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Saluting Ella Fitzgerald at 100

The First Lady of American Song hits the centennial mark, offering an opportunity to celebrate her legacy.

Some 27 years ago this week, Tony Bennett surprised Ella Fitzgerald a day after her 73rd birthday by wheeling a cake onto the stage at New York's Radio City Music Hall as she performed for a packed house.

Now it was her turn to be serenaded as Bennett led a 6,000-voice chorus in "Happy Birthday."

Fitzgerald, appearing taken aback by the fuss, struggled to speak – so she just sang: "I'll be loving you, always," she started, before Bennett and the band joined in on Irving Berlin's classic.

The moment stood out as late vintage Ella: An ageless entertainer endlessly modest – except in her ability to improvise and turn a song into dream.

Tuesday marks what would have been Fitzgerald's 100th birthday. The landmark date hasn’t quite generated the hoopla that greeted Frank Sinatra's centennial in 2015 or even last year's 90th birthday commemoration of the still-crooning Bennett.

But more than two decades after her death, Fitzgerald's centennial offers an opportunity to celebrate the First Lady of American Song.

Like first ladies in other realms, Fitzgerald didn't always attract widespread acclaim on par with some flashier male contemporaries. 

Sinatra, her peer in masterful interpretation of the 20th Century American songbook, extended his celebrity to movies and beyond, while living his private life in public.

He proved among the most outspoken acolytes of Fitzgerald, whose voice, by turns sweet, powerful and flexible, became as much an indelible instrument of jazz as Charlie Parker's sax or the trumpets of Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, her greatest duet partner.

If Sinatra's magic rested in his phrasing, Fitzgerald's alchemy manifested in her ability to bend syllables, whether scatting in her own spontaneously composed language or rendering the lyrics of great songwriters. 

"I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them," lyricist Ira Gershwin, who put the words to many of his brother George's melodies, famously said. (A guess: Maybe Gershwin’s remarks came after listening to Fitzgerald fill "Someone to Watch Over Me" with glorious, bittersweet longing.)

Fitzgerald rose to fame in 1938 by transforming "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," a childhood nursery rhyme, into a buoyant classic that transcended novelty. But the heart of her work lies in her takes on the likes of the output of Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, and Duke Ellington, whose orchestra backed her on 1957's "Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook," perhaps her pinnacle.

While her centennial won't get the star-studded network TV specials that Sinatra and Bennett's birthdays spurred, her career is being commemorated with exhibitions at the Smithsonian and the Grammy Museum. A yearlong series of tribute performances is planned, as are recording compilations, including the recently released "Ella Fitzgerald: 100 Songs for a Centennial.”

Perhaps Fitzgerald would have been startled at any recognition of her birthday, as she was at Radio City all those years ago. But anytime is a good time to hail a first lady whose music lives forever, in a key all her own.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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