The Ella Fitzgerald Lost Interview

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In 1963, legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald sat down for an interview with her friend and popular New York radio host, Fred Robbins. The topic of discussion was racism, which was a bold conversation to have during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.  

Fitzgerald was the first Black woman to win a Grammy at the inaugural show in 1959, taking home two awards for best “female vocal performance” and “best jazz performance.” She was living her best life with a thriving international concert tour and a best-selling album that sold over one million copies.  

The duality of her Black identity and successful music career created a deep tension in her life.  Being loved and respected overseas built her up, but returning home to the U.S., where she faced racist experiences–such as being arrested in 1955 in her dressing room before a Houston show–tore her down.  

Fitzgerald discussed her turmoil with racism with Robbins in the interview, but for unknown reasons, the interview was never broadcast. It was lost to listeners, but the recording was later discovered by author Reggie Nadelson in 2018 at the Paley Center for Media. Snippets from the interview can now be heard for the first time in the new documentary Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things.

Fitzgerald begins the interview with Robbins in a sorrowful tone because of segregation and not being able to perform in the South. She laments, “It makes you feel so bad to think we can’t go down through certain parts of the South and give a concert like we do overseas, and have everybody just come to hear the music and enjoy the music because of the prejudice thing that’s going on.

“I used to always clam up because you (hear people) say, ‘Oh, gee, show people should stay out of politics.’ But we have traveled so much and been embarrassed so much. (Fans) can’t understand why you don’t play in Alabama, or (ask), ‘Why can’t you have a concert? Music is music.”

Fitzgerald worried that the interview could cost her her career because she “ran her mouth too much” and wondered if people in the South would break up her records when they heard the interview. However, she expressed her gratitude to Robbins for the opportunity to speak her truth, telling him, “I’m so happy that you had me because instead of singing, for a change, I got a chance to get a few things off my chest. I’m just a human being.”  

Regardless of the possible outcome of the interview, it gave Fitzgerald the opportunity to confront her duality as a Black woman in America and a successful jazz singer overseas. She finally was able to address the tension and express her human emotions in a vulnerable way, giving voice to her pain.

Even though she felt that you can’t change the hearts of “die-hard” racists, she ended the interview in an optimistic tone, believing that future generations would be able to create a more tolerant future.