Da Musically Inclined Bomb

DePauw University's First Year Seminar on Writing about Music

Saturday, November 11, 2006


It’s hard to believe that the Ella Fitzgerald we know today, the curvaceous commander of the stage, started out as an extremely poor, shy, skinny-as-a-rail little girl in New York. Ella was born on April 25, 1917 in Newport News City, New York to common law parents Tempie Williams Fitzgerald and William Fitzgerald. When William left, Tempie relocated to the home of Joseph Di Silva, Tempie’s Portuguese lover. The new couple gave Ella a half-sister Frances, who remained one of Ella’s closest and enduring relationships until Frances’ death in the 1960’s.
After a couple more moves around the city, Ella went to school as a quiet but ambitious girl longing to make it big. She used dancing and music to cope with the struggles she encountered. The two helped her to remain optimistic. She started dancing around the third grade and was so passionate about it that friends thought she would pursue it later on in life. She would even dance by herself out in the school yard, associating dance with the new music style of the age, big band jazz. She started singing in a local gospel choir, where it was discovered she possessed the musical gift of relative pitch. She used imitation to learn about voice projection, intonation, simple harmony, and rhythmic phrasing, a key component in jazz singing.
With the ability to listen to recorded music with the use of the radio and phonograph, Ella first hear Louis Armstrong; she was immediately attracted to his voice and style. He was her first major musical influence and continued to be one throughout her career. She got her first taste of singing for an audience when she was picked to perform at an amateur show at the Apollo in 1934. She had the intention of dancing but when she had to follow the Edward Sisters, the best dancers of the area, she froze in front of the notoriously tough Apollo crowd. The master of ceremonies asked her if she would like to sing a song instead. The audience agreed with the idea and after some encouragement, she sang Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy”. The audience loved it so much she was even asked to sing an encore and she walked away the winner of the night with a cash prize of $25. She would have never looked into a career as a vocalist if it was not for this contest. It truly was the turning point in her life. She began singing in amateur contests all around the city and always came out the winner. Ella used “Judy,” “Believe It Beloved”and“The Object of My Affection” as her winning repertoire. As a teen she won a profession booking as a prize: a week at the Harlem Opera House with the Tiny Bradshaw band for $50. She also got her first press mention in the New York Age at this time, being referred to as Opera House appearance in January 1935. It was at the end of this week long prize that Ella first met with who would soon become her colleague, drummer Chick Webb. Little did Ella know that this would be the jumpstart for her career…

Fidelman, Geoffrey Mark. "First Lady of Song:Ellas Fitzgerald for the Record." New York, NY:A Birch Lane Press Book,1994.

Nicholson, Stuart. "Ella Fitzgerald." New York, NY: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1994.

On Such a Timeless Flight

With colorful glasses and a flamboyant scarf around his neck, Elton John takes the stage to give an electrifying performance. Maybe he will belt out "Bennie and the Jets" or maybe make everyone remember their first love with "Your Song." When Elton was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight, this feat seemed nowhere in the making. Reginald was born in Middlesex, a suburb of London on March 25, 1947. Reginald was a prodigy that could play anything he heard. His father, Stanley Dwight, was "demanding, disapproving, and difficult to please," (Rosenthal, 4) and was often away, being in the Royal Air Force. His mother was strict, but had much faith in young Reginald and supported him very much. His parents fought often leaving Reggie very nervous about life, as his mother later said "her son grew up 'a bundle of nerves'" His grandmother was his real encouragment at the piano in the beginning. Reggie would sit on her knees as she was at the piano so he could play. Reggie was often forced to play by his parents when they would host parties. He would often be in bed during the day and be woken up to play for the parties.
When he was eleven he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. Shortly before that however, while waiting to get his haircut, he saw a picture of Elvis, which he thought was one of the coolest things he had ever seen. After hearing his music Reggie became engendered to rock'n'roll. These events would set in motion Reginald Dwight turning into Elton John. At the Royal Academy his teacher played a lengthy Handel piece, and subsequently he played it back as easily as Handel could have. Reggie liked the music of Bach and Chopin, for obvious reasons, but Reggie was not keen on practicing. Elton John would later say that he was a student that could get by on not practicing. Although his teachers saw him as an exceptional student, his interest in classical music began to dwindle. After his parents divorced, his mothers new man, named Fred Farebrother got him a gig playing at a bar, called the Northwood Hills pub. The crowd there was often rowdy and hard to please. Reggie would play everything from folk songs to the popular songs of the day.
Reggie started a band called Bluesology, that had Reggie on organ, with drums, bass, and guitar. The band was composed of his friends, however Reggie did not sing regularly, but he got his chance when one of the songs the band played was too high for the lead singer and he took over.
Reggie began to audition for lead singing position for the bands King Crimson and Gentle Giant, which he did not get. He then answered an add in the New Musical Express. Reggie was given lyrics by Bernie Taupin, who also answered the add. He sent the music he wrote to Taupin, which started one of the most successful musical partnerships ever. By this time Reggie had changed his name to Elton John, (named for his bandmate saxophonist Elton Dean and his friend Long John Baldry.) Thus began the legend that would be Elton John.

Rosenthal, Elizabeth J. His Song: the Musical Journey of Elton John. New York, New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2001.

"Elton John." www.wikipedia.org. .

Friday, November 10, 2006


Everyone knows her most famous songs. At any given second there is probably a drunken frat guy or a thirteen year old American Idol hopeful out there somewhere belting out “Respect”, and I am sure everyone has witnessed their mother singing “Natural Woman” at the top of her lungs while cleaning the house. But there was a long road to this success.
On March 25, 1942, in racially segregated Memphis, Tennessee, the Reverend C. L. Franklin and his gospel singing wife Barbara Siggers welcomed their fourth of five children, Aretha Louise, into the world. By the time Aretha was two, the family had moved from Memphis to Buffalo, New York, and from Buffalo to Detroit. They lived in the church parish, a large house with a nice lawn, but the parish was in the area of Detroit later known as a ghetto, and Aretha was exposed to drug dealers and pimps at a young age. Just four years later, her parents separated, and her mother moved back to Buffalo, her hometown, leaving four of the children, Aretha included, with their father, who was more financially stable. Her mother was a nurse’s aide and could not afford to raise five children, but she did visit them and send them gifts frequently, and they spent the summers with her in Buffalo. Just four more years later, her mother passed away from a sudden heart attack, leaving her father to care for five children. Her father’s parents lived in the church parish with them, but her grandfather was bedridden due to a stroke years before, and her grandmother had to spend a lot of time caring for him. The ladies at the church became mother figures for the children, but Aretha really only wanted to sit in the corner and listen to music.
Aretha grew up around music. Her family owned a radio, a record player, and a piano. Dinah Washington and Mahalia Jackson were among frequent visitors to the Franklins’ house. She taught herself piano, refusing to be taught by anyone else, and began singing in church when she was only ten years old. At age thirteen she joined two of her sisters in traveling the country with her father’s summer revival show.
Only one year later, she got caught up in the whirlwind of being a teenage girl. She started hanging out with the girls her dad warned her about, and fell in what she thought was love. She was pregnant at age fourteen and had to drop out of school. Two years later she birthed another child, but she continued with her music. Throughout this whole time, she had kept one best friend, Erma. The pair considered themselves Sam Cookes’ biggest fans, and Aretha realized that if Sam could make it into the music business from a similar childhood as hers, so could she. At age eighteen she made the tough decision of leaving her children with her grandmother and heading to New York City.
Thus begins her musical career…..

The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock edited by Barbara O'dair
Aretha:From These Roots by Aretha Franklin and David Ritz
The Blues Singers: Ten Who Rocked the World by Julius Lester
Big Star Fallin' Mama by Hettie Jones