On the evening of November 21, 1934, a young and gangly would-be dancer took to the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater to participate in a harrowing tradition known as Amateur Night. Finding herself onstage as a result of pure chance after her name was drawn out of a hat, the aspiring dancer spontaneously decided to turn singer instead—a change of heart that would prove significant not only for herself personally, but also for the future course of American popular music. The performer in question was a teenaged Ella Fitzgerald, whose decision to sing rather than dance on this day in 1934 set her on a course toward becoming a musical legend. It also led her to victory at Amateur Night at the Apollo, a weekly event that was then just a little more than a year old but still thrives today.
Born in 1917 in Newport News, Virginia and orphaned at the age of 15, Ella Fitzgerald was a high-school dropout and a ward of New York State when she made her way to the Apollo that autumn night in 1934 with two of her girlfriends. “It was a bet,” she later recalled. “We just put our names in….We never thought we’d get the call.” But Ella did get the call, and as it happened, she came to the stage immediately after a talented and popular local dance duo. Afraid that she couldn’t measure up to the dancing talents of the preceding act, Ella was petrified. “I looked and I saw all those people, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I going to do out here?'” she told National Public Radio decades later. “Everybody started laughing and said, ‘What is she gonna do?’ And I couldn’t think of nothing else, so I tried to sing ‘The Object of My Affection.'”
By her own admission, Fitzgerald was blatantly imitating the singer who popularized that song, Connie Boswell of the Boswell Sisters, and the first few notes were a disaster. Rushing onstage to protect her from the jeers of the notoriously tough Apollo Theater crowd, however, was the famous Amateur Night master of ceremonies, Ralph Cooper, who helped Ella gather her wits and try again. On her second attempt, she brought down the house.
Within the year, Ella Fitzgerald had been discovered by Chick Webb, to whose band she was legally paroled by the State of New York while still shy of her 18th birthday. It was with Webb’s band that she scored her career-making hit, “A-Tisket A-Tasket” in 1938, but it was as a solo performer that she would become a jazz legend in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a revolutionary innovator in vocal jazz.