Considered one of the best jazz singers of the 20th century, Ella Fitzgerald helped create an encyclopedia of American popular song with her influential “Songbook” recordings of the 1950s and 1960s. The joy in her voice, even when interpreting somber songs, stands in stark contrast to her impoverished youth. Born in Newport News, Virginia, on April 25 in either 1917 or 1918, Ella was raised by her mother in Yonkers, New York. Her father abandoned the family when she was an infant. While Ella was in her teens, her mother died. An aunt in Harlem took her in after her stepfather began abusing her. Ella spent much of her time on the street, running numbers and working as a police lookout for prostitutes. Her illegal activities landed her in reform school, where she was regularly beaten by the male guards.
Despite her desperate circumstances, Fitzgerald developed a love for popular songs and aspired to become a dancer. Having prepared a dance routine, she entered an amateur contest at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater in 1934. Once on stage, she panicked. Unable to move, she started singing “The Object of My Affection,” a hit by her favorite singer, Connie Boswell. Fitzgerald won first prize. In addition to $10, she was to have received a weeklong engagement at the Apollo. She was so unkempt in her hand-me-down clothes, however, that the management felt she was too unpresentable to appear at the theater.
Now hoping for a singing career, Fitzgerald snagged an introduction to bandleader Chick Webb. After hearing her voice, Webb arranged for her parole from reform school, became her legal guardian, and set about training her to perform. Fitzgerald quickly became a star attraction, playing the Cotton Club and other popular New York nightclubs. In 1935, she also began recording with Decca Records. Three years later, she had her first hit, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which she cowrote, basing the lyrics on a children’s rhyme. In 1939, Webb died and Fitzgerald took over his band until it was forced to disband as the musicians were drafted to serve in World War II. Fitzgerald quickly established herself as a solo artist, moving easily from swing music to the bebop rhythms pioneered by musicians Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Renowned for her ability to mimic the sound of instruments, she also became the master of scat singing, in which sh created a melody out of a rapid-fire series of nonsense syllables.
Beginning in 1946, Fitzgerald became a fixture at the annual Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts organized by promoter Norman Granz. Granz felt that the light ditties and novelty songs Fitzgerald was recording for Decca were not up to her caliber. He arranged her release from the label and founded Verve Records, with Fitzgerald as its leading artist. Between 1956 and 1964, she began recording a series of “songbooks” under Granz’s direction. These album sets featured the works of the greatest American songwriters, including Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and Rodgers and Hart. Fitzgerald’s recordings established a canon of the American popular song and, in many cases, became the definitive interpretation of these songwriters’ works. Expressing the universal admiration for Fitzgerald’s songbooks, Ira Gershwin once said, “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.”
Continuing to record with Verve, Fitzgerald made about 150 albums and sold about 25 million records during her 60-year career. She also toured constantly and made more than 200 appearances on television. Fitzgerald sang in two films, Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955) and St. Louis Blues (1958). Her work won her 12 Grammy Awards, a Kennedy Center Honor, and the National Medal of Freedom. In an unprecedented run, she was voted the best female jazz singer by readers of Down Beat magazine for 18 consecutive years. In addition to her huge popular following, Fitzgerald was a favorite among her peers. Vocalist Mel Tormé was quoted as saying, “Ella was the absolute epitome of everything that I’ve ever believed in or loved as far as popular singing was concerned,” whereas Peggy Lee said simply, “She’s the best singer I ever heard.” Some critics, however, faulted Fitzgerald for not displaying the emotionalism of another great jazz vocalist, BILLIE HOLIDAY. For others, though, her lack of emotion was seen as a strength, allowing listeners to create their own interpretations of the lyrics she sang.
Also unlike Holiday, Fitzgerald had a relatively uneventful personal life. She was married twiceto shipworker Benny Kornegay in 1941 and to bassist Ray Brown in 1948. Her first marriage ended with an annulment; the second, with a divorce. With Brown, she adopted a son—Ray Jr.—whom she raised by herself after 1952.
In her later years, Fitzgerald was plagued by ill health. Although suffering from heart trouble and diabetes, she continued to perform as often as possible. Even as her body grew frail, her voice remained remarkably strong and confident. Fitzgerald finally retired in 1992. The next year, her diabetes forced the amputation of her legs below the knee. She spent the rest of her life in her home in Beverly Hills, California, where she died on June 15, 1996. The next month, 23 jazz greats gathered at New York’s Carnegie Hall to pay tribute to the performer remembered with affection and awe as “the first lady of song.”
Grouse, Leslie, ed. The Ella Fitzgerald Companion. New York: Schirmer Books, 1998.
Nicholson, Stuart. Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography. New York: Scribner’s, 1994.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Song Books. Polygram Records, CD set, 1993.
Ella Fitzgerald: Something to Live For. Winstar Home Entertainment, VHS, 1999.
The First Lady of Song. Polygram Records, CD set, 1993.