Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)“The First Lady of Song”

by :Michelle Inherst

Ella Fitzgerald was a legendary, American jazz singer who represented much of the Great American Songbook with her remarkably broad, 3- octave vocal range. Her ability to make full use of her voice and her gift of singing notes in tune earned Ella Fitzgerald thirteen Grammy Awards. Her musical performances packed popular theaters and music halls around the world. Ella Fitzgerald was adored by millions of fans with audiences as diverse as her vocal range. Some of her best loved recordings include a multi volume collection she had made with Verve Records.  

   ella  A child from a common- law marriage between William Fitzgerald and Tempest ‘Tempie’ Williams, Ella Fitzgerald was born April 24, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia. Ella’s troubled childhood began soon after she was born and she eventually turned to singing. Her parents had separated and she moved to Yonkers, New York where the two lived with her mother’s boyfriend, Joseph Da Silva. Ella easily made friends with the neighborhood children. In 1923, Fitzgerald’s half- sister Frances was born. The family was struggling financially so the young Ella Fitzgerald began working as a messenger for local gamblers. She picked up their bets and dropped off money. In doing so, Fitzgerald was able to help her family financially. While living in Yonkers, Fitzgerald considered herself to be a tomboy, but she had really aspired to become a dancer.

     When her mother passed away in a fatal car accident in 1932, Ella had taken the loss of her mother very hard. She lived with her ‘stepfather’ for a short time longer and eventually moved in with her aunt Virginia. It was soon after this that Fitzgerald’s ‘stepfather’ had a heart attack and died. Ella’s sister Frances came to join them. While living with her aunt, Ella had a difficult time adjusting to her new surroundings. She became more and more unhappy, her grades dropped drastically, and she started skipping school. The young Fitzgerald had gotten into trouble with the police and was sent to a special reform school, but did not last long there.  Ella became even more unhappy living at the reform school as she had been physically abused by her caretakers there.

     In1934, Ella left the reform school to try to make it on her own. She turned to living in the streets during the Great Depression. Later, during her career, Ella Fitzgerald used these childhood memories to her advantage to pull herself together before her performances. She felt more thankful for the successes she had during her career because she knew what it was like to struggle.

      Fitzgerald still had dreams of becoming an entertainer so she entered an amateur contest.  In 1934, her name was drawn to compete in the contest, which was held at the famous Apollo Theater in New York City. Fitzgerald had originally planned to dance for the contest, but at the last minute, as she walked onto the stage, Ella decided to sing instead. Ella beautifully sang the Hoagy Carmichael song “Judy”. She had sung so beautifully, the audience demanded more. Fitzgerald gave them what they wanted by singing “The Object of My Affections”. The audience was so impressed with Fitzgerald’s performance; they gave her the first place prize of twenty- five dollars. From there, her career as a singer took off.  She became the number one female jazz vocalist of the year.

     Although Fitzgerald felt ‘at home’ in the spotlight, she was shy and reserved behind the scenes. Ella shone with confidence and had no fear on stage, when was by herself, she doubted her ability to sing. Fitzgerald was conscientious about her appearance as well. It was while appearing on stage, Ella felt the adoration of her fans and she knew her calling was to sing for others.     Her avid supporters propelled Fitzgerald to enter- and win every single talent show she could find.

     January 1935 found Ella performing for a week at the Harlem Opera House with the Tiny Bradshaw band. While performing at the Harlem, Fitzgerald met bandleader and drummer Chick Webb. Webb invited Ella to audition with his band during a performance at Yale University. He told her that if the students liked her, she would have a job singing with his band. Although the crowd was difficult to please, Fitzgerald was a success that night. She joined Webb’s band as a singer and began travelling with them.

      In 1936, the duo recorded “Love and Kisses”.  Ella soon became a regular performer at the Savoy; one of Harlem’s most popular clubs. Not long after these recordings Ella began singing her own rendition of “(If You Can’t Sing It) You Have to Swing It”. This was one of the first times she began to experiment with scat. Fans were wowed with her improvisation and vocals. It was during this period, the popularity of big bands was drawing to a close and the focus on music trended more toward bebop.  In 1938, Fitzgerald released her first chart topping hit, a playful rendition of “A Tisket, A Tasket”; a song she helped write. After selling more than one million copies of the album, it soared to #1 on the pop music charts and remained there for 17 weeks straight. Her second hit, “I Found My Yellow Basket” was also recorded and released later in 1938. Although Fitzgerald continued working with Webb, she gave performances and recorded music with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. During this time, Ella had her own band known as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Savoy Eight.

     After the passing of Chick Webb on June 16, 1939, Fitzgerald took over his orchestra and bandleader. The name of the band was changed to Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra. It was around this time, Ella married local dockworker Ben Kornegay in 1941. This may have been due to her search for stability and protection in her life. Fitzgerald learned afterward of his criminal history as a convicted drug dealer and hustler. Their wedding lasted for only a brief time and in 1943, Fitzgerald had the marriage annulled.

     Fitzgerald struck out on her own and signed a deal with Decca Records. Together with the Ink Spots and Louis Jordan, Ella recorded some popular songs in the 1940’s. Fitzgerald made her first appearance in movies in 1942 as well with her debut as the character Ruby in Ride ‘Em Cowboy. The comedy western also co-starred Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

     The year 1946 brought another boost in Fitzgerald’s musical career when she with founder of Verve Records, Norman Granz.  He saw Fitzgerald’s potential of becoming a star. Granz had begun the use of jazz at the Philharmonic, a symphony orchestra the featured most of the great jazz performers. He became Fitzgerald’s manager. While touring with the Philharmonic, Ella worked with Louis Armstrong and started production on her songbook series. From 1954-1956, Fitzgerald recorded her rendition of songs from other jazz legends such as; Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart. These recordings were loved by Fitzgerald’s fans and the original artists whose music she recorded.

     Ella made appearances on television variety shows as well.  It didn’t take long for Fitzgerald to become a favorite guest making several appearances on countless shows. Her cameos included the “Bing Crosby Show”, “The Dinah Shore Show”, “The Frank Sinatra Show”, “The Ed Sullivan Show”, “The Tonight Show”, “The Nat King Cole Show”, “The Andy Williams Show”, and “The Dean Martin Show”.  

     While touring, it was no secret that Ella’s manager, had strong feelings regarding civil rights. He expected equal treatment of his musicians ‘regardless of their color’. Discrimination of any kind; whether at hotels, restaurants, or concert halls was unacceptable; even when touring to the Deep South. Celebrity fans, including Marilyn Monroe even showed her support for Fitzgerald. Ella was quoted as saying, “It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular night club in the 50’s”.

     In the 1940’s, Fitzgerald began touring with Dizzy Gillespie and his band. She incorporated the use of scat during her performances, thus changing her singing style. Ella began to develop feelings for Gillespie’s bass player, Ray Brown, and the two were married in 1947. Shortly thereafter, they adopted Fitzgerald’s nephew and gave him the name Raymond ‘Ray’ Brown Jr. In 1952, the marriage came to an end. Due to their busy work schedules, the relationship between Ray and Ella became strained and the two divorced, but remained friends for the rest of their lives.

     Ella Fitzgerald enjoyed much success in the 1950’s and 60’s. By this time, Ella had earned the nickname “The First Lady of Song”.  This was due to her widespread popularity and unequaled vocal talents. Fitzgerald had a one of a kind ability to copy musical sounds which aided in making the vocal improvisation of scat become popular. Scat eventually became Fitzgerald’s signature vocal style.

     In 1956, Fitzgerald started making records with Verve Records, a newly formed record company. Some of her most popular albums were made and released while she was with Verve. Her very first one made under their label was Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book.  

     Ella was awarded her very first two Grammy’s at the first ever Grammy Awards ceremony in 1958. She went down in history as the first African American woman to receive such an honor. One award was for the best individual jazz performance and the other for best female vocalist. She had earned the two awards for her vocal performances on Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook and Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook respectively.

     Ella worked well with others and enjoyed doing so. She made astounding hits with such musical legends as Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. Fitzgerald gave performances with Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, and Nat King Cole as well.

     In 1960, Fitzgerald made her debut ion the pop music charts with her improvisational style of “Mack the Knife”. Despite ill effects on her health, Ella showed no signs of slowing down.  In the 1970’s, she continued giving performances around the world; sometimes two performances a day. A memorable series of performances from the 70’s was a two week gig in New York City in 1974; an engagement that included Sinatra and Basie. Fitzgerald was still going strong five years later. Ella was not only inducted into the Down Beat magazine Hall of Fame, she received Kennedy Center Honors for the contributions she made to the arts.     Because of her deep concern for child welfare, Fitzgerald made ‘generous donations to organizations for disadvantaged youths’. These continued contributions kept Ella going strong. When her sister Frances passed away, Fitzgerald felt the added responsibility of taking care of her sisters’ family as well.

     In the 1980’s, Fitzgerald did begin to show signs of serious health issues. In 1986, she had undergone heart surgery and was diagnosed with diabetes. In 1987, Ella was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Ronald Reagan; an award that became her most prized possession. A few years later, France followed President Reagan’s example and bestowed their Commanding of Arts and Letters Award. Fitzgerald was also presented with honorary doctorates from Yale, Dartmouth, and several other Universities.     Fitzgerald recorded her last album in 1989. She gave her final public performance in 1991 at a New Year’s Eve party at Carnegie Hall.  

     In 1994, the symptoms of her diabetes had gotten worse. At the age of 76, Ella had completely lost her eyesight and; due to increasing circulatory issues, both of her legs were amputated below the knees. Fitzgerald was rarely able to perform as she had never fully recovered from her surgery. Ella spent her final years sitting in her backyard, listening to the birds and spending time with her son Ray Jr. and her granddaughter Alice. On June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald died peacefully at her home in Beverly Hills, California. Following her memorial service, traffic on the freeway came to a halt to allow her funeral procession to pass through. Ella Fitzgerald was carried away to the Inglewood Park Cemetery.  There, she was taken to her final resting place; the “Sanctuary of the Bells” section of the Sunset Mission Mausoleum.

      Over the course of her career, Ella Fitzgerald had recorded and released more than 200 albums and 2,000+ songs. Sales of her records exceeded 40 million. Her many accomplishments include 13 Grammy Awards; the NAACP Image Award for Lifetime Achievement; a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; and the Presidential Award of Freedom.

     During her musical career, Fitzgerald drew complaints that her ‘style and voice lacked the depth of some of more bluesy counterparts.’ However, Ella Fitzgerald’s success and the respect she gained from her contemporaries proved that she was ‘in a class all her own.’ According to Ella Fitzgerald’s official website, Mel Torme called Fitzgerald ‘the High Priestess of song’ while Pearl Bailey described her ‘the greatest singer of them all’.

          Since her passing in 1996, Fitzgerald’s memory has lived on. She was honored by the United States Postal Service with an Ella Fitzgerald Commemorative Stamp. This commemorative stamp marked the 90th anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald’s birth. A tribute album was recorded and released that same year. The album, We All Love Ella: Celebrating the First Lady of Song featured other legendary female vocalists. Gladys Knight, Etta James, and Queen Latifa honored Ella Fitzgerald’s memory by performing her songs on this album.