Hand color tinted photo of Ella Fitzgerald, aka the First Lady of Song
Ella Jane Fitzgerald (April 25, 1917 – June 15, 1996), also known as the “First Lady of Song” and “Lady Ella,” was an American jazz vocalist. With a vocal range spanning three octaves, she was noted for her purity of tone, impeccable diction, phrasing and intonation, and a “horn-like” improvisational ability, particularly in her scat singing.
She is widely considered one of the supreme interpreters of the Great American Songbook. Over a recording career that lasted 59 years, she was the winner of 13 Grammy Awards and was awarded the National Medal of Art by Ronald Reagan and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George H. W. Bush.
Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia, the child of a common-law marriage between William and Temperance “Tempie” Fitzgerald. The pair separated soon after her birth and she and her mother moved to Yonkers, New York with Tempie’s boyfriend, Joseph Da Silva. Fitzgerald’s half-sister, Frances Da Silva, was born in 1923.
In her youth Fitzgerald wanted to be a dancer, although she loved listening to jazz recordings by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and The Boswell Sisters. She idolized the lead singer Connee Boswell, later saying, “My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it….I tried so hard to sound just like her.”
In 1932, her mother died from a heart attack. Following these traumas, Fitzgerald’s grades dropped dramatically and she frequently skipped school. At one point she worked as a lookout at a bordello and also with a Mafia-affiliated numbers runner. After getting into trouble with the police, she was taken into custody and sent to a reform school. Eventually she escaped from the reformatory and for a time was homeless. She was placed in the Colored Orphan Asylum in Riverdale, the Bronx.
She made her singing debut at 17 on November 21, 1934 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. She pulled in a weekly audience at the Apollo and won the opportunity to compete in one of the earliest of its famous “Amateur Nights”. She had originally intended to go on stage and dance but, intimidated by the Edwards Sisters, a local dance duo, she opted to sing instead in the style of Connee Boswell. She sang Boswell’s “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection,” a song recorded by the Boswell Sisters, and won the first prize of US$25.00.
In January 1935, Fitzgerald won the chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House. She met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb here. Webb had already hired singer Charlie Linton to work with the band and was, The New York Times later wrote, “reluctant to sign her….because she was gawky and unkempt, a diamond in the rough.” Webb offered her the opportunity to test with his band when they played a dance at Yale University.
She began singing regularly with Webb’s Orchestra through 1935 at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom. Fitzgerald recorded several hit songs with them, including “Love and Kisses” and “(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini).” But it was her 1938 version of the nursery rhyme, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”, a song she co-wrote, that brought her wide public acclaim.
Chick Webb died on June 16, 1939, and his band was renamed “Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra” with Ella taking the role of bandleader. Fitzgerald recorded nearly 150 sides during her time with the orchestra, most of which, like “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” were “novelties and disposable pop fluff.”
The Decca years
In 1942, Fitzgerald left the band to begin a solo career. Now signed to the Decca label, she had several popular hits while recording with such artists as the Ink Spots, Louis Jordan, and the Delta Rhythm Boys.
With Decca’s Milt Gabler as her manager, she began working regularly for the jazz impresario Norman Granz, and appeared regularly in his Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) concerts. Fitzgerald’s relationship with Granz was further cemented when he became her manager, although it would be nearly a decade before he could record her on one of his many record labels.
With the demise of the Swing era and the decline of the great touring big bands, a major change in jazz music occurred. The advent of bebop caused a major change in Fitzgerald’s vocal style, influenced by her work with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. It was in this period that Fitzgerald started including scat singing as a major part of her performance repertoire. While singing with Gillespie, Fitzgerald recalled, “I just tried to do with my voice what I heard the horns in the band doing.”
Her 1945 scat recording of “Flying Home” would later be described by The New York Times as “one of the most influential vocal jazz records of the decade….Where other singers, most notably Louis Armstrong, had tried similar improvisation, no one before Miss Fitzgerald employed the technique with such dazzling inventiveness.” Her bebop recording of “Oh, Lady be Good!” (1947) was similarly popular and increased her reputation as one of the leading jazz vocalists.
Perhaps responding to criticism and under pressure from Granz, who felt that Fitzgerald was given unsuitable material to record during this period), her last years on the Decca label saw Fitzgerald recording a series of duets with pianist Ellis Larkins, released in 1950 as Ella Sings Gershwin.
Move to Verve and mainstream success
Fitzgerald was still performing at Granz’s JATP concerts by 1955. Fitzgerald left Decca and Granz, now her manager, created Verve Records around her.
Fitzgerald later described the period as strategically crucial, saying, “I had gotten to the point where I was only singing be-bop. I thought be-bop was ‘it,’ and that all I had to do was go some place and sing bop. But it finally got to the point where I had no place to sing. I realized then that there was more to music than bop. Norman….felt that I should do other things, so he produced The Cole Porter Songbook with me. It was a turning point in my life.”
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook, released in 1956, was the first of eight multi-album Songbook sets Fitzgerald would record for Verve at irregular intervals from 1956 to 1964. The composers and lyricists spotlighted on each set, taken together, represent the greatest part of the cultural canon known as the Great American Songbook. Fitzgerald’s song selections ranged from standards to rarities and represented an attempt by Fitzgerald to cross over into a non-jazz audience.
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook was the only Songbook on which the composer she interpreted played with her. Duke Ellington and his longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn both appeared on exactly half the set’s 38 tracks and wrote two new pieces of music for the album: “The E and D Blues” and a four-movement musical portrait of Fitzgerald (the only Songbook track on which Fitzgerald does not sing).
The Songbook series ended up becoming the singer’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful work, and probably her most significant offering to American culture. The New York Times wrote in 1996, “These albums were among the first pop records to devote such serious attention to individual songwriters, and they were instrumental in establishing the pop album as a vehicle for serious musical exploration.”
A few days after Fitzgerald’s death, New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote that in the Songbook series Fitzgerald “performed a cultural transaction as extraordinary as Elvis’s contemporaneous integration of white and African-American soul. Here was a black woman popularizing urban songs often written by immigrant Jews to a national audience of predominantly white Christians.” Frank Sinatra was moved out of respect for Fitzgerald to block Capitol Records from re-releasing his own recordings in a similar, single composer vein.
Ella Fitzgerald also recorded albums exclusively devoted to the songs of Porter and Gershwin in 1972 and 1983; the albums being, respectively, Ella Loves Cole and Nice Work If You Can Get It. A later collection devoted to a single composer was released during her time with Pablo Records, Ella Abra Jobim, featuring the songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim.
While recording the Songbooks and the occasional studio album, Fitzgerald toured 40 to 45 weeks per year in the United States and internationally, under the tutelage of Norman Granz. Granz helped solidify her position as one of the leading live jazz performers.
In the mid-1950s, Fitzgerald became the first African-American to perform at the Mocambo, after Marilyn Monroe had lobbied the owner for the booking. The booking was instrumental in Fitzgerald’s career. The incident was turned into a play by Bonnie Greer in 2005.
There are several live albums on Verve that are highly regarded by critics. Ella at the Opera House shows a typical JATP set from Fitzgerald. Ella in Rome and Twelve Nights In Hollywood display her vocal jazz canon. Ella in Berlin is still one of her best selling albums; it includes a Grammy-winning performance of “Mack the Knife” in which she forgets the lyrics, but improvises magnificently to compensate.
Verve Records was sold to MGM in 1963 for $3 million and in 1967 MGM failed to renew Fitzgerald’s contract. Over the next five years she flitted between Atlantic, Capitol and Reprise. Her material at this time represents a departure from her typical jazz repertoire. For Capitol she recorded Brighten the Corner, an album of hymns, Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas, an album of traditional Christmas carols, Misty Blue, a country and western-influenced album, and 30 by Ella, a series of six medleys that fulfilled her obligations for the label.
During this period, she had her last US chart single with a cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Get Ready”, previously a hit for The Temptations, and some months later a top-five hit for Rare Earth.
The surprise success of the 1972 album Jazz at Santa Monica Civic ’72 led Granz to found Pablo Records, his first record label since the sale of Verve. Fitzgerald recorded some 20 albums for the label. Ella in London recorded live in 1974 with pianist Tommy Flanagan, Joe Pass on guitar, Keter Betts on bass and Bobby Durham on drums is one of her best ever. Her years on Pablo documented the decline in her voice. “She frequently used shorter, stabbing phrases, and her voice was harder, with a wider vibrato,” one biographer wrote. Plagued by health problems, Fitzgerald made her last recording in 1991 and her last public performances in 1993.
Fitzgerald married at least twice, and there is evidence that she may have married a third time. In 1941 she married Benny Kornegay, a convicted drug dealer. The marriage was annulled after two years.
Her second marriage, in December 1947, was to the famous bass player Ray Brown, whom she had met while on tour with Dizzy Gillespie’s band a year earlier. Together they adopted a child born to Fitzgerald’s half-sister, Frances, whom they christened Ray Brown, Jr. With Fitzgerald and Brown often busy touring and recording, the child was largely raised by her aunt, Virginia. Fitzgerald and Brown divorced in 1953, owing to the various career pressures both were experiencing at the time, though they would continue to perform together.
In July 1957, Reuters reported that Fitzgerald had secretly married Thor Einar Larsen, a young Norwegian, in Oslo. She had even gone as far as furnishing an apartment in Oslo, but the affair was quickly forgotten when Larsen was sentenced to five months hard labor in Sweden for stealing money from a young woman to whom he had previously been engaged.
Fitzgerald was also notoriously shy. Trumpet player Mario Bauza, who played behind Fitzgerald in her early years with Chick Webb, remembered that “she didn’t hang out much. When she got into the band, she was dedicated to her music.She was a lonely girl around New York, just kept herself to herself, for the gig.” When, later in her career, the Society of Singers named an award after her, Fitzgerald explained, “I don’t want to say the wrong thing, which I always do. I think I do better when I sing.”
Already blinded by the effects of diabetes, Fitzgerald had both her legs amputated in 1993. In 1996 she died of the disease in Beverly Hills, California at the age of 79. She is interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. Several of Fitzgerald’s awards, significant personal possessions and documents were donated to the Smithsonian Institution, the library of Boston University, the Library of Congress, and the Schoenberg Library at UCLA.
Film and television In her most notable screen role, Fitzgerald played the part of singer Maggie Jackson in Jack Webb’s 1955 jazz film Pete Kelly’s Blues. The film costarred Janet Leigh and singer Peggy Lee. Even though she had already worked in the movies (she had sung briefly in the 1942 Abbott and Costello film Ride ‘Em Cowboy), she was “delighted” when Norman Granz negotiated the role for her, and, “at the time….considered her role in the Warner Brothers movie the biggest thing ever to have happened to her.” Amid The New York Times’ pan of the film when it opened in August 1955, the reviewer wrote, “About five minutes (out of ninety-five) suggest the picture this might have been. Take the ingenious prologue…Or take the fleeting scenes when the wonderful Ella Fitzgerald, allotted a few spoken lines, fills the screen and sound track with her strong mobile features and voice.”
Similar to another African-American jazz singer, Lena Horne, Fitzgerald’s race precluded major big-screen success. After Pete Kelly’s Blues, she appeared in sporadic movie cameos, in St. Louis Blues (1958), and Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960). Much later, she appeared in the 1980s television drama The White Shadow.
She also made numerous guest appearances on television shows, singing on the The Frank Sinatra Show, and alongside Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Mel Torme and many others. Perhaps her most unusual and intriguing performance was of the ‘Three Little Maids’ song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta The Mikado alongside Joan Sutherland and Dinah Shore on Shore’s weekly variety series in 1963. Fitzgerald also made a one-off appearance alongside Sarah Vaughan and Pearl Bailey on a 1979 television special honoring Bailey.
Fitzgerald also appeared in TV commercials, her most memorable being an ad for Memorex. In the commercials, she sang a note that shattered a glass while being recorded on a Memorex cassette tape. The tape was played back and the recording also broke the glass, asking “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” She also starred in a number of commercials for Kentucky Fried Chicken, singing and scatting to the fast-food chain’s longtime slogan, “We do chicken right!”
Her final commercial campaign was for American Express, in which she was photographed by Annie Leibovitz.
Fitzgerald’s most famous collaborations were with the trumpeter Louis Armstrong, the guitarist Joe Pass, and the bandleaders Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
Fitzgerald recorded three Verve studio albums with Armstrong, two albums of standards (1956’s Ella and Louis and 1957’s Ella and Louis Again), and a third album featured music from the Gershwin musical Porgy and Bess. Fitzgerald also recorded a number of sides with Armstrong for Decca in the early 1950s.
Fitzgerald is sometimes referred to as the quintessential swing singer, and her meetings with Count Basie are highly regarded by critics. Fitzgerald features on one track on Basie’s 1957 album One O’Clock Jump, while her 1963 album Ella and Basie! is remembered as one of her greatest recordings. With the ‘New Testament’ Basie band in full swing, and arrangements written by a young Quincy Jones, this album proved a respite from the ‘Songbook’ recordings and constant touring that Fitzgerald was engaged in during this period. Fitzgerald and Basie also collaborated on the 1972 album Jazz at Santa Monica Civic ’72, and on the 1979 albums Digital III at Montreux, A Classy Pair and A Perfect Match.
Fitzgerald and Joe Pass recorded four albums together toward the end of Fitzgerald’s career. She recorded several albums with piano accompaniment, but a guitar proved the perfect melodic foil for her. Fitzgerald and Pass appeared together on the albums Take Love Easy (1973), Easy Living (1986), Speak Love (1983) and Fitzgerald and Pass… Again (1976).
Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington recorded two live albums, and two studio albums. Her Duke Ellington Songbook placed Ellington firmly in the canon known as the Great American Songbook, and the 1960s saw Fitzgerald and the ‘Duke’ meet on the Cete d’Azur for the 1966 album Ella and Duke at the Cote D’Azur, and in Sweden for The Stockholm Concert, 1966. Their 1965 album Ella at Duke’s Place is also extremely well received.
Fitzgerald had a number of famous jazz musicians and soloists as sidemen over her long career. The trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie, the guitarist Herb Ellis, and the pianists Tommy Flanagan, Oscar Peterson, Lou Levy, Paul Smith, Jimmy Rowles, and Ellis Larkins all worked with Ella mostly in live, small group settings.
Possibly Fitzgerald’s greatest unrealized collaboration (in terms of popular music) was a studio or live album with Frank Sinatra. The two appeared on the same stage only periodically over the years, in television specials in 1958 and 1959, and again on 1967’s A Man and His Music + Ella + Jobim, a show that also featured Antonio Carlos Jobim. Pianist Paul Smith has said, “Ella loved working with Frank. Sinatra gave her his dressing room on A Man and His Music and couldn’t do enough for her.” When asked, Norman Granz would cite “complex contractual reasons” for the fact that the two artists never recorded together. Fitzgerald’s appearance with Sinatra and Count Basie in June 1974 for a series of concerts at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas was seen as an important impetus upon Sinatra returning from his self-imposed retirement of the early 1970s. The shows were a great success, and September of that year saw them gross $1,000,000 in two weeks on Broadway, in a triumvirate with the Count Basie Orchestra.
Awards, citations and honors
Fitzgerald won fourteen Grammy awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement in 1967. Other major awards and honors she received during her career were the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Medal of Honor Award, National Medal of Art, first Society of Singers Lifetime Achievement Award, named “Ella” in her honor, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the George and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement, UCLA Spring Sing.
Ella Fitzgerald was a quiet but ardent supporter of many charities and non-profit organizations, including the American Heart Association and the United Negro College Fund. In 1993, she established the “Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation” which continues to fund programs that perpetuate Ella’s ideals.
In 1997, Newport News, Virginia created a music festival with Christopher Newport University to honor Ella Fitzgerald in her birth city. The Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival is designed to teach the region’s youth of the musical legacy of Fitzgerald and jazz. Past performers at the week-long festival include: Diana Krall, Arturo Sandoval, Jean Carne, Phil Woods, Aretha Franklin, Freda Payne, Cassandra Wilson, Ethel Ennis, David Sanborn, Jane Monheit, Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ramsey Lewis, Patti Austin, and Ann Hampton Callaway
In 2008, the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center in Newport News named its brand new 276-seat theater the Ella Fitzgerald Theater. The theater is located several blocks away from her birthplace on Marshall Avenue. The Grand Opening performers (October 11 & 12, 2008) were Roberta Flack and Queen Esther Marrow.
Ann Hampton Callaway, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Patti Austin have all recorded albums in tribute to Fitzgerald. Callaway’s album To Ella with Love (1996) features fourteen jazz standards made popular by Fitzgerald, and the album also features the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Bridgewater’s album Dear Ella (1997) featured many musicians that were closely associated with Fitzgerald during her career, including the pianist Lou Levy, the trumpeter Benny Powell, and Fitzgerald’s second husband, the double bassist Ray Brown. Bridgewater’s following album, Live at Yoshi’s, was recorded live on April 25, 1998, what would have been Fitzgerald’s 81st birthday. Patti Austin’s album, For Ella (2002) features 11 songs most immediately associated with Fitzgerald, and a twelfth song, “Hearing Ella Sing” is Austin’s tribute to Fitzgerald. The album was nominated for a Grammy.
In 2007 We All Love Ella, was released, a tribute album recorded for the 90th anniversary of Fitzgerald’s birth. It featured artists such as Michael Buble, Natalie Cole, Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, Diana Krall, k.d. lang, Queen Latifah, Ledisi, Dianne Reeves, Linda Ronstadt, and Lizz Wright, collating songs most readily associated with the “First Lady of Song”.
The folk singer Odetta’s album To Ella (1998) is dedicated to Fitzgerald, but features no songs associated with her. Fitzgerald’s long serving accompanist Tommy Flanagan affectionately remembered Fitzgerald on his album Lady be Good…For Ella (1994).
Fitzgerald is also referred to on the 1987 song “Ella, elle l’a” by French singer France Gall and the Belgian singer Kate Ryan, the 1976 Stevie Wonder hit “Sir Duke” from his album Songs in the Key of Life, and the song “I Love Being Here With You”, written by Peggy Lee and Bill Schluger. Sinatra’s 1986 recording of “Mack the Knife” from his album L.A. Is My Lady (1984) includes a homage to some of the song’s previous performers, including ‘Lady Ella’ herself.
USPS stamp and Yonkers statue
There is a statue of Fitzgerald in Yonkers, the city in which she grew up. It is located south of the main entrance to the Amtrak/Metro-North Railroad station. On January 10, 2007, the United States Postal Service announced that Fitzgerald would be honored with her own 39-cent postage stamp. The stamp was released in April 2007 as part of the Postal Service’s Black Heritage series.