Fitzgerald began her career as a jazz singer but became known all over the world by her first name alone as a popular singer. Her greatest ambition and realized achievement was to entertain audiences by singing songs as she felt them.
Born: April 25, 1917; Newport News, Virginia
Died: June 15, 1996; Beverly Hills, California
Although many sources have Ella Jane Fitzgerald born in 1918, the true date is April 25, 1917. In 1920 her unmarried mother, known as Tempie Fitzgerald, moved from Virginia to Yonkers, New York, with a new partner. In 1932 Tempie died, and Ella was taken from her stepfather by Tempie’s sister Virginia, who lived in the Harlem section of New York. The next few years were difficult ones. Ella, formerly a good student, dropped out of school and began to live on the streets of Harlem. She was ambitious, however, and in November, 1934, she entered a talent competition at the Apollo Theater, won first prize, and attracted the attention of Chick Webb, the director of a prominent Harlem jazz band.Animmediate sensation as a vocalist with the band, she performed with it until 1939, when Webb died, and she, already labeled “the First Lady of Swing,” was chosen to front the band. In 1941 she married Benny Kornegay, who unknown to her had a criminal record, and the marriage was annulled the following year. Later Fitzgerald denied marrying or even knowing him. In 1942, with many musicians departing for military duty inWorld War II and orchestras hampered by a ban on recording by the American Federation of Musicians, her orchestra failed. She then began to perform with a singing and instrumental ensemble called the Three Keys.
The next few years she toured with the better known group the Ink Spots and then with the orchestra of Dizzy Gillespie, one of the leading exponents of the newly popular version of jazz known as bebop. Musical tours and hundreds of recordings made her an international favorite. Her association with promoterNorman Granz, who became her personal manager in 1953, made her the star of his recording company, Verve, for which she made her highly successful Song Books of the most eminent popular composers of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, she continued to perform in the jazz idiom. Her personal life remained largely unfulfilled. Fitzgerald married musician Ray Brown in 1947 and, unable to have a child, she and Brown adopted Ray Brown, Jr. The marriage ended in divorce in 1953. In the 1940’s she began to support orphaned and disadvantaged children and later made extensive donations of money and service to organizations combating child abuse. She performed until she was in her seventies, when the breakdown of her health–she suffered from weak eyesight and diabetes–gradually forced her into retirement. In 1993 both her legs were amputated below the knee. She died at her home in Beverly Hills, California, on June 15, 1996. The Music Untrained, unsophisticated, and overweight, Fitzgerald did not look like anyone’s idea of a band singer, but eighteen-year-old Fitzgerald possessed from the start of her career a keen sense of rhythm and a warm voice. Early in her career she tried to emulate Connee Boswell, a white singer from New Orleans.
An immediate sensation with Webb’s orchestra, which she joined in 1935, Fitzgerald performed a variety of songs, her first hit being a novelty she helped adapt from a nursery rhyme, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” in 1938. Always eager to please her audiences, she continued to sing this song for decades thereafter. Fitzgerald readily made the transition from orchestra singer to soloist in concert halls and exclusive nightclubs and remained an internationally knownsinging star for decades. Under the management of Granz she recorded hundreds of songs by George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and other major songwriters. She also excited audiences with her inimitable scat singing. Only her deteriorating health in her later years slowed her down, and she continued to sing publicly even when she was no longer able to walk or to see very well. Not an egotistic or colorful interpreter of songs, she could, in her prime, range over nearly three octaves and demonstrate a manner of phrasing that revealed the full possibilities of a melody.
Early Career. One of the best drummers and bandleaders of his time, Webb was a hunchbacked victim of spinal tuberculosis with whom Fitzgerald began to develop her natural talent. In his orchestra she learned to do the scat singing that later would enliven her concerts. Although she performed many novelty songs, she displayed a fondness and sensitivity for ballads, some of which she was able to sing with other masters such as Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman. Her three recorded sides with Goodman in 1936 violated what Decca Records claimed was her exclusive contract and brought on a legal battle. Often performers would adopt pseudonyms to evade this difficulty, but Fitzgerald’s voice was already too well known for this kind of duplicity. In 1939 Webb succumbed to his illness at the age of thirty, and Fitzgerald was chosen to head the band. Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra survived until 1942, when it collapsed from financial distress. A number of her songs of this period, including “The StarlightHour,” “Sugar Blues,” and “Shake Down the Stars,” all recorded in 1940, became minor hits.
Fitzgerald spent several years singing with small groups, her association with the Ink Spots being the most successful. Jazz at the Philharmonic. In 1944 jazz promoter Granz initiated a series of concerts at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium called Jazz at the Philharmonic. The event, often shortened to JATP, blossomed into an annual tour, and in 1948 Granz sought Fitzgerald as one of the stars of the production. Singing with Gillespie’s band, Fitzgerald had developed her scat singing in a manner resembling Gillespie’s trumpet style. Some of her most popular numbers were the ones she recorded with Gillespie in 1947: “Flying Home,” “How High the Moon,” and “Lady, Be Good!”. Fitzgerald quickly emerged as the most popular performer in JATP productions. Up to this time most of Fitzgerald’s recordings were made for Decca, whose director of artists and repertoire was Milt Gabler. Granz suggested to Fitzgerald that her career had not been properly promoted at Decca, and he wished to become her manager. In fact, Gabler had not neglected her; he had, for instance, brought her and Louis Armstrong together several times. Fitzgerald was also a loyal person, and so it was not until 1953 that Granz would sign her to a contract. Probably the most stirring of Fitzgerald’s JATP performances was the one given at the Chicago Civic Opera House in September, 1957, when she sang such ballads as “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” and “Moonlight in Vermont” and an extended version of “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” which Granz hailed on the record jacket as “the most incredible, brilliant jazz vocal performance ever put to wax.”
The Song Books. In 1950 Gabler produced Ella Sings Gershwin, in the very early days of long-playing (LP) records, also issuing it at speeds of 78 and 45 rotations per minute (rpm). When Fitzgerald began to record for Granz’s Verve Records, with LP now the standard for mat, he encouraged her to do a series of what became known as Song Books. She recorded two of them in 1956, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book and Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and Hart Song Book. Of the others that followed, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book (1959), muchmore extensive than her earlierGershwin recording, was ably arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle. The Song Books, containing dozens of memorable songs, have remained among the most popular of all Fitzgerald recordings. Ella in Rome: The Birthday Concert. Over the decades Fitzgerald gave concerts all over theworld. Her tours were so wide ranging and intense that they wore out some of the musical groups with which she performed. A 1958 concert in Rome included much of her best Song Book material, her scat songs, and even her popular imitation of Armstrong’s singing, which she did with great gusto, although with considerable strain on her vocal cords. None of the musicians who took part in this concert knew that Granz had recorded it, and somehow the recording vanished.
Resurfacing in 1987, it appeared the following year to become the leading recording on the Billboard charts. In the opinion of many listeners, this album sums up Fitzgerald’s artistry. Musical Legacy Fitzgerald was not a jazz singer in the manner of Billie Holiday, but in herwork with such jazz musicians as Webb, Gillespie, and Armstrong, she absorbed what critics, despite their difficulty in adequately defining the jazz genre, recognize as its materials and forms. She wedded them to songs ranging from ballads to scat songs and carried these features through her career ofmore than fifty years. For many listeners her crowning achievements are the Song Books, which constitute an anthology of the best songs written by distinguished twentieth century songwriters. Fitzgerald discouraged attempts to theorize about her singing, saying simply that she sang as she felt.
She did not impose herself on her material but respected it and concentrated on rendering it superbly well. She left hundreds of performances, recorded in both studios and concert halls, that continue to delight audiences and are likely to do so in the foreseeable future. She received many accolades, among them the Honors Medal of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.; the Pied Piper Award of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers; and honorary doctorates from Dartmouth College and Howard University. Singers from Carmen McRae to Diana Krall have acknowledged her influence, but her greatest contribution has been to the ears of millions of listeners throughout the world.