Ella Jane Fitzgerald (April 25, 1917 - June 15, 1996), also known as the "First Lady of Song" "Queen of Jazz" and "Lady Ella," was an American jazz and song vocalist. With a vocal range spanning three octaves (D♭3 to D♭6), 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 was a notable interpreter of the Great American Songbook. Over the course of her 59-year recording career, she was the winner of 13 Grammy Awards and was awarded the National Medal of Arts by Ronald Reagan and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George H. W. Bush.
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 went to Yonkers, New York, where they eventually moved in with Tempie's longtime 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 this trauma, Fitzgerald's grades dropped dramatically and she frequently skipped school. Abused by her stepfather, she was first taken in by an aunt and at one point worked as a lookout at a bordello and also with a Mafia-affiliated numbers runner. When the authorities caught up with her, she was first placed in the Colored Orphan Asylum in Riverdale, the Bronx. However, when the orphanage proved too crowded she was moved to the New York Training School for Girls in Hudson, New York, a state reformatory. Eventually she escaped and for a time was homeless.
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.
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 and local dockworker. 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, bowing 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 visually impaired 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 buried in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. The career history and archival material from Ella's long career are housed in the Archives Center at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History while her personal music arrangements are at The Library of Congress. Her extensive cookbook collection was donated to the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University while her published sheet music collection is at the Schoenberg Library at UCLA.
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 there. 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 and her Famous Orchestra" with Ella taking on the role of nominal bandleader. Fitzgerald recorded nearly 150 sides with the orchestra before it broke up in 1942, "the majority of them 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 led to new developments in Fitzgerald's vocal style, influenced by her work with Dizzy Gillespie's big band. It this in was 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" arranged by Vic Schoen 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.
Move to Verve and mainstream success:
Further information: The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks
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. Her 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.
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 Abraça 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.
As Will Friedwald noted,
Unlike any other singer you could name, Fitzgerald has the most amazing asset in the very sound of her voice: it's easily one of the most beautiful and sonically perfect sounds known to man. Even if she couldn't do anything with it, the instrument that Fitzgerald starts with is dulcet and pure and breathtakingly beautiful. As Henry Pleasants has observed, she has a wider range than most opera singers, and many of the latter, including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, are among her biggest fans. And the intonation that goes with the voice is, to put it conservatively, God-like. Fitzgerald simply exists in tune, and she hits every note that there is without the slightest trace of effort. Other singers tend to sound like they're trying to reach up to a note - Fitzgerald always sounds like she's already there. If anything, she's descending from her heavenly perch and swooping down to whatever pitch she wants.
Henry Pleasants, an American classical-music critic, wrote this about her:
She has a lovely voice, one of the warmest and most radiant in its natural range that I have heard in a lifetime of listening to singers in every category. She has an impeccable and ultimately sophisticated rhythmic sense, and flawless intonation. Her harmonic sensibility is extraordinary. She is endlessly inventive... it is not so much what she does, or even the way she does it, it's what she does not do. What she does not do, putting it simply as possible, is anything wrong. There is simply nothing in performance to which one would take exception... Everything seems to be just right. One would not want it any other way. Nor can one, for a moment imagine it any other way. Fitzgerald had an extraordinary vocal range. A mezzo-soprano (who sang much lower than most classical contraltos), she had a range of "2 octaves and a sixth from a low D or D flat to a high B flat and possibly higher".
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 represented 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, guitarist Joe Pass, bassist Keter Betts and drummer Bobby Durham, was considered by many to be some of her best work. The following year she again performed with Joe Pass on German television station NDR in Hamburg. Her years with Pablo Records also 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.
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." 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 made numerous guest appearances on television shows, singing on The Frank Sinatra Show, The Andy Williams Show, The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom, and alongside other greats Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Mel Tormé, 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. A performance at "Ronnie Scott's" jazz club in London was filmed and shown on the BBC. Fitzgerald also made a one-off appearance alongside Sarah Vaughan and Pearl Bailey on a 1979 television special honoring Bailey. In 1980, she performed a medley of standards in a duet with Karen Carpenter on the Carpenters' television program, Music, Music, Music.
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.