Who Was Ella Fitzgerald? Everything You Need To Know About The American Jazz Singer


Ella Fitzgerald began singing after a difficult childhood and made her debut at the Apollo Theater in 1934. She was discovered in an amateur competition and went on to become the best female jazz singer for decades. Fitzgerald made history when she became the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award in 1958. The singer would go on to win 13 Grammys and sell more than 40 million albums, thanks in large part to her vocal quality, which had precise intonation and a wide range. Her Verve Records multi-volume “songbooks” are among America’s recording treasures.

Early Years

Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Virginia, as the result of a common-law marriage between William Fitzgerald and Temperance “Tempie” Williams Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald had a difficult life, which began with her parents’ divorce shortly after her birth.

Fitzgerald went to Yonkers, New York, with her mother. Joseph Da Silva, her mother’s boyfriend, resided with them. The arrival of Fitzgerald’s half-sister Frances in 1923 expanded the family. In order to aid her family, the young Fitzgerald worked as a messenger “running numbers” and as a lookout for a brothel. Her original career goal was to be a dancer.

Fitzgerald ended up living with an aunt after her mother died in 1932. She began skipping school. Fitzgerald was subsequently transferred to a special reform school, but he did not remain long.

Fitzgerald was trying to make it on her own and living on the streets by 1934. She entered an amateur contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, still dreaming of becoming an entertainer.

She wowed the crowd with her performances of “Judy” by Hoagy Carmichael and “The Object of My Love.” Fitzgerald went on to win the contest’s top prize of $25.

Early Career

Fitzgerald’s career was launched with an unexpected appearance at the Apollo. She soon met Chick Webb, the conductor and drummer, and eventually joined his band as a singer.

Fitzgerald recorded “Love and Kisses” with Webb in 1935 and soon found herself performing regularly at the Savoy, one of Harlem’s biggest clubs. Fitzgerald also co-wrote and released her first No. 1 hit, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” in 1938. Fitzgerald’s second hit, “I Found My Yellow Basket,” was released later that year.

Fitzgerald also performed and recorded with the Benny Goodman Orchestra in addition to her work with Webb. Ella Fitzgerald & Her Savoy Eight was a side project as well.

Upon Webb’s death in 1939, Fitzgerald took over as leader of the Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra. (According to some sources, the group was known as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band.)

Fitzgerald was temporarily married to Ben Kornegay, a convicted drug dealer and hustler, during this time. They married in 1941, but she quickly had their marriage annulled.

Rising Star

Fitzgerald earned a deal with Decca Records after striking out on her own. In the early 1940s, she recorded some popular tunes with the Ink Spots and Louis Jordan.

Fitzgerald also made her film debut as Ruby in Ride ‘Em Cowboy, a 1942 comedic western starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Her career took off when she began working with Norman Granz, the future creator of Verve Records, in 1946.

Granz began Jazz at the Philharmonic, a series of performances and live recordings featuring most of the genre’s top musicians, in the mid-1940s. Fitzgerald also appointed Granz as her manager.

Fitzgerald traveled on tour with Dizzy Gillespie and his band around this period. She began to alter her singing technique, integrating scat singing into her concerts.

Fitzgerald apparently had feelings for Gillespie’s bassist, Ray Brown. They married in 1947 and adopted a kid born to Fitzgerald’s half-sister, Raymond “Ray” Brown Jr. In 1952, the couple divorced.

First Lady of Song

Fitzgerald achieved critical and commercial success in the 1950s and 1960s, earning the title “First Lady of Song” for her mass popularity and unrivaled vocal abilities. Her unusual ability to imitate instrumental sounds helped promote scatting, a vocal improvisation that became her distinctive approach.

Fitzgerald began recording for the newly formed Verve label in 1956. She recorded some of her most popular albums for the label, beginning with Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book in 1956.

Fitzgerald won her first two Grammys — and became the first African American woman to do so — at the very first Grammy Awards in 1958, for best individual jazz performance and best female vocal performance for the two songbook projects Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book and Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book, respectively. (On the previous record, she collaborated directly with Ellington.)

Fitzgerald, a true collaborator, made wonderful recordings with performers including as Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. She has shared the stage with Frank Sinatra countless times over the years.

Fitzgerald made her pop chart debut in 1960 with her interpretation of “Mack the Knife.” She was still going strong in the 1970s, doing concerts all over the world. One particularly famous concert series from this era was Sinatra and Basie’s two-week engagement in New York City in 1974.

Later Years and Death

Fitzgerald’s health was deteriorating by the 1980s. She had heart surgery in 1986 and had diabetes prior to that. She was blinded by the disease and had both legs amputated in 1994.

Her last recording was in 1989, and her last public performance was in 1991 at Carnegie Hall in New York. Fitzgerald died on June 15, 1996, at her Beverly Hills home.

Fitzgerald recorded almost 200 CDs and over 2,000 songs throughout her lifetime. Her cumulative record sales surpassed 40 million units. Among her numerous honors were 13 Grammy Awards, the NAACP Image Award for Lifetime Achievement, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

While some critics argued that Fitzgerald’s style and voice lacked the depth of some of her more bluesy contemporaries, her popularity and the respect she earned from the music industry’s biggest stars demonstrated that Fitzgerald was in a class all her own.

According to Fitzgerald’s official website, Mel Torme referred to her as “the High Priestess of Song,” while Pearl Bailey referred to her as “the best vocalist of them all.” “Man, woman, or kid, Ella is the best of them all,” Bing Crosby reportedly stated.

Fitzgerald has been recognized and remembered in a variety of ways since her death. The United States Postal Service honored the late singer with a commemorative stamp commemorating her 90th birthday.

That same year, Gladys Knight, Etta James, and Queen Latifah performed some of Fitzgerald’s favorites on the tribute CD We All Love Ella: Honoring the First Lady of Song.

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