery rhyme, speeding it up and adding a handful of new lyrics.
Then on May 2nd, 1938, Ella will join Chick Webb and His Orchestra to work on Ella’s creation. The group will rehearse for just one hour before recording Ella’s version of the nursery rhyme. At Chick Webb’s insistence, their record label will release the song. Within weeks, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” will be the year’s biggest hit.
The record will propel Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb and His Orchestra to stardom. The song will become one of the biggest-selling records of the decade, fulfilling Chick’s long-held desire for nationwide commercial success. But soon, failing health will cause Chick’s career to be cut short. Just one year after the record’s release, Chick will pass away. Still, long after his death, Chick will be remembered as one of the best jazz drummers of all time.
And his band will stay together with Ella at its helm. But in 1942, Ella will leave the band to focus on her solo career. Over the course of six decades, Ella will become recognized as the most celebrated jazz singer of her generation, earning her the moniker “The First Lady of Song.”
And throughout it all, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” will remain a staple in Ella’s repertoire. And, in a testament to the song’s longevity, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” will become Ella’s first record to be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1987, nearly 50 years after Ella first recorded it with Chick Webb and His Orchestra on May 2nd, 1938.
Next on History Daily. May 3rd, 1921. The Government of Ireland Act comes into force, officially partitioning the Irish Ireland into two separate countries.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.