Today marks the 100 anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald’s birth. In his book Making a Difference in North Carolina, Hugh Morton included a similar photograph to the one above with the caption,
Ella Fitzgerald, at age 18, sings A Ticket, A Tasket with Chick Webb’s Orchestra. They played in North Carolina, but this photo is in the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Hm . . .
Fitzgerald would have been eighteen in 1935 to 1936. According to Stuart Nicholson’s Ella Fitzgerald: The Complete Biography (2004) and Ella Fitzgerald: The Chick Webb Years & Beyond by Ron Fritts & Ken Vail (2003), Fitzgerald recorded that song for the first time on May 2, 1938 at Decca studios in New York. Fitzgerald and the Chick Webb Orchestra first performed at the Howard Theatre for one-week engagement that opened on November 22, 1935. Hugh Morton would have been fourteen years old. Perhaps this photograph is from a later date?
Another Morton Mystery is at hand. I learned late in the day that today was Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday, so this will need some follow up. Can any readers of A View to Hugh fill in some of the story?
According to Fritts and Vail, Ella Fitzgerald and the Chick Webb Orchestra also played a one-week engagement at the Howard Theatre from March 26 through April 1, 1937. Fitzgerald would have been nineteen, just shy of her twentieth birthday., while Hugh Morton would have been sixteen. It was billed as an “Easter Swing Session” and a “Gay Holiday Revue” with Bardue Ali, Charles Linton, and Taft Jordan. Fitzgerald and the orchestra returned to the Howard Theatre for another one-week stand from January 28 through February 3, 1938. The following week, the entourage began a five-week stint in Boston at the Flamingo Room at Levaggi’s Restaurant. According to Nicholson, Fitzgerald “worked out the outline of ‘A-Ticket, A-Tasket'” at Levaggi’s.”
Fitzgerald and the orchestra’s next one-week stop at the Howard Theatre came on March 31, ending on April 6. An advertisement for the engagement portrays her as “First Lady of Swing ‘Ella A-Tisket A-Takset Fitzgerald.'” Webb, however, did not perform; he entered John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for a back operation. He left the hospital the following week. Webb would died on June 16, 1939, but Fitzgerald continued to play with his orchestra—which playbills began to list as “her Chick Webb Orchestra” or other such variations. At some point soon there after the design and the initials on the front of the music stands changed to EF.
The next appearance by Fitzgerald at the Howard, according to Fritts and Vail is a one-week gig from March 7 to 13, 1941. This performance seems to be an unlikely candidate for Morton’s negatives. He attended Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia before enrolling at UNC in the autumn of 1939, so his proximity to Washington, D.C. coupled with the release date of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” favors a twenty-one, soon to be twenty-two, year-old Fitzgerald. If so, then Morton’s negatives capture Fitzgerald on the cusp of an important turning point in her a career.
Taking “A Tisket A Tasket” to Task
In a 1981 interview by Ron Wellburn, Teddy MacRae spoke about the origins of “A-Tisket A-Takset.” He said, “That was Ella own thing. It was her own idea. That was her thing that she would sing up in Yonkers. . . . ” Fitzgerald, born in Newport News, Virginia, was raised in Yonkers from the age of three until her mother died suddenly of a heart attack in 1932. The lyrics are based up a very old nursery rhyme. MacRae continued, “We [the orchestra] had nothing to do with that. We called Van [Alexander] to put it down on paper for her, and Van made the arrangements.”
Biographer Robertson, quoting liner notes from the 1986 Swingtime LP Ella Fitzgerald Forever Young, volume 2 (ST 1007) quoted Alexander as saying “I was terribly busy at the time so I did nothing about the tune. But Ella approached me again after about a month, and I went home and put the melody and her lyrics together, copying all the parts myself, and took it to Webb. He rehearsed the song for about an hour in the afternoon and that very night, from the Savoy, he broadcast it. And that’s how ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket” was born and popularized.”
For a version of the story from her at the time, we turn to The Ella Fitzgerald Companion (1998) that includes a 1938 New York Post article by Earl Wilson in which Fitzgerald said, “we was playing’ Boston in April, and I says to Al Feldman [the birth name of Van Alexander], our arranger, ‘Look here, I got something terrific! They’re swing’ everything else—why not nursery rhymes?’ I had most of the words wrote out, so we sat down and jammed around till we got the tune, and that’s the way it was.” Well, that’s Ella’s version of the story. Up next for yet a different take . . . the biography First Lady of Song: Ella Fitzgerald for the Record by Geoffrey Fidelman (1994).
In that his biography Fidelman notes that the band had nightly broadcasts of their performances at the Levaggi. His spin on the story is that Feldman said he was so busy because of the constant need for new material for the radio broadcasts. “I turned her down flat,” said Feldman recalling when Fitzgerald approached him because of his workload. Fidelman then notes that Ella again approached Feldman a few days later [not a month as Teddy MacRae recalled.] Fidelman states Click Webb “put ‘Tasket’ on the air almost immediately and the band played it nightly for almost a month before the May 2 recording date for Decca, and this version has the song’s debut at Levaggi’s not the Savoy.
And of course there’s yet another version of the story that Fidelman refutes with his research. I cannot sort out all the stories here, but in each of these accounts, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” comes together after the February 1938 engagement at the Howard Theatre. If Hugh Morton photographed Fitzgerald then, she wasn’t singing the song that burst her into stardom. Either that, or there was another performance by Ella and the Webb band not recorded in the extensive chronicle constructed by Fritts and Vail.
We may never know . . .
Note: The final two sections added on 26 April