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It’s hard to understate the popularity of Ella Fitzgerald. During her decades-long career, she won 13 Grammys, sold over 40 million albums, and influenced an entire generation of singers.
So, in honor of what would’ve been her 100th birthday, The Smithsonian National Museum of American History, along with the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, is celebrating her history and legacy with First Lady of Song: Ella Fitzgerald at 100, a year-long exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History .
In addition to clips of Fitzgerald’s performances playing on a monitor, visitors can gaze upon artifacts from the museum’s and the foundation’s archives: the sheet music Fitzgerald composed, the awards she won, and even the notes that the Apollo Theater’s management made about her performances during the 1940s and ’50s.
Fitzgerald’s first recognition came when she was only 17. After singing at and winning the Apollo Theater’s amateur night contest, she joined a jazz band lead by Chick Webb. When Webb died a few years later, 22-year-old Fitzgerald took over, becoming one of the first female musicians to lead her own orchestra. The exhibit features a picture of her with her band the very year she began to lead, and it’s incredible to see, with her looking very young but fully in control.
This early success came on the heels of a troubled adolescence. After suffering abuse from her father, Fitzgerald moved into an early type of foster care and then a reformatory. At the latter, black girls like her were segregated into crowded, dilapidated housing and beaten by the male staff, The New York Times reported after her death in 1996. In the same article, a superintendent who had worked at the reformatory told the Times that Fitzgerald “had been held in the basement of one of the cottages once and all but tortured.” Joining Webb’s band was the way that she escaped.
Though the museum’s exhibit is small, it still conveys the magnitude of her success. There’s a concert poster featuring her portrait drawn by Picasso, a video clip of her singing with Duke Ellington, a passport filled with stamps from her international performances, and a dozen keys to cities that she was given. And while you browse the exhibit, admiring these artifacts, you can hear her voice from the monitor. Fitzgerald was renowned for her vocal range, scat singing, and ability to imitate the instruments in her orchestra, and the best way to understand her music’s impact is to hear it for yourself.
The exhibit acknowledges that Fitzgerald had to work against gender and racial barriers, but it is a little vague about what those barriers were. On the monitor, visitors can see a clip of her singing her hit song “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” in the 1942 Abbott and Costello movie Ride ‘Em, Cowboy. It was her first film appearance and it’s great fun to watch Fitzgerald perform so early in her career. What the exhibit doesn’t mention, however, is that in this movie, she plays a maid who sits down in the back of the bus after she’s finished singing the cowboys her song.
One of the interesting points that the exhibit does make is that Fitzgerald was “one of the first African American female celebrities to appear in advertising aimed at a general audience.” The dress she wore in a 1986 American Express ad is on display, as well as her 1961 American Express card (before 1974, it was very difficult for women to get credit cards, so Fitzgerald would have been part of a small percentage of women who had them). And in a very funny Memorex cassette commercial from 1972 the company brags that its recordings are so good, a tape of Fitzgerald’s singing would still shatter a wine glass the way it would at a live performance.
It’s not totally clear if Fitzgerald ever really did shatter glass with her voice—but that doesn’t really matter, because in real life she shattered many a glass ceiling.
At the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to April 2, 2018. 12th Street & Constitution Avenue, NW. Free. (202) 633-1000. americanhistory.si.edu.