Ed Sullivan was an early supporter, and had her as a guest on the fifth episode of The Ed Sullivan Show. On July 18, 1948, the television audience was introduced to the charismatic jazz singer. Ed partnered her with vaudeville legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. As Ella scatted, Robinson tap-danced. This was an early example of Ed’s attempt to bring vaudeville to television, and to have something for everyone. Ella said in an interview about Ed, “His was one of the first shows that gave everybody a chance to be seen, and heard. And that was like a new beginning.”
Fitzgerald’s vocal stylings were consistently praised by Sullivan and fellow performers. On the March 24th 1957, Ed stepped onstage after Ella sang “Hotta Chocolotta.” He told her that Bing Crosby was a big fan, and Bing’s favorite song of hers was “Lady Be Good.” And that’s what she performed next.
On the February 2nd 1964 episode, Ella belted out “Them There Eyes,” “Love Being Here With You,” “My Last Affair,” and “Perdido” with trumpet master Roy Hilton. At one point during the show, Sammy Davis Jr. joined Ed onstage. After doing a few jokes and impressions, Davis asked Sullivan for a huge favor. He wanted to sing with Fitzgerald. Ed instantly agreed, and for their first time singing together, Davis and Fitzgerald held the nation captive with their rendition of “S’Wonderful.” Afterward, Sullivan stated that this duet would be talked about for years to come. He told the audience that they would talk to their grandkids about how they were witness to one of the greatest collaborations between Fitzgerald and Sammy Davis Jr. on The Ed Sullivan Show. And he was right.
In March of 1965, the Queen of Swing appeared on Sullivan with the Duke. Ella and Duke Ellington sang his “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me.” Composers were honored to have her interpret their works. Ira Gershwin said “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” And Richard Rodgers felt the same way, “Whatever she does to my songs, she always makes them sound better.”
As a “Goodwill Ambassador” for the State Department, Fitzgerald traveled the world and entertained American troops. Unfortunately, like fellow jazz performer, Ambassador and Ed Sullivan artist Louis Armstrong, she would often be confronted by racism. Although audiences admired her three-octave voice, many were vocal about discrimination. One angry fan wrote to Sullivan: “We enjoyed Ella Fitzgerald right up to when you had to make the point of hugging her right there in our living room!” Not one to stand for racism, Ed always wrote back angry letters to anyone who crossed that line.
The last of Fitzgerald’s eight appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show was on November 23rd 1969. She stepped onstage wearing a shimmering red dress and sang, “You Better Love Me” and “Open Your Window.” Miss Fitzgerald said about Ed: “I think it was like what almost everybody felt. They trusted him. They believed in him. And I guess we loved him. And thank you for what you’ve done for me.”
Now firmly established as The First Lady of Song, she continued to perform with all the greats and in the top venues around the world for several decades. In 1991, she appeared for the 26th time at Carnegie Hall. This was to be her final performance. Before her death in 1996 due to complications from diabetes, Fitzgerald had recorded over 200 albums, garnered 13 Grammys (including their Lifetime Achievement Award), was the recipient of The Presidential Medal of Freedom, The National Medal of Arts, The Kennedy Center Honor, The NAACP Image Award, a Peabody Award, The George and Ira Gershwin Award, was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame and received several honorary doctorates.
“I know I’m no glamour girl, and it’s not easy for me to get up in front of a crowd of people. It used to bother me a lot, but now I’ve got it figured out that God gave me this talent to use, so I just stand there and sing.” – Ella Fitzgerald