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This week in history: Ella Fitzgerald makes her Chicago debut

The jazz singer, who died this week on June 15, 1996, appeared for the first time on Chicago stages on Sept. 23, 1939.

Ella Fitzgerald, by Chester Sheard.
Ella Fitzgerald, shown here performing on an unknown date, died this week in history on June 15, 1996.
Chester Sheard

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

For six decades, Ella Fitzgerald wowed audiences with her beautiful, jazzy voice and her hit songs from “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” to “Summertime.” She also broke barriers when she became the first Black woman to win a Grammy award in 1958.

But on Sept. 23, 1939, no one in Chicago quite recognized the talent, who died this week on June 15, 1996, that was about to perform on the city’s stages for the first time at the Grand Terrace (35th Street and South Park, now King Drive).

“On Thursday night, the dusky song star, now only 21 years old, made her first Chicago night-club appearance with her own band behind her and an intensely interesting Grand Terrace audience in front of her,” Chicago Daily News reporter Joseph Lawler wrote after seeing Fitzgerald perform.

Fitzgerald exploded onto the entertainment scene in 1934 when she won an amateur singing contest at the Apollo Theater in New York City, according to Biography. At the time, she’d been living on the streets. After she won the contest, she met bandleader Chick Webb and began performing with him as a singer at the Savory in Harlem. Just a year before her Chicago debut, she recorded two hits: “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and “I Found My Yellow Basket.”

Though best known for her singing, Fitzgerald once hoped to become a dancer, and Lawler noted that some of her dancing skills appeared in her singing through the way her voice moved (she had a three-octave range).

“She is, instead, a dance instructor’s dream of a vocalist — a singer who treats her voice like an integral instrument of the band,” Lawler wrote.

The Daily News reporter didn’t include Fitzgerald’s setlist, but she did sing “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” for her fans.

In her dressing room after the show, Fitzgerald told her reporters she’d been writing music since she was 17 and studied it for “a half term in public schools,” the paper reported. She admitted that she knew very little about writing, but the “boys fix it up” when needed.