The dancing Edwards Sisters were responsible for giving us the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald.
It happened at the Apollo Theater in New York one night in 1934. Fitzgerald was 16 and thought of herself as a dancer. Her inspiration had been a man named "Snake Hips" Tucker who did, in fact, seem to have the sinuous moves of a serpent when he danced.
That night at the Apollo, the Edwards Sisters were the headliners, the last of the professional acts before the amateurs took the stage. Their frantic terpsichorean antics brought down the house. Fitzgerald, who was waiting backstage to be the first of that night's amateur performers, was devastated and completely intimidated, so much so that she knew she couldn't go out on that stage and dance.
Instead, she sang. The song was "Judy," a tune that's little remembered today. But that night, the power of her delivery left the audience awestruck and won her a first prize. Norma Miller, who was in the audience, recalled later that after Fitzgerald finished singing, "It was so quiet you could hear a rat piss on cotton."
And at that moment, one of the greatest musical careers of the 20th century was born. Over the course of her 58 years as a jazz singer, Fitzgerald won 13 Grammys and sold more than 40 million records. She became a national treasure.
It didn't start out easy for Fitzgerald, who was born in Newport News and moved to Yonkers, N.Y., as a child. She never met her father, and her mother died when Fitzgerald was no more than a budding teen-ager. Her stepfather tried to raise her, but they never got along, and by the age of 15, Fitzgerald was running the streets of Harlem unfettered. For the rest of her life, she looked to her audiences to give her the love she needed to carry on.
"American Masters," with exclusive access to Fitzgerald's estate, has compiled the most comprehensive collection of Fitzgerald's film and video performances ever and made the first full-length documentary portrait of the celebrated singer. The result is the exquisitely lovely PBS-TV's "Ella Fitzgerald Something to Live For" which airs Wednesday, Dec. 8, at 9:30 p.m.
The biographical details give needed context to an understanding of Fitzgerald's amazing career, but it is the performances that make this impressive 90-minute documentary well worth watching.
"It Don't Mean a Thing," "S'Wonderful," "Sweet Georgia Brown" they're all there, some in grainy film, some in early black-and-white TV, and some in full-color video, but all in Fitzgerald's inimitable style, which only improved, if it can be said that excellence can get better, as she aged. The program also includes collaborations with the best of her peers Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante.
But, surprisingly, it's Fitzgerald at her quietest that provides the tribute's most moving moments: "Summertime" with just bass, drums and piano; "Lush Life" accompanied by an understated orchestra; and toward both the end of her career and the program, "Once in a While" accompanied only by a guitarist.
They probably never even knew what a gift they gave to the world, those Edwards Sisters back in 1934. On such small incidents fate often hangs.
The dancing sisters have long been forgotten. But not Fitzgerald. Not yet, and not for as long as the world appreciates good