All About the Great Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Jane Fitzgerald (1917 1996), also known as 'the First Lady of Song', was without any doubt one of the greatest, if not the greatest, jazz vocalists of the 20th Century.

With a vocal range spanning three octaves, she was noted for her purity of tone, near faultless phrasing and intonation, and a "horn-like" improvisational ability, particularly in her scat singing.

During a recording career which lasted almost 60 years, she was the winner of thirteen Grammy Awards, and was awarded the National Medal of Art by President Ronald Reagan.

Ella Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia, U.S.A. on April, 25, 1917. Unfortunately, her father, William, and mother, Temperance, or Tempie, Fitzgerald separated soon after her birth. Ella and her mother, moved to Yonkers, New York, moving in with mother's new boyfriend, Joseph Da Silva. Ella's half-sister, Frances Fitzgerald, was born in 1923.

In 1932, Ella's mother died from injuries received in a car accident. After staying with Da Silva for a short time, Tempie's sister Virginia took Ella in. Shortly afterward, Da Silva suffered a heart attack and died, and her sister Frances joined Ella with Virginia.

Following these dramatic events, Ella's academic grades dropped dramatically, and she frequently skipped school. After getting into trouble with the police, she was taken into custody and sent to a reform school. Eventually Ella escaped from the reformatory, and for a time was homeless.

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald, the 'First Lady of Song.' This is the famous Carl Van Vechten photograph.

She made her debut at age 17 in 1934 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York, where she won the opportunity to compete in one of the earliest of its famous 'Amateur Nights.' She had originally intended to go on stage and dance, but intimidated by the 'Edwards Sisters', a local dance duo, she opted to sing in the style of her idol, Connie Boswell. She sang Hoagy Carmichael's 'Judy', and 'The Object of My Affections', another song by the Boswell Sisters, that night.

In January 1935 she won the chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House. Ella met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb here for the first time. Webb had already hired male singer Charlie Linton to work with the band, but he offered Ella the opportunity to test with his band when they got a booking to play for the Yale University dance. Ella was huge success, and thereafterWebb hired her to travel with the band for $12.50 a week.

She started singing regularly with Webb's Orchestra through 1935, at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. Fitzgerald recorded several hit songs with them, including 'You'll Have to Swing It, Mr. Paganini', and 'Love and Kisses' (her first recording) but it was her 1938 version of the nursery rhyme, 'A-Tisket, A-Tasket' that brought her wide public acclaim. In fact, her first recording. 'Love and Kisses' (which was released under the Decca label), only brought moderate success.

Chick Webb died on June 16, 1939, and his band was renamed 'Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra' with Ella taking the role of bandleader. Ella began working regularly for the jazz impresario Norman Granz, and appearing regularly in his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. Fitzgerald's relationship with Granz was further cemented when he became her manager, although it would be nearly a decade before he could record her on one of his many record labels.

With the demise of the Swing era, and the decline of the great touring big bands, a major change in jazz music occurred in this period. The advent of be-bop caused a major change in Fitzgerald's vocal style, influenced by her work with Dizzy Gillespie's big band. It was in this period that Fitzgerald started including scat singing as a major part of her performance repertoire, and her 1947 recordings of 'Oh, Lady be Good!' 'How High the Moon' and 'Flying Home' became popular, and increased her reputation as one of the leading jazz vocalists.

Perhaps responding to criticism, and under pressure from Granz who felt that Fitzgerald was sometimes given unsuitable material to record during this period, her last years on the Decca label saw Fitzgerald's recording a series of duets with pianist Ellis Larkins, released in 1950 as Ella Sings Gershwin.

Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan

Ella Fitzgerald, left, with Sarah Vaughan.

Still performing at Granz's JATP concerts, by 1955, Fitzgerald left the Decca label, and Granz, now her manager, created the jazz record company, Verve, around her.

The mid-1950s saw Ella become the first African-American to perform at the Mocambo, after Marilyn Monroe had lobbied the owner for the booking. The booking was instrumental in Fitzgerald's career. The incident was turned into a play by Bonnie Greer in 2005.

The eight 'Songbooks' that Fitzgerald recorded for Verve at irregular intervals from 1956 to 1964 represent her most critically acclaimed and commercially successful work, and probably her most significant offering to American culture. The composers and lyricists for each album represent the greatest part of the cultural canon known as the Great American Songbook.

In September of 1986, Ella underwent quintuple coronary bypass surgery. At about the same time doctors diagnosed her with diabetes, which they blamed for her failing eyesight. The press carried stories that she would never be able to sing again, but 'the First Lady' proved them all wrong. Despite protests by family and friends, Ella returned to the stage and pushed on with an exhaustive schedule.

By the 1990s, Ella had recorded over 200 albums. In 1991, she gave her final concert at New York's renowned Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she had performed there. But her health worsened and after developing a serious circulatory problem she had to have both her legs amputated below the knees. On June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald died in her Beverly Hills home.

A discography of Ella's recordings can be found here.

The Official Ella Fitzgerald Website is here.

Jazz; A Musical Passion