Ella FitzgeraldAug 8th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1917-1996 Ella Fitzgerald bebopped with Dizzy Gillespie and scatted with Louis Armstrong during a nearly 60-year-long career in which she became a renowned jazz pioneer. She effectively reinterpreted the American songbook, won 13 Grammy Awards, and earned the title “The First Lady of Song.”
From Dance to Song
Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Virginia. She never knew her father, William Fitzgerald. A few years after she was born, her mother, Temperance Williams, moved north to Yonkers, New York, with Joe Da Silva, who fathered Fitzgerald’s younger half-sister, Frances. In school, Fitzgerald sang in the glee club, but her real passion was dance. In the 1920s and early 1930s, jazz began to sweep the nation, and dances like the Lindy Hop evolved alongside jazz in black clubs in New York. Fitzgerald and her friends would often sneak into clubs to watch Lindy Hoppers fly across the floor. In 1932, Fitzgerald’s mother was killed in a car accident. In the wake of her mother’s death, the two sisters were shuffled among family members and Fitzgerald became a restless, unhappy teen. Money was tight, and she often worked illegally by running numbers for local gamblers or acting as a lookout for neighborhood prostitutes. She began skipping school, her grades suffered, and after getting into trouble with the police, she was sent to a “reform” school. After being released, she headed for Harlem.
Around the same time, an old Whites-only burlesque club in Harlem changed ownership and began courting black audiences. That club was the famous Apollo Theater, and one of their first regular events was an Amateur Night open to local performers. In 1934, a young Fitzgerald was one of the very first to win the $25 Amateur Night prize. She had intended to dance on stage at the Apollo, but after watching the crowd react to the professional moves of the headlining dancers, Fitzgerald got cold feet and made the snap decision to sing instead. It was a seminal moment, and once she found her calling, nothing could deter her from it. After entering a handful of talent shows, Fitzgerald won the opportunity to sing for a week at the Harlem Opera House with the Tiny Bradshaw band. There, she met the famous drummer and bandleader Chick Webb who hired her to tour with his band, and later, to sing regularly with them at the Savoy Ballroom. Webb was a patient teacher and a trusted confidant who eventually became her legal guardian. In 1936, only two years after her debut at the Apollo, Fitzgerald made her first record, “Love and Kisses.” It sold well, but in 1938, she recorded “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” It shot to the top of the charts where it stayed for over four months, selling over a million records. She was just 21 years old.
Crossover from Jazz
After Webb died in 1939, Fitzgerald was chosen to front the band—renamed Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra—and they played together for three years. But when World War II broke out and several members were drafted, the band broke up. Touring with Dizzy Gillespie, Fitzgerald met Ray Brown, a charming bass player, and the two married in 1946. Her experience with Gillespie influenced her musically and it began to show in a broader, more fully developed performance style. Although Fitzgerald had an extraordinary range and an uncanny ability to mimic musical instruments and other singers, up until this period, she had sung songs mostly as they were written. With Gillespie, she adopted elements of his bebop style and began to improvise, eventually becoming an expert at the “scat” style of singing. Fitzgerald and Brown, who had adopted the son of her half-sister Frances, divorced after a few years, but they remained lifelong friends. Through Brown, she met Norman Granz, the producer and manager of the Jazz at the Philharmonic series. With Granz’s help, Fitzgerald expanded her musical repertoire and found significant commercial success.
In 1953, Granz became Fitzgerald’s manager, and by 1956, he had convinced her to sign a contract with his recording label, Verve. She began collaborating with Louis Armstrong and recording the greats of the American songbook: classics by Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, and the Gershwin brothers. The songbook series, and her crossover into pop music made Fitzgerald successful with mainstream listeners, both white and black. With the support of famous fans like Marilyn Monroe, she was able to perform at previously segregated clubs like the Mocambo in Los Angeles. For most of her career, Fitzgerald kept up a constant touring schedule, performing for diverse audiences throughout the world. When the first Grammy Awards were announced in 1958, Fitzgerald took home two: one for Best Female Vocal Performance (on The Irving Berlin Songbook) and another for Best Individual Jazz Performance (on The Duke Ellington Songbook). One of the most notable aspects of her singing style was an irrepressible enthusiasm. Critics and fans alike noted a kind of pervasive joy in her singing, even as she performed sad songs such as Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale.” She was at her best when improvising on upbeat songs such as “Mack the Knife.” Fitzgerald’s final live performance was at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1991. Shortly afterward, complications from diabetes confined her to a wheelchair. On June 15, 1996, when she was 79 years old, Fitzgerald died at her home in Beverly Hills.
Although she had been diagnosed with diabetes in the mid-1980s and was plagued by failing eyesight, Fitzgerald performed and recorded for as long as she was physically able. In addition to her 13 Grammy Awards, Fitzgerald was presented with a Kennedy Center Award, a National Medal for the Arts, and several honorary doctorates. Ira Gershwin once said of her, “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.”