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Ella Jenkins Biography

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Ella Jenkins Biography
Courtesy Earl Calloway

Born:

August 6, 1924, in St. Louis, Missouri.

Ella Jenkins introduced children to a universe of rhythms, call-and-response tunes, world music, and cultural diversity through song, long before those subjects came into vogue in the kids' music arena.

Ella Jenkins' Early Life:

Ella grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where she absorbed the constant flow of music in her own house and on the streets of The Windy City. After earning a degree from Chicago's Wilson Junior College in 1947, Jenkins moved to California for bigger and better things. In 1951, she received her B.A. in Sociology from San Francisco State College, then moved back to Chicago to become a program director for teenagers at a YWCA the following year. Jenkins always incorporated music into her jobs and studies, a trait that would soon pay off a thousand fold.

A New Career for Ella Jenkins:

While working at the YWCA, Jenkins was invited to perform on "The Totem Club," a children's program on WTTV Channel 11. Through this exposure, she was introduced to Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records. Asch's label specialized in discovering and recording unique and original musical talent, and Jenkins' style fit right in. Her demo landed her a recording contract during the first meeting with Asch, thus began a 50-plus year career with Folkways Records.

Ella Jenkins Goes Professional:

Ella Jenkins' debut release on the Folkways label was 1957's seminal Call and Response: Rhythmic Group Singing, the first of over 30 albums she has recorded for children. Her conversational style, use of exotic instruments, and exploration of ethnic songs, chants, and rhythms appealed to a great range of listeners. Some of her biggest and most devoted fans were school teachers and their students, as they used her albums in classroom lessons across the curriculum.

The Ella Jenkins Legacy:

Over the years, Ella Jenkins has released some of the most important and beloved albums in the children's music genre. Jenkins' 1966 album You'll Sing a Song and I'll Sing a Song is her most popular record, as well as being a perennial best-seller on the Smithsonian Folkways label. The 1959 record Adventures in Rhythm explored complex rhythmic concepts using drums and sticks, while the 1999 CD Ella Jenkins and a Union of Friends Pulling Together was a concept album that delved into the literal and figurative meanings of "union."

A Living Legend:

Among numerous accolades, Jenkins received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Artists and Sciences at the 2004 GRAMMY ceremony, and was nominated for a GRAMMY for her Union of Friends album. Still going strong at age 85, Ella Jenkins regularly performs concerts and workshops across America, her trademark ukulele and harmonica ringing out mightily.
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