I admit it - like millions of others across the globe, I have been mesmerized and moved by "Britain's Got Talent" contestant, Susan Boyle of Scotland. Round, completely unglamorous, and 47-going-on-48, Boyle has become a global sensation; her triumphant audition on the UK's version of the popular reality show has been seen on YouTube by tens of millions. No wonder. It is sweet to watch the snarky, superior, and manifestly unkind Simon Cowell dissolve into a puddle of goo as Boyle launches into "I Dreamed a Dream," as well as the other judges and the smirking audience shifting from disdain to awe in about three bars. (Especially sweet if you were ever the fat, pimply girl who had to walk by a table full of giggling, sneering popular kids in the high school cafeteria, or if you are - say it! - middle-aged and engaging in an unanticipated war with calories and gravity.) But, even with that initial satisfaction, this part of the audition clip loses its importance next to the power and beauty of Boyle's voice. Her soaring voice -- it is, as one of the judges says, a privilege to listen to.
Watching Boyle this week made me think of another singer who has a similar story, although she was a teenager when her career began. Ella Fitzgerald was an unlikely pop star. When she walked onto the stage at the Apollo Theater one Amateur Night in 1934, she was chunky, raw, poor, wearing a hand-me-down dress and men's shoes because they were the only decent pair she could find - a 17-year-old escapee from reform school with no money and no training. The audience jeered and catcalled until she began to sing the popular Connee Boswell song, "Judy." Like Boyle's audience, they switched instantly from derisive booing to rapt cheering, and applauded and hollered so much at the end of her performance that she had to sing an encore, "The Object of My Affections."
Benny Carter was playing saxophone in the band that evening, and he arranged for Ella to sing for the legendary drummer and band leader, Chick Webb . When Webb saw the shy, awkward, pudgy Fitzgerald, he reportedly turned to Carter and said something like, "You've got to be crazy! You want me to listen to that?!" But Carter insisted, and Webb too was enchanted. He took Ella under his wing (some reports say he adopted her, but this is apparently an exaggeration) and signed her to sing with his band. They produced such pop hits as "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" and "Love and Kisses." In 1939, Webb, who suffered from crippling spinal tuberculosis, died, and his musicians became "Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Band." The rest, as they say, is history.
I couldn't decide which of these two clips to post, so here are both of them. After all, there is no such thing as too much Ella.