The day the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald, came to Cork

By the time Ella Fitzgerald came to perform at the Cork Jazz Festival in October 1980, she was the well-established and undisputed singing queen of the world jazz scene. Fitzgerald’s stint at Cork Opera House was a welcome boost for the then burgeoning festival, whose organisers shelled out a reported £16,000 for the star.

Ella Fitzgerald in Cork Opera house for the Cork Jazz Festival in 1980. Picture: Richard Mills / Irish Examiner Archive

The singer, in the midst of a European tour, was on a tight and what must have been tiring schedule. 

She had played in Newcastle in England the night before and more gigs were on the agenda as soon as she left Cork. But the 62-year-old still managed to squeeze two performances into her one day stay and, according to reviews, she did not disappoint.

“Ella Fitzgerald won the hearts of 2,000 people who packed the theatre for... a performance that exceeded the expectations of even her greatest admirers,” wrote this newspaper on its front page that Saturday.

“One ecstatic patron was heard to comment at the end of the first of two 70 minute shows — ‘It was worth rebuilding the Opera House for that alone’. From the moment she opened with ‘There Will Never Be Another You’ to the encore ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams’, Ella displayed an amazing versatility in voice and movement that brought the capacity house to their feet on more than one occasion.”

Festival co-founder Pearse Harvey was similarly effusive. “When she sang on stage it was possible to hear a new rugged timbre in her voice which, though it indicated the sad and inevitable passage of time, it seemed to lend a new dimension to much of what she sang,” he recalled.

And while the chanteuse left her mark on Cork, the city’s airport authorities also left a special stamp on Fitzgerald, or to be more exact, on her passport.

“Immigration officials at Cork Airport gave the great lady of jazz a special immigration stamp on her passport,” reported the Examiner.

“The delighted Ella released her normally guarded passport to interested onlookers who discovered that her mother was an American Cherokee Indian and that her second name was Jane. Apparently she has kept these facts secret from the public until this late stage of her career.”

Ella Fitzgerald, who would have celebrated her 100th birthday today, had reason to be guarded.

Ella Fitzgerald clutches her passport as she crosses the runway at Cork Airport with jazz festival organisers Jim Mountjoy and Pearse Harvey in 1980. Picture: Examiner Archive

The ‘first lady of song’ was born on April 25, 1917, in Virginia, though she always said she was younger. Her Irish heritage and surname were about all her father, William Fitzgerald, gave her. He and Ella’s mother, Tempie Williams, were not married, and while Ella was still a young child he abandoned them.

When she first arrived in Ireland for a performance at the Adelphi in 1964 she was asked about her Irish heritage and was only able to say she had the family crest at home.

Fitzgerald and her mother moved to the Yonkers neighbourhood of New York where they soon set up house with Tempie’s new boyfriend, Joseph Da Silva. From an early age, Fitzgerald performed as a dancer in local clubs.

She was by all accounts a happy-go-lucky child but when her mother died of a heart attack, the 15-year-old Fitzgerald was left to the whims of the abusive DaSilva.

Eventually, her aunt Virginia took her in but in her new Harlem neighborhood, Fitzgerald fell in with the wrong crowd. She worked for the local mafia and was a lookout at a brothel. She soon ended up in care.

Legend has it she escaped, though some suggest she may have just done her time. Either way, she found herself back in Harlem only now she was homeless. For a period, she literally had to sing for her supper.

On November 21, 1934, Fitzgerald took to the stage of the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. It was amateur night and a $25 prize was up for grabs. Originally, she had planned a dance number but wearing cumbersome clothes and finding herself up against stiff local competition she decided instead to sing. She won, but most importantly she came to the attention of people who knew people.

Fitzgerald was taken to audition for the Chick Webb Swing Band who were then on the lookout for a female lead. On first impressions, Chick was unimpressed but then ‘the lady’ sang and the job was hers.

It was a turning point for both the band and Fitzgerald. Together they gained a national profile. In 1938, ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’, a number Fitzgerald Ella had written herself from an old children’s rhyme, reached No 21 in the charts.

Her career took off from there, but it took a toll on her personal life. Her first husband was a con man named Benny Kornegay who had spent time in prison on drugs charges. That marriage was eventually annulled after the singer’s management team hired a detective to uncover her husband’s dark past.

In 1947, Fitzgerald married fellow musician, Ray Brown, but that also ended after six years.

Years later it was rumoured that she had married a Norwegian named Thor Einar Larsen. The marriage, if it had ever existed, was soon over.

Very little of the singer’s autobiography found its way into her music and, unlike many of her contemporaries, she avoided the alcohol and drug-fuelled pitfalls of fame. Her song ‘Wacky Dust’ even warned of the perils of cocaine. Ella Fitzgerald’s drug was to sing and it was an addiction she remained hooked on right up to the last.

“Fitzgerald didn’t turn her private life into a melodramatic sideshow for public consumption,” wrote Frank Rich in his New York Times eulogy to her in 1996.

“Nor, as might be expected of the First Lady of Song, did she create a saintly official persona to be trotted out for self-promotion on magazine spreads and TV talk shows.

“Her shyness was not an affectation; her spurning of glamour was not an act.”

Flying high to ensure Fitzgerald made it over

Pearse Harvey was the man tasked with ensuring Ella Fitzgerald made it to Cork without mishap. He remembers a ‘real lady’, writes Des O’Driscoll

Ella Fitzgerald in Cork Airport for the Cork Jazz Festival in 1980. Festival co-founder Pearse Harvey is behind her on the steps. Picture: Irish Examiner Archive

IN LATE October 1979, the members of the welcome committee of the Cork Jazz Festival stood at Cork Airport nudging each other.

“It must be him,” said one, pointing at a black man who had just got off the flight from London. “You go check.” One of the committee nervously approached the visitor and asked, “Are you Mr Peterson?” When the reply came as a gruff “No!”, they knew they were in trouble. Oscar Peterson, the great jazz pianist and supposed headliner for their festival, wasn’t coming. In those days of snail-mail and landlines, the committee would eventually learn that the Canadian star had been too ill to travel.

As it turned out, they got along without him very well. Over the next few days, Leeside would swing to the likes of Art Blakey, Humphrey Lyttelton and a young violinist by the name of Nigel Kennedy for the second incarnation of a John Player-sponsored festival that was already building quite a reputation.

Once bitten, twice shy, however. So when the committee landed the ultimate headliner the following year, they resolved that nothing could go wrong. Festival co-founder Pearse Harvey was despatched to London to ensure that Ella Fitzgerald really did make it to Cork.

He met the 63-year-old singer in Heathrow with her female assistant, and they waited for the flight in a private VIP area. Fitzgerald requested a Perrier water from the attendant, and when she was told they didn’t have any, the star wouldn’t have anything else. Despite the lack of absence of her favourite tipple, Harvey remembers a warm and pleasant figure — “a real lady”. She did express her unhappiness at not being able spend more time in Ireland as, despite an already gruelling series of dates, her tour manager had booked her for more gigs.

Before Fitzgerald even took off from London, the Irish welcome had begun. The Aer Lingus staff made a big fuss of their guest star when she arrived at the plane, with the captain even announcing over the tannoy that he was a big fan of her music, before he slipped on a tape of her tunes to a rousing cheer from the other passengers.

In Cork, a delighted Fitzgerald pulled her fur coat around her after descending the gangway in the autumn sunshine before a bevy of reporters, local dignitaries and relieved festival director Jim Mountjoy. Mission accomplished for Harvey.

A LIMOUSINE supplied by Ford, which still had a big manufacturing plant in the city, transported the star to the Metropole Hotel on MacCurtain Street where she stayed for her two nights in Cork. As reported above, the two concerts were a huge success. “When she went on stage, she gave it her all. She was quite old by then, but you could still see that she really had something special,” remembers Harvey. “She also had a really good rapport with the audience and they loved her.”

Immediately after the second gig, Fitzgerald facilitated a brief press conference in her crowded dressing room in the Opera House. Marian Finucane was among those who asked a question, but Harvey remembers the 30-year-old RTÉ broadcaster getting a cool response from the nonplussed singer.

On the Saturday morning, when Harvey went to bring Fitzgerald back to the airport, she cut a tired figure. Instead of relaxing or making the most of her surroundings, it was back on the plane for more gigs. Within a few years, her health would really start to suffer. Heart and other problems resulted in several hospitalisations in the mid-1980s. In 1993, both of her legs were amputated below the knee due to complications from diabetes. The First Lady of Song died in June, 1996, aged 79.

For the 2,000 people who had seen her sing in Cork, however, she will always be fondly remembered.


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