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Ella Fitzgerald: The First Lady of Song

Ella Fitzgerald, known as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, and Lady Ella was an extraordinary jazz and song vocalist, who won 13 Grammys. In all, Fitzgerald recorded more than 200 albums and some 2,000 songs in her lifetime. Her total record sales exceeded 40 million. Her many accolades included the NAACP Image Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Ella FitzgeraldElla FitzgeraldElla Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Virginia. Her parents, William Fitzgerald and Temperance “Tempie” Williams Fitzgerald separated shortly after her birth. As a 13-year-old, she was taken to Yonkers, New York, by her mother, who died in 1932. After attempting to go it alone in Harlem, Fitzgerald was placed in the local Riverdale Orphanage, before returning to live with an aunt.

By 1934, Fitzgerald was trying to make it on her own and living on the streets. She and her friends gave impromptu tap-dancing performances on the sidewalks, collecting money from bystanders. She also augmented these funds by running errands for a mob gambling syndicate; and using spare money to pay for piano lessons.

In 1934, a friend persuaded Fitzgerald to dance in a talent contest at the Harlem Opera House on 125th Street. But when it was time for her to go on, she was frozen with stage fright. When the audience turned restless, she knew she had to do something, so she sang a song called Judy. The effect was sensational, with the audience rising to their feet to applaud the 16-year-old. She obliged with an encore, singing The Object of my Affection. Fitzgerald went on to win the contest’s $25 first place prize. From that moment, she resolved to be a singer.

In March 1935, she did a few gigs with Tiny Bradshaw’s Orchestra. Then, to show that her contest win was no fluke, she won another competition at the world famous Apollo Theatre. The master of ceremonies was Bardu Ali, a talent scout for the bandleader and drummer Webb (1905-1939). Ali urged Webb to sign Fitzgerald. Webb and his wife Sally would later legally adopt Fitzgerald, who was still a teenager.

Fitzgerald recorded Love and Kisses with Webb in 1935 and found herself playing regularly at one of Harlem’s hottest clubs, the Savoy. Fitzgerald also put out her first No. 1 hit, 1938’s A-Tisket, A-Tasket, which she co-wrote. Later that year Ella recorded her second hit, I Found My Yellow Basket. By this time, Fitzgerald was called “the nation’s number one stylist” and billed as “Ella – the first lady of song”, a title that produced a snort from Billie Holiday. The two divas did not socialise!

In addition to her work with Webb, Fitzgerald performed and recorded with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. She had her own side project, too, known as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Savoy Eight. Following Webb’s death in 1939, Ella became the leader of the band, which was renamed Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra. Around this time, Fitzgerald was briefly married to Ben Kornegay, a convicted drug dealer and hustler. They wed in 1941, but she soon had their union annulled.

Going out on her own, Fitzgerald landed a deal with Decca Records. She recorded some hit songs with the Ink Spots and Louis Jordan in the early 1940s. Fitzgerald also made her film debut as Ruby in 1942’s comedy western Ride Em Cowboy with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Her career really began to take off in 1946 when she started working with Norman Granz, the future founder of Verve Records. In the mid-1940s, Granz had started Jazz at the Philharmonic, a series of concerts and live records featuring most of the genre’s great performers. Fitzgerald also hired Granz to become her manager.

Fitzgerald was keen on bebop and she was encouraged to develop her scat singing by Dizzy Gillespie, who was nicknamed The High Priest of Bop. She went on tour with Dizzy Gillespie and his band, and started changing her singing style, incorporating scat singing during her performances. Fitzgerald also fell in love with Gillespie’s bass player Ray Brown. The pair wed in 1947, and they adopted a child born to Fitzgerald’s half-sister whom they named Raymond “Ray” Brown Jr. The marriage ended in 1952.

The 1950s and ’60s proved to be a time of great critical and commercial success for Fitzgerald. Her unique ability to mimic instrumental sounds helped popularize the vocal improvisation of scatting, which became her signature technique. In 1956, Fitzgerald began recording for the newly created Verve. She made some of her most popular albums for the label, starting out with 1956’s Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book. At the very first Grammy Awards in 1958, Fitzgerald picked up her first two Grammys—and made history as the first African-American woman to win the award—for best individual jazz performance and best female vocal performance for the two songbook projects Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book and Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book, respectively. (She worked directly with Ellington on the former album.)

A truly collaborative soul, Fitzgerald produced great recordings with such artists as Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. She also performed several times with Frank Sinatra over the years as well. In 1960, Fitzgerald broke into the pop charts with her rendition of Mack the Knife. She was still going strong well into the ’70s, playing concerts across the globe. One especially memorable concert series from this time was a two-week engagement in New York City in 1974 with Sinatra and Basie.

By the 1980s, Fitzgerald experienced serious health problems. She had heart surgery in 1986 and had been suffering from diabetes. The disease left her blind, and she had both legs amputated in 1994. She made her last recording in 1989 and her last public performance in 1991 at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Ella Fitzgerald died on June 15, 1996, at her home in Beverly Hills.


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