Ella Fitzgerald

  • Jazz singer born in 1917 in Newport News Virginia. Died in 1996 from a stroke.
  • At 8 years old, her family moved to New York City. She sang at church and enjoyed listening to jazz music by Louis Armstrong and others. Her mother died when Fitzgerald was 15 years old, and she started to skip school, working as a lookout at a local bordello. By 1933, she was placed in an orphanage, and then moved to a reform school. She started to sing in the streets of Harlem, and at 17 years old, she entered an amateur night contest at the Apollo Theater, and won. In January 1935, she got the opportunity to sing for a week with a jazz band at the Harlem Opera House. This led to an introduction to bandleader Chick Webb, who reluctantly agreed to have her sing with them at a performance at Yale University – he didn’t care for her gawkiness and her unkempt look. She performed well, and Webb invited her to join his orchestra.
  • The orchestra performed regularly at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, and Fitzgerald’s jazz vocals became well known. She began to record with Webb and other bandleaders. Her first song, All My Life, recorded with jazz pianist Teddy Wilson, reached #13 on the music chart in 1936, and the following year, she had her first #1 song with Goodnight My Love, with Benny Goodman’s Orchestra. In 1938, she co-wrote a jazz version of the nursery rhyme A-Tisket, A-Tasket and sang it with Webb’s orchestrait was her national breakthrough, topping the charts and becoming a jazz standard.
  • In 1939, Webb died, and the orchestra was renamed Ella and Her Famous Orchestra. She recorded nearly 150 songs with the orchestra between 1935 and 1942. She left the group in 1942, and signed a recording contract as a solo artist. She performed with various jazz artists during the 40s, reaching the top 10 of the pop chart 11 times, including two #1 hits, both with The Ink Spots – I’m Making Believe and Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall.
  • By the mid-40s, the popularity of swing and big band music started to decline, and jazz music evolved to a bebop sound. This led to her innovative scat singing style, which became her legacy. When describing her scat singing, she was quoted as saying “I just tried to do [with my voice] what I heard the horns in the band doing.”
  • In the 50s, she released 19 studio albums and 2 live albums. In the 60s, 22 more studio albums and 7 more live albums were released. On some of these albums, she collaborated with the biggest names in jazz music, including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Most feature Fitzgerald performing jazz standards and songs from Broadway. During this time, she earned her nicknames The First Lady of Song and Queen of Jazz. Her collaborations with Basie were considered quintessential swing singing.
  • In the late 60s and early 70s, she recorded contemporary pop songs, country music and Christmas music. Her last song to chart was a cover of Smokey Robinson’s Get Ready. A live album in 1972, Jazz at Santa Monica Civic ’72, was a surprising success, and Fitzgerald returned to jazz singing for 16 more studio albums and 10 more live albums in the 70s and 80s (some of which were recorded several decades earlier).
  • Late in life, Fitzgerald was plagued by health problems due to diabetes. Her last recording was in 1991, and her last public performance was in 1993. She won 13 Grammy awards in her career, and also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967. Additionally, 6 of her songs were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame – including of course, A-Tisket, A-Tasket. Among her many other honors are a Kennedy Center Medal of Honor Award (1979), a National Medal of Art (1987) and a Presidential Medal of Freedom (1992).
  • I was a little too young to appreciate Ella in her glory years. I remember watching her TV commercial for Memorex cassette tapes – she would do her jazz scat thing and break a pane of glass when she hit a high note, and then her vocal would play back from a cassette recording, and the glass would break again, with the tagline “Is it live, or is if Memorex?” Here’s a clip of Fitzgerald doing her signature scat singing in a number called Airmail Special from 1961. Check it out!

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