Known as the “The First Lady of Song”, Ella was one the most popular female jazz singers in the United States for more than half a century. In her lifetime, she won 13 Grammy Awards and sold over 40 million albums. She had an accurate and ageless voice, able to sing sultry ballads, sweet jazz and imitate every instrument in an orchestra. Plus, Ella worked with many great jazz artists, from Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Nat King Cole, to Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie. and Benny Goodman. She performed and packed the top venues all over the world. Her audiences were as diverse as her vocal range. They were rich and poor, made up of all races, all religions and all nationalities.
We hope you our April 2022 Music History 101, courtesy of www.ellafitzgerald.com.Just don't give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong. ~ Ella Fitzgerald Click To Tweet
Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, VA on April 25, 1917. Her father, William, and mother, Temperance (Tempie), parted ways shortly after her birth. Together, Tempie and Ella went to Yonkers, N.Y, where they eventually moved in with Tempie’s longtime boyfriend Joseph Da Silva. Ella’s half-sister, Frances, was born in 1923 and soon she began referring to Joe as her stepfather.
Like many great artists growing up in the Great Depression, Ella’s childhood was not easy. In 1932, Tempie died from serious injuries that she received in a car accident. Ella took the loss very hard. After staying with Joe for a short time, Tempie’s sister Virginia took Ella home. Shortly afterward Joe suffered a heart attack and died, and her little sister Frances joined them.
Unable to adjust to the new circumstances, Ella became increasingly unhappy and entered into a difficult period of her life. Her grades dropped dramatically, and she frequently skipped school. After getting into trouble with the police, she was taken into custody and sent to a reform school. Living there was even more unbearable, as she suffered beatings at the hands of her caretakers.
Eventually Ella escaped from the reformatory. The 15-year-old found herself broke and alone during the Great Depression, yet continued to endure.
Never one to complain, Ella later reflected on her most difficult years with an appreciation for how they helped her to mature. She used the memories from these times to help gather emotions for performances, and felt she was more grateful for her success because she knew what it was like to struggle in life. Talk about #Inspo!
In 1934 Ella’s name was pulled in a weekly drawing at The Apollo, winning the opportunity to compete in Amateur Night. A scared and disheveled Ella made the last minute decision to sing. She asked the band to play Hoagy Carmichael‘s Judy a song she knew well because Connee Boswell‘s rendition of it was among Tempie’s favorites. Ella quickly stunned the audience, and by the song’s end they were demanding an encore. She obliged and sang the flip side of the Boswell Sister’s record, The Object of My Affections.Once up there, I felt the acceptance and love from my audience. I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life. - Ella Fitzgerald Click To Tweet
In the band that night was saxophonist and arranger Benny Carter. Impressed with her natural talent, he began introducing Ella to people who could help launch her career. In the process he and Ella became lifelong friends, often working together.
Encouraged by enthusiastic supporters, Ella began entering (and winning!) every talent show she could find. In January 1935 she won the chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw Band at the Harlem Opera House. It was there that Ella first met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb. Although her voice impressed him, Chick had already hired male singer Charlie Linton for the band. He offered Ella the opportunity to test with his band when they played a Yale University dance.
Despite the tough crowd, Ella was a major success, and Chick hired her to travel with the band for $12.50 a week!
In 1936, Ella made her first recording. Love and Kisses was released under the Decca label, with moderate success. By this time she was performing with Chick’s band at the prestigious Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, often referred to as “The World’s Most Famous Ballroom.”
Shortly afterward, Ella began singing a rendition of the song, (If You Can’t Sing It) You Have to Swing It. During this time, the era of big swing bands was shifting, and the focus was turning more toward bebop. Ella played with the new style, often using her voice to take on the role of another horn in the band. You Have to Swing It was one of the first times she began experimenting with scat singing, and her improvisation and vocalization thrilled fans. Throughout her career, Ella would master scat singing, turning it into a form of art.
At the age of 21, Ella recorded a playful version of the nursery rhyme, A-Tisket, A-Tasket. The album sold 1 million copies, hit number one, and stayed on the pop charts for 17 weeks. Suddenly, Ella Fitzgerald was famous.
On June 16, 1939, Ella mourned the loss of her mentor Chick Webb. In his absence the band was renamed “Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band,” and she took on the overwhelming task of bandleader.
At the time, Ray was working for producer and manager Norman Granz on the “Jazz at the Philharmonic” tour. Norman saw that Ella had what it took to be an international star, and he convinced Ella to sign with him. It was the beginning of a lifelong business relationship and friendship.
Under Norman’s management, Ella joined the Philharmonic tour, worked with Louis Armstrong on several albums and began producing her infamous songbook series. From 1956-1964, she recorded covers of other musicians’ albums, including those by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart. The series was wildly popular, both with Ella’s fans and the artists she covered.I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them. - Ira Gershwin Click To Tweet
As if she wasn’t busy enough, Ella also began appearing on television variety shows. She quickly became a favorite and frequent guest on numerous programs, including: 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.
Unfortunately, busy work schedules also hurt Ray and Ella’s marriage. The two divorced in 1952, but remained good friends.
It was well-known that Ella’s manager felt very strongly about civil rights and required equal treatment for his musicians, regardless of their color. Norman refused to accept any type of discrimination at hotels, restaurants or concert halls, even when they traveled to the Deep South. Norman wasn’t the only one willing to stand up for Ella. She received support from numerous celebrity fans, including a zealous Marilyn Monroe. So cool to receive such kind and notable support back then.
Despite the ill effects on her health, Ella continued to work as hard as she had early on in her career. She toured all over the world, sometimes performing two shows a day in cities hundreds of miles apart. In 1974, Ella spent a legendary two weeks performing in New York with Frank Sinatra and Count Basie. Five years later, she was inducted into the Down Beat magazine Hall of Fame, and received Kennedy Center Honors for her continuing contributions to the arts.
Outside of music, Ella had a deep concern for child welfare. Though this aspect of her life was rarely publicized, she frequently made generous donations to organizations for disadvantaged youths, and the continuation of these contributions was part of the driving force that prevented her from slowing down. Additionally, when Frances died, Ella felt she had the additional responsibilities of taking care of her sister’s family.
In 1987, United States President Ronald Reagan awarded Ella the National Medal of Arts. It was one of her most prized moments. France followed suit several years later, presenting her with their Commander of Arts and Letters award, while Yale, Dartmouth and several other universities bestowed Ella with honorary doctorates.
By the 1990s, Ella had recorded over 200 albums. In 1991, she gave her final concert at New York’s renowned Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she performed there!
As her diabetes worsened, 76-year-old Ella experienced severe circulatory problems and was forced to have both of her legs amputated below the knees. She never fully recovered from the surgery, and afterward, was rarely able to perform. During this time, Ella enjoyed sitting outside in her backyard, and spending time with Ray, Jr. and her granddaughter Alice. Heartbreaking!
“I just want to smell the air, listen to the birds and hear Alice laugh,” she said.
On June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald died in her Beverly Hills home. Hours later, signs of remembrance began to appear all over the world. A wreath of white flowers stood next to her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a marquee outside the Hollywood Bowl read, “Ella, we will miss you.”
Ella has had a profound effect not only on the jazz music scene, but the world at large. We hope you enjoyed the Music History 101 lesson and will continue to listen to and learn more about this remarkable artist!
Music History 101 reviews selected musicians from periods of history that continue to influence today’s culture and taste. If you enjoyed this story, please feel free to share on your favorite social media. Comments appreciated! If there is an musician you would like us to feature, please comment below. Thank you for your support!
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