Ella Jane Fitzgerald was an American jazz singer counted amongst the most influential jazz singers of all time. Popularly known as the ‘First Lady of Song’, she harbored the dream of becoming an entertainer from a young age and entered in an amateur contest at Harlem's Apollo Theater in 1934. She not only wowed the audience with her voice, but also won the first prize of $25. After she met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb, she started singing in his group. Her song ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ became her first No. 1 hit in 1938, followed by her second hit, ‘I Found My Yellow Basket’, co-written by her. After Webb's death, Ella became the leader of the band, which she renamed as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra. While her career took off in 1946, it reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, when she earned the title of the ‘First Lady of Song’ for her unparalleled popularity and vocal talents. Her ability to mimic instrumental sounds and her vocal improvisation of scatting became her signature techniques. She made history by winning a Grammy Award in 1958, the first won by any African-American woman. Over the course of her career, she recorded over 200 albums and more than 2,000 songs, and sold more than 40 million albums.
Childhood & Early Life
Ella Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Virginia, to William Fitzgerald and Temperance ‘Tempie’ Fitzgerald. Her parents were not legally married. When she was two-and-a-half-years old, her parents separated.
In the early 1920s, Fitzgerald's mother and her boyfriend, Joseph Da Silva, a Portuguese immigrant, moved to Yonkers, New York. After her half-sister, Frances Da Silva, was born in 1923, they moved to School Street, a poor Italian area, in 1925.
Ella began her education at the age of six. She attended Benjamin Franklin Junior High School in 1929. Since she was fond of singing and dancing, her church provided her with the formal music lessons and some piano lessons.
When she was 15, her mother died from serious injuries she suffered in a car accident. In 1933, she moved in with her aunt in Harlem, maybe because her stepfather abused her, as speculated by her biographer Stuart Nicholson. Ella never spoke in public about her tormented childhood.
Following these traumatic experiences, she started skipping school. During this period, she became involved in minor illegal activities, so the authorities caught her and placed her in the Colored Orphan Asylum in Riverdale.
She was soon moved to the New York Training School for Girls in Hudson. However, she escaped from the school and was homeless for sometime. She used to sing on the streets to make her living.
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On November 21, 1934, Ella Fitzgerald took part in a contest at Amateur Nights at the Apollo Theater. She sang ‘Judy’ and ‘The Object of My Affection’, and won the first prize of $25.
In January 1935, she got the opportunity to perform with the Tiny Bradshaw band for a week at the Harlem Opera House. During this time, she met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb, and started singing in the band. She recorded the songs ‘Love and Kisses’ and ‘(If You Can't Sing It) You'll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini)’ with the band, which became immediate hits.
In 1938, she co-wrote the nursery rhyme, ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’, which was a major hit, followed by another hit, ‘I Found My Yellow Basket’.
After Chick Webb died in 1939, Ella became the leader of the band, which she renamed as Ella and her Famous Orchestra. Between 1935 and 1942, she recorded about 150 songs with the orchestra. She also recorded with the Benny Goodman Orchestra.
In 1942, she left the band to start a solo career and signed with the Decca label. She also worked regularly for the jazz artist Norman Granz and appeared in his philharmonic concerts. Later, Granz became her manager. She made her film debut as Ruby in the comedy ‘Ride 'Em Cowboy’ the same year.
With the advent of bebop, Fitzgerald's vocal style underwent changes, and during this period, she started including scat singing in her performances.
From 1956 to 1964, she released eight songbooks or studio albums for Verve Record, the first one being ‘Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book,’ released in 1956. ‘Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book’ was released in 1957.
She was also an occasional actress. One of her most notable film roles was the part she played of singer Maggie Jackson in the 1955 jazz film ‘Pete Kelly's Blues’. She made innumerable guest appearances on television shows like ‘The Frank Sinatra Show’, ‘The Andy Williams Show’, and ‘The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom.’
Ella Fitzgerald is considered to be one of the greatest scat singers in jazz history. Her scat recording of ‘Flying Home’ (1945) was one of the most influential vocal jazz records of the decade. Her bebop recording of ‘Oh, Lady Be Good!’ (1947) was equally popular.
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Her studio album ‘Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book’ earned her a Grammy. The album was released in two volumes. The entire “Songbook” series was highly acclaimed critically and was also commercially successful. Critics called the Songbook series her most valuable gift to American culture. ‘The New York Times’ praised the albums as “a vehicle for serious musical exploration."
Awards & Achievements
Ella Fitzgerald won 14 Grammy Awards. In 1958, she received her first two Grammy Awards for best individual jazz performance and best female vocal performance for the two songbooks, ‘Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book’, and ‘Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book’. She was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967.
She was honored with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Medal of Honor Award (1979) and Society of Singers Lifetime Achievement Award (1989).
She earned the George and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement, UCLA Spring Sing award, and the UCLA Medal in 1987. In 1990, she received an honorary doctorate of Music from the Harvard University.
In 1987, she received the National Medal of Arts and the country’s highest non-military honor—the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
She was awarded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Equal Justice Award and the American Black Achievement Award as well.
Ella Fitzgerald married Benny Kornegay, a convicted drug dealer, in 1941, but the marriage was annulled in 1942. She married bass player Ray Brown in 1947. They adopted her half-sister’s son, whom they named Ray Brown Jr. Fitzgerald and Brown divorced in 1953.
In July 1957, it was reported by Reuters that Ella had secretly married Thor Einar Larsen, a Norwegian. Larsen got into legal trouble when he was arrested for stealing money from a young woman.
Fitzgerald was a civil rights activist. During the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour, it was ensured that there were no separate seating arrangements for ‘colored’ or ‘white’ people. However, throughout her career she faced racial discrimination. In 1954, she was not allowed to board the Pan American flight due to racial discrimination.
In 1993, she setup the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, to give grants to needy children for music, education, and health. She also supported NGOs like the American Heart Association, City of Hope, and the Retina Foundation.
Fitzgerald suffered from acute diabetes which led to various complications. In 1993, both her legs were amputated below the knee due to the disease. Her eyesight was also affected.
She spent her last days at home with her son Ray and 12-year-old granddaughter, Alice. She died from a stroke on June 15, 1996 at the age of 79.
The archival material from her long career is housed in the Archives Center at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, and her personal music arrangements are found at the Library of Congress.
A bronze sculpture of Fitzgerald was installed in Yonkers, where she grew up. It was created by the American artist Vinnie Bagwell.