Ella Fitzgerald photographed
by Carl Van Vechten in 1940.
Ella Jane Fitzgerald (April 25, 1917 – June 15, 1996), also known as "Lady Ella" and the "First Lady of Song", is considered one of the most influential jazz vocalists of the 20th Century.
With a vocal range spanning three octaves, she was noted for her purity of tone, phrasing and intonation, and a "horn-like" improvisational ability, particularly in her scat singing. She is widely considered to have been one of the supreme interpreters of the Great American Songbook.
Listen to Ella Fitzgerald perform "Sing Me a Swing Song," recorded in 1936, free from npr.org.
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Over a recording career that lasted 57 years, she was the winner of 13 Grammy Awards, and was awarded the National Medal of Art by Ronald Reagan and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George H. W. Bush.
She was born Ella Jane Fitzgerald in Newport News, Virginia, the child of a common-law marriage between William and Temperance “Tempie” Fitzgerald. The pair separated soon after her birth and she and her mother moved to Yonkers, New York, with Tempie's boyfriend, Joseph Da Silva. Fitzgerald's half-sister, Frances Da Silva, was born in 1923.
In her youth, she wanted to be a dancer, although she loved listening to jazz recordings by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and The Boswell Sisters. She idolized the lead singer of the Boswell Sisters, Connee Boswell, later saying, "My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it....I tried so hard to sound just like her."
In 1932, her mother died from a heart attack. After staying with Da Silva for a short time, she was taken in by Tempie's sister, Virginia. Shortly afterward, Da Silva suffered a heart attack and died, and her sister Frances joined Ella in Virginia.
Following these traumas, Fitzgerald's grades dropped dramatically, and she frequently skipped school. At one point, she worked as a lookout at a bordello and also with a Mafia-affiliated numbers runner. After getting into trouble with the police, she was taken into custody and sent to a reform school. Eventually she escaped from the reformatory, and for a time was homeless.
She made her singing debut at 17 on November 21, 1934 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. She pulled in a weekly audience at the Apollo and 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 instead, in the style of Connie Boswell. She sang Hoagy Carmichael's "Judy" and "The Object of My Affection", a song recorded by the Boswell Sisters, and won the first prize of US$25.00.
In January 1935, Fitzgerald won the chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House. She met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb here for the first time. Webb had already hired singer Charlie Linton to work with the band, and was, The New York Times later wrote, "reluctant to sign her....because she was gawky and unkempt, a diamond in the rough." Webb offered her the opportunity to test with his band when they played a dance at Yale University. Despite the rough crowd, she was a great success, and Webb hired her to travel with the band for $12.50 a week.
She began singing regularly with Webb's Orchestra through 1935, at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. Fitzgerald recorded several hit songs with them, including "Love and Kisses" and "(If You Can't Sing It) You'll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini)" but it was her 1938 version of the nursery rhyme, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket", a song she co-wrote, that brought her wide public acclaim.
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. Fitzgerald recorded nearly 150 sides during her time with the orchestra, most of which, like "A-Tisket, A-Tasket", were "novelties and disposable pop fluff."
The Decca years
In 1942, Fitzgerald left the band to begin a solo career. Now signed to the Decca label, she had several popular hits, while recording with such artists as the Ink Spots, Louis Jordan, and the Delta Rhythm Boys.
With Decca's Milt Gabler as her manager, she 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. The advent of bebop 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. While singing with Gillespie, Fitzgerald recalled, "I just tried to do [with my voice] what I heard the horns in the band doing."
Her 1945 scat recording of "Flying Home" would later be described by The New York Times as "one of the most influential vocal jazz records of the decade....Where other singers, most notably Louis Armstrong, had tried similar improvisation, no one before Miss Fitzgerald employed the technique with such dazzling inventiveness." Her be-bop recordings of "Oh, Lady be Good!" (1947) and "How High the Moon" were similarly 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 given unsuitable material to record during this period), her last years on the Decca label saw Fitzgerald recording a series of duets with pianist Ellis Larkins, released in 1950 as Ella Swings Gershwin.
Move to Verve and mainstream success
Still performing at Granz's JATP concerts, by 1955, Fitzgerald left Decca, and Granz, now her manager, created Verve Records around her.
Fitzgerald later described the period as strategically crucial, saying, "I had gotten to the point where I was only singing be-bop. I thought be-bop was 'it', and that all I had to do was go some place and sing bop. But it finally got to the point where I had no place to sing. I realized then that there was more to music than bop. Norman....felt that I should do other things, so he produced The Cole Porter Songbook with me. It was a turning point in my life."
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook, released in 1956, was the first of eight "Songbooks" Fitzgerald would record for Verve at irregular intervals from 1956 to 1964. The composers and lyricists spotlighted on each album, taken together, represent the greatest part of the cultural canon known as the Great American Songbook. Fitzgerald's song selections ranged from standards to rarities, and represented an attempt by Fitzgerald to cross over into a non-jazz audience.
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook was the only Songbook on which the composer she interpreted played with her. Duke Ellington and his longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn wrote two new pieces of music for the album: "The E and D Blues" and a four-movement musical portrait of Fitzgerald.
The Songbook series ended up becoming the singer's most critically acclaimed and commercially successful work, and probably her most significant offering to American culture. The New York Times wrote in 1996, "These albums were among the first pop records to devote such serious attention to individual songwriters, and they were instrumental in establishing the pop album as a vehicle for serious musical exploration."
A few days after Fitzgerald's death, New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote that in the Songbook series Fitzgerald "performed a cultural transaction as extraordinary as Elvis's contemporaneous integration of white and African-American soul. Here was a black woman popularizing urban songs often written by immigrant Jews to a national audience of predominantly white Christians." Frank Sinatra was moved out of respect for Fitzgerald to block Capitol Records from re-releasing his own recordings in a similar, single composer vein.
Ella Fitzgerald also recorded albums exclusively devoted to the songs of Porter and Gershwin in 1972 and 1983, the albums being Ella Loves Cole and Nice Work If You Can Get It, respectively. A later collection devoted to a single composer was released during her time with Pablo Records, Ella Abraça Jobim, featuring the songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim.
While recording the 'Songbooks' and the occasional studio album, Fitzgerald toured 40 to 45 weeks per year in the United States and internationally, under the tutelage of Norman Granz. Granz helped solidify her position as one of the leading live jazz performers.
In the mid-1950s, Fitzgerald became 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.
There are several live albums on Verve that are highly regarded by critics: Ella at the Opera House shows a typical JATP set from Fitzgerald, Ella in Rome displays her vocal jazz canon, while Ella in Berlin is still one of her biggest selling albums.
Verve Records was sold to MGM in 1963 for $3 million, and in 1967 MGM failed to renew Fitzgerald's contract. Over the next five years, she flitted between several labels, namely Atlantic, Capitol and Reprise. A selection of her material at this time represent a departure from her typical jazz repertoire; for Capitol she recorded Brighten the Corner, an album of hymns, Ella Fitzgerald's Christmas, an album of traditional Christmas carols, Misty Blue, a country and western-influenced album, and 30 by Ella, a series of six medleys that fulfilled her obligations for the label.
The surprise success of the 1972 album Jazz at Santa Monica Civic '72 led Granz to found Pablo Records, his first record label since the sale of Verve. Fitzgerald recorded some 20 albums for the label. Her years on Pablo documented the decline in her voice; "She frequently used shorter, stabbing phrases, and her voice was harder, with a wider vibrato," one biographer wrote. Plagued by health problems, Fitzgerald made her last recording in 1991 and her last public performances in 1993.
Fitzgerald married twice, though there is evidence that she may have married a third time. In 1941 she married Benny Kornegay, a convicted drug dealer. The marriage was annulled after two years.
Her second marriage, in December 1947, was to the famous bass player Ray Brown, whom she had met while on tour with Dizzy Gillespie's band a year earlier. Together they adopted a child born to Fitzgerald's half-sister, Francis, whom they christened Ray Brown, Jr. With Fitzgerald often busy touring and recording, the child was largely raised by her aunt, Virginia. Fitzgerald and Brown divorced in 1953, due to the various career pressures both were experiencing at the time, though they would continue to perform together.
In July 1957, Reuters reported that Fitzgerald had secretly married Thor Einar Larsen, a young Norwegian, in Oslo. She had even gone as far as furnishing an apartment in Oslo, but the affair was quickly forgotten when Larsen was sentenced to five months hard labour in Sweden for stealing money from a young woman to whom he had previously been engaged.
Fitzgerald was also notoriously shy. Trumpet player Mario Bauza, who played behind Fitzgerald in her early years with Chick Webb, remembered that "She didn’t hang out much. When she got into the band, she was dedicated to her music….She was a lonely girl around New York, just kept herself to herself, for the gig." When, later in her career, the Society of Singers named an award after her, Fitzgerald explained, "I don't want to say the wrong thing, which I always do. I think I do better when I sing."
Already blinded by the effects of diabetes, Fitzgerald had both her legs amputated in 1993. In 1996 she died of the disease in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of 79. She is interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. Several of Fitzgerald's awards, significant personal possessions and documents were donated to the Smithsonian Institution, the library of Boston University, the Library of Congress, and the Schoenberg Library at UCLA.
Film and television
In her most notable screen role, Fitzgerald played the part of singer Maggie Jackson in Jack Webb's 1955 jazz film Pete Kelly's Blues. The film costarred Janet Leigh and singer Peggy Lee. Even though she had already worked in the movies (she had sung briefly in the 1942 Abbott and Costello film Ride 'Em Cowboy), she was "delighted" when Norman Granz negotiated the role for her, and, "at the time....considered her role in the Warner Brothers movie the biggest thing ever to have happened to her." Amid The New York Times' pan of the film when it opened in August 1955, the reviewer wrote, "About five minutes (out of ninety-five) suggest the picture this might have been. Take the ingenious prologue....Or take the fleeting scenes when the wonderful Ella Fitzgerald, allotted a few spoken lines, fills the screen and sound track with her strong mobile features and voice."
Similar to another African-American jazz singer, Lena Horne, Fitzgerald's race precluded major big-screen success. After Pete Kelly's Blues, she appeared in sporadic movie cameos, in St. Louis Blues (1958), and Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960). Much later, she appeared in the 1980s television drama The White Shadow.
She also made numerous guest appearances on television shows, singing on the The Frank Sinatra Show, and alongside Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Mel Tormé and many others. Perhaps her most unusual and intriguing performance was of the 'Three Little Maids' song from Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operetta The Mikado alongside Dame Joan Sutherland and Dinah Shore on Shore's weekly variety series in 1963. Fitzgerald also made a one-off appearance alongside Sarah Vaughan and Pearl Bailey on a 1979 television special honoring Bailey.
Fitzgerald also appeared in TV commercials, her most memorable being an ad for Memorex. In the commercials, she sang a note that shattered a glass while being recorded on a Memorex cassette tape. The tape was played back and the recording also broke the glass, asking "Is it live, or is it Memorex?" She also starred in a number of commercials for Kentucky Fried Chicken, singing and scatting to the fast-food chain's longtime slogan, "We do chicken right!"
Her final commercial campaign was for American Express, in which she was photographed by Annie Leibovitz.