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TV Review: PBS plays a tuneful, touching portrait of Ella Fitzgerald

Wednesday, December 15, 1999

By Nate Guidry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Ella Fitzgerald sang "Judy" in 1934, it was the beginning of one of the most celebrated careers in American music history.

The musical output of Fitzgerald, who was considered the First Lady of Song, spanned nearly 60 years and was a complete synthesis of American music, from Tin Pan Alley to pop, from bebop to ballads.

She won 13 Grammy Awards and sold more than 40 million records. Fitzgerald died in 1996.

Thanks to the PBS "American Masters" series, we can now see a full-length documentary portrait of the legendary singer in a tribute airing at 8 tonight on WQED/WQEX.

The film, "Something to Live For," was produced by WNET in New York and features trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison and pianist Hank Jones.

"Something To Live For"

When: 8 tonight on WQED/WQEX, airing as an installment of PBS's "American Masters" series.

Featuring: Harry "Sweets" Edison and Hank Jones.


The program traces Fitzgerald's life from her childhood in Yonkers, N.Y., to her mature ability to captivate an audience. In interviews, including one with former Pittsburgh Symphony music director André Previn, we hear stories laced with humor, charm and modesty.

She remembers her early love of dancing; her career-sparking relationship with diminutive drummer Chick Webb, who was the first to hire her for his famed orchestra; her introduction to bebop through Dizzy Gillespie; and her hectic 51-weeks-a-year concert schedule.

Other highlights include Fitzgerald's inimitable voice gliding effortlessly over "It Don't Mean a Thing," "Sweet Georgia Brown" and her famous "A-Tisket, A-Tasket."

The film also spotlights her collaboration with Louis Armstrong, riffing on children's songs with Bing Crosby and living it up with Nat King Cole on "It's All Right With Me."

But we're also given glimpses of the person behind the voice.

Childhood friend Charles Gulliver recalls the singer's difficult relationship with her stepfather. Edison talks about their days on the road and the discrimination they encountered. Pianist Oscar Peterson discusses the powerful impact producer Norman Grantz had on Fitzgerald's career. And traveling companion and friend Judy Cammarota discusses Fitzgerald's suicidal feeling after her divorce from Pittsburgh bassist Ray Brown.

It's a full portrait -- and, appropriate for an "American Masters" installment, unfolds masterfully.

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