known as “the first lady of song,” ella fitzgerald was the most popular jazz singer in the united states for more than half a century. In her lifetime, she’s won 13 Grammy Awards and sold more than 40 million albums.
Her voice was supple, wide, precise, and timeless. she could sing sultry ballads, sweet jazz, and imitate all the instruments in an orchestra. He’s worked with all the greats of jazz, from Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Nat King Cole, to Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, and Benny Goodman. (or rather, some might say that all the greats of jazz had the pleasure of working with her).
He performed at the best venues around the world and packed them to the max. her audiences were as diverse as her vocal range. they were rich and poor, made up of all races, all religions and all nationalities. in fact, many of them had only one binding factor in common: they all loved her.
humble but happy beginnings
She Jane Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, VA. April 25, 1917. Her father, William, and her mother, Temperance (Tempie), separated shortly after her birth. Together, she and Tempie went to Yonkers, N.Y, where they eventually moved in with Tempie’s boyfriend, Joseph Da Silva. Her half-sister, Frances, was born in 1923 and she soon began referring to Joe as her stepfather.
To support the family, Joe digged ditches and was a part-time driver, while Tempie worked at a laundromat and catered. from time to time, she also did odd jobs to contribute money. Perhaps naive under the circumstances, she worked as a bookmaker for local gamblers, taking bets from her and handing out money.
Her apartment was in a mixed neighborhood, where she made friends easily. she considered herself more of a tomboy and would often participate in neighborhood baseball games. Aside from sports, she liked to dance and sing with her friends, and some nights they would take the train to Harlem and see various acts at the Apollo Theater.
a losing streak
in 1932, tempie died from severe injuries sustained in a car accident. she took the loss very badly. After staying with Joe for a short time, Tempie’s sister Virginia brought her home. Shortly after, Joe suffered a heart attack and died, and Ella’s little sister Frances Ella joined them.
Unable to adjust to the new circumstances, she became increasingly unhappy and entered a difficult period in her life. her grades dropped drastically and she frequently missed school. after getting into trouble with the police, she was arrested and sent to reform school. living there was even more unbearable, as she suffered beatings at the hands of her caretakers.
She eventually escaped from juvie. The 15-year-old found herself penniless and alone during the Great Depression, and she struggled to cope.
Never a complainer, she later reflected on her most difficult years and appreciated how they helped her mature. she used the memories of those times to help gather emotions for the performances, and she felt that she was more grateful for her success because she knew what it was like to struggle in life.
“what is she going to do?”
in 1934, her name appeared in a weekly drawing at the apollo and she won the opportunity to compete in amateur night. She went to the theater that night planning to dance, but when the frenzied Edwards sisters closed the main show, she changed her mind. “They were the most dancing sisters in the place,” she said, feeling that her act would not compare.
once onstage, to boos and mutters of “what’s she going to do?” from the rowdy crowd, a frightened and scruffy woman made a last-minute decision to sing. She asked the band to play Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy,” a song she knew well because Connee Boswell’s rendition was among Tempie’s favorites. she quickly silenced the audience, and at the end of the song they demanded an encore. she complied and sang the other side of sister boswell’s record, “the object of my affections”.
Offstage and away from people she knew well, she was shy and reserved. she was self-conscious about her appearance, and for a time she even doubted the extent of her abilities. on stage, however, she was surprised to discover that she was not afraid. she felt right at home in the spotlight.
“Once there, I felt the acceptance and love from my audience,” she said. “I knew I wanted to sing in front of people for the rest of my life.”
in the band that night was saxophonist and arranger benny carter. Impressed with her natural talent, he began introducing her to people who could help further her career. in the process, he and she became lifelong friends, often working together.
Fueled by an enthusiastic following, she began entering, and winning, every talent show she could find. In January 1935 she won the opportunity to perform for a week with the Bradshaw Little Band at the Harlem Opera House. It was there that she first met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb. Although her voice impressed him, Chick had already signed male singer Charlie Linton to the band. He offered her the chance to try out with her band when they played a dance at Yale University.
“If the boys like it,” said the girl, “she stays.”
despite the tough crowd, she was a big hit, and chick booked her to tour with the band for $12.50 a week.
livening things up
in mid-1936, she made her first recording. “amor y besos” was released under the decca label, with moderate success. At the time she was performing with the all-girl band at Harlem’s prestigious Savoy Ballroom, often referred to as “the most famous ballroom in the world.”
soon after, she began to sing a rendition of the song, “(if you can’t sing it) you have to dance it.” during this time the era of big swing bands was changing and the focus was turning more towards bebop. she played in the new style, often using her voice to take on the role of another horn in the band. “You have to swing it” was one of the first times she started experimenting with scat singing, and her improvisation and vocalization thrilled fans. Throughout her career, she would master scat singing, turning it into an art form.
in 1938, at the age of 21, she recorded a playful version of the children’s song, “a-tisket, a-tasket.” the album sold 1 million copies, peaked at number one, and stayed on the charts for 17 weeks. suddenly, she fitzgerald became famous.
going into herself
On June 16, 1939, she mourned the loss of her mentor, Chick Webb. In her absence, the band was renamed “Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band,” and she took on the daunting task of running the band.
perhaps seeking stability and protection, she married benny kornegay, a local dockworker who had been hounding her. Upon learning that Kornegay had a criminal record, she realized the relationship was a mistake and annulled the marriage.
While on tour with Dizzy Gillespie’s band in 1946, she fell in love with bassist Ray Brown. the two married and eventually adopted a son, whom they named Ray, Jr.
at the time, ray was working for producer and manager norman granz on the “jazz at the philharmonic” tour. Norman saw that she had what it took to be an international star and convinced her to sign with him. it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and business relationship for her.
Under Norman’s direction, she joined the Philharmonic tour, worked with Louis Armstrong on several albums, and began producing his infamous series of songbooks. Between 1956 and 1964, she recorded cover versions of albums by other musicians, including those by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, The Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart. the series was wildly popular, both with fans of the series and with the artists it covered.
“I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them,” Ira Gershwin once commented.
She also began appearing on TV variety shows. She quickly became a favorite and frequent guest on numerous shows including “The Bing Crosby Show”, “The Dinah Shore Show”, “The Frank Sinatra Show”, “The Ed Sullivan Show”, “The Show tonight”, “the national program”. king cole show”, “the andy willams show” and “the dean martin show”.
Due to a busy touring schedule, she and Ray were often away from home, which strained her bond with her son. Ultimately Ray Jr. and she reconnected and repaired their relationship.
“all i can say is she gave me everything she could”, ray, jr. he later said, “and she loved me as much as she could.”
Unfortunately, busy work schedules also hurt her and Ray’s marriage. the two divorced in 1952, but remained good friends for the rest of their lives.
On the touring circuit, it was well known that her manager was very committed to civil rights and demanded equal treatment for his musicians, regardless of color. norman refused to accept any kind of discrimination in hotels, restaurants or concert venues, even when traveling to the deep south.
once, while he was touring the dallas philharmonic, a squad of police irritated by norman’s principles stormed backstage to hassle the performers. They entered her dressing room, where the band members, Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jacquet, were playing dice, and arrested everyone.
“They put us down,” she later recalled, “and then when we got there they had the nerve to ask us for an autograph.”
Norman wasn’t the only one willing to defend her. She was supported by numerous celebrity fans, including an enthusiastic Marilyn Monroe.
“I am indebted to Marilyn Monroe,” she later said. “It was because of her that I played at the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the 50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo and told him that she wanted him to book me immediately and that if he did, she would take a table at the front every night. She told him, and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status, that the press would go wild. the owner said yes, and marilyn was there at the front table every night. the press crossed the line. after that, I never had to play in a small jazz club again. she was an unusual woman, a little ahead of her time. and she didn’t know it.”
She continued to work as hard as she had earlier in her career, despite the ill effects on her health. she toured all over the world, sometimes performing two shows a day in cities hundreds of miles apart. In 1974, she spent two legendary weeks performing in New York with Frank Sinatra and Count Basie. Still going strong five years later, she was inducted into Down Beat Magazine’s Hall of Fame and received Kennedy Center Honors for her continued contributions to the arts.
Aside from the arts, she had a deep concern for child welfare. Although this aspect of her life was rarely publicized, she frequently made generous donations to organizations for disadvantaged youth, and the continuation of these contributions was part of the driving force that kept her from slowing down. In addition, when Frances died, she felt that she had the additional responsibility of caring for her sister’s family.
in 1987, the president of the united states, ronald reagan, awarded her the national medal of arts. It was one of her most precious moments. France followed suit several years after her, presenting her with its Major of Arts and Letters award, while Yale, Dartmouth, and several other universities awarded her honorary doctorates.
end of an era
In September 1986, she underwent quintuple coronary bypass surgery. Doctors also replaced a valve in her heart and diagnosed her with diabetes, which they blamed for her poor eyesight. the press spread rumors that she might never sing again, but she proved them wrong. Despite protests from family and friends, including Norman, she returned to the stage and went ahead with an exhausting program.
by the 1990s, she had recorded more than 200 albums. In 1991, she gave her last concert at New York’s renowned Carnegie Hall. it was the 26th time she performed there.
As the effects of her diabetes worsened, she, 76, experienced severe circulatory problems and was forced to have both legs amputated below the knees. she never fully recovered from the surgery and, afterward, she was rarely able to perform. During this time, she liked to sit outside in her backyard and spend time with Ray, Jr. and his granddaughter Alice from him.
“I just want to smell the air, listen to the birds and hear Alice laugh,” she said.
on june 15, 1996, ella fitzgerald died at her home in beverly hills. hours later, signs of remembrance began to appear around the world. A white flower crown stood next to her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a marquee outside the Hollywood Bowl Theater read, “Ella, we’ll miss you.”
following a private memorial service, freeway traffic was stopped to let his funeral procession through. She was laid to rest in the “Shrine of the Bells” section of the Mission Mausoleum at Sunset at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.