They’re known as America’s toughest crowd—a raucous group of spectators eager to recognize unknown talent or brutally boo an uninspired act off the stage. But when the audience at Amateur Night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater crammed into their seats on November 21, 1934, they didn’t realize they’d be there to witness jazz history.
That night, a 17-year-old named Ella Fitzgerald took the stage and belted out a song, stealing spectators' hearts and setting herself on the road to stardom. But though Fitzgerald’s name is one of music’s most well known, she might never have broken through without a little dare from some friends.
The teenaged Fitzgerald
had already experienced a lifetime’s worth of adversity by 1934. After her mother’s sudden death when Ella was 15, she was reportedly abused by her stepfather and she dropped out of school. She moved in with an aunt in Harlem and made money "running numbers"—working as a player in an illegal lottery game that was controlled by the Mafia. She also served as a lookout for prostitutes, warning them before the police came.
The police eventually caught up with young Ella, and she served a stint at a reform school called the New York State Training School for Girls. By the time she got out (or possibly ran away), she knew she couldn’t return to her aunt’s. But she had a plan: she was going to escape her impoverished, dangerous life through show business.
At the time, radio was booming and Harlem was a hotbed of black variety acts, theater, and street performance. Ella, who could both sing and dance, made the occasional nickel dancing on street corners, but when she learned about the Apollo Theater’s new amateur night competition, she was intrigued. She went to the theater with two girlfriends, who dared her to go onstage—as a dancer. "It was a bet," she said later. "We just put our names in … We never thought we’d get the call." The plan: Impersonate Earl "Snakehips" Tucker, a dancer renowned in Harlem for a routine in which he did a boneless-seeming dance people compared to a boa constrictor.
But when a gawky, homeless, poorly clothed Ella got ready to do her snake-like dance, things started to go wrong. She realized that a pair of well-known dancers, the Edwards Sisters—whom Ella once referred to as "the dancingest sisters in the world"—would go on before her as the final main-show act and that their costumes and routine were much fancier than her run-down gear and street-corner performance style. At the last minute, she chickened out and decided to sing instead.
"She was far from chic," recalled someone who was in the audience that night. "So we started booing … like the bunch of rowdy kids we were." The amateur night’s emcee had to beg the heckling audience for a bit of compassion to restore order before a discomposed Ella—who was "jumpy and unnerved," as the emcee reported—started to sing. After a rough start, Ella's clear, precise vocals—her calling card throughout her career—came through, and she won the crowd over. When she walked off the stage, it was in triumph.
Interestingly, a key detail of that fateful night that helped launch her career is unclear. Though Fitzgerald later told reporters and it's been widely reported that she sang two songs, "Judy" and "The Object of My Affection," for the Apollo crowd, biographer Stuart Nicholson notes that neither song had been recorded at the time of the performance.
Though it’s not clear how she learned the songs, Ella Fitzgerald’s future stardom was evident to everyone who heard her that night. "There I was, as nervous as can be," she later recalled. "Three encores later, the $25 prize was mine."