Despite living during a time when music in America was divided into two categories — popular music and race music — the iconic singer, Ella Fitzgerald, still managed to become the first Black artist to win a Grammy.
Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917, in Virginia. Due to the heavily racially segregated South, her family moved to Yonkers, New York. From an early age, she had to face very difficult situations. Her mother died in a car accident and her stepfather was abusive. She herself began skipping school and performing on street corners in Harlem for money.
As a teenager though, she was very talented in performing arts. She sang for her classmates and family members, and even had the opportunity to perform with her church’s choir where she says she really received training for her voice and style. In 1934, at the age of 17, Fitzgerald performed at the famous Apollo Theater in New York City and won the prize of $25 for Amateur Night. Unfortunately though, because of her poor appearance and dress, they did not give her the opportunity to be booked for a week at the Apollo, which was supposed to be part of the winning prize.
This, however, did not stop her and she began playing gigs around New York City. In 1938, she co-wrote the hit song “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which would eventually lead her to national fame. She was later signed to the Decca Recordings and later Verve Records.
In 1958, more than 20 years after her first performance at the Apollo Theater, Ellla Fitzgerald become the first African American to win a Grammy. In fact, she won two Grammy awards that night for Best Jazz Performance, Soloist for “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook” and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook.”
Over the course of her career, she went on to win a total of 14 Grammys and even received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967. Sadly, she died on June 15, 1996, at age 79, but her legend lives on through her music.