As a website devoted to Ella Fitzgerald avers:
Dubbed ‘The First Lady of Song,’ Ella Fitzgerald was the most popular female jazz singer in the United States for more than half a century. In her lifetime, she won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million albums.”
But in spite of her great talent, and like other black performers in the 1950’s, she was at first denied admission to a number of hotels, restaurants, and clubs.
But Ella had one advocate she didn’t even know about: Marilyn Monroe.
Marilyn Monroe is only rarely credited for her considerable intellect, or her compassion and courage. But it would be remiss not to take a look underneath her exterior at the beauty that was also within her, and how she helped play a role in opening up musical venues to black performers. One such incident involved Ella Fitzgerald, whose recordings Marilyn studied over and over for inspiration and emulation. [It was rumored that a vocal coach of Monroe instructed her to purchase an album of Fitzgerald’s recordings of Gershwin music, and listen to it 100 times in a row.]
The Mocombo was a popular Hollywood club frequented by many movie stars, and it was Marilyn’s favorite. As Open Culture reports:
If you wanted to play to an influential crowd in Hollywood back in the 1950s, you had to play the Mocambo, the Sunset Strip nightclub frequented by the likes of Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Lana Turner, Bob Hope, Sophia Loren, and Howard Hughes. But at the time, a singer of the reputedly scandalous new music known as jazz didn’t just waltz onto the stage of such a respectable venue, especially given the racial attitudes of the time.”
Marilyn had been listening to Ella for years. But Ella was not welcome at the Mocambo. In Ella’s own words in a later recollection:
“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt … she personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”
[The Mocambo closed in 1958 a year after the death of the club operator and co-owner, Charlie Morrison, with whom Marilyn bargained a couple of years before.]
The show only lasted for a week, but it helped launch Fitzgerald’s career. And she remained friends with Marilyn Monroe.
If you have any question why everyone was so entranced with the talent of Ella Fitzgerald, check out this video of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. You won’t wonder anymore!