Nicknamed “the first lady of song”, Ella Fitzgerald was America’s most popular jazz singer for over half a century. During her lifetime, she won 13 Grammy Awards and sold over 40 million albums.
Her voice was supple, varied, precise and ageless. She could sing sultry ballads, smooth jazz and imitate every instrument in an orchestra. She worked with all the jazz greats, from Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Nat King Cole to Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman (or rather, some might say, all the jazz greats had the pleasure of working with Ella).
She performed in the world’s greatest concert halls, filling them to the brim. Her audiences were as diverse as her vocal range. They were rich and poor, of all races, religions and nationalities. In fact, many of them had just one thing in common: they all loved her.
Modest but happy beginnings
Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia, on April 25, 1917. Her father, William, and mother, Temperance (Tempie), separated shortly afterwards. Tempie and Ella moved to Yonkers, New York, to live with Joseph Da Silva, Tempie’s long-time boyfriend. Ella’s half-sister Frances was born in 1923, and soon began calling Joe her stepfather.
To support the family, Joe digs ditches and is a part-time driver, while Tempie works in a laundry and does some catering. From time to time, Ella takes on odd jobs to help out with the money. Perhaps naïve to the circumstances, Ella worked as a courier for local gamblers, collecting their bets and depositing the money.
Their apartment was in a mixed neighborhood, where Ella made friends easily. She considered herself more of a tomboy, and often participated in neighborhood baseball games. Aside from sports, she liked to dance and sing with her friends, and some evenings they took the train to Harlem and attended various shows at the Apollo Theater.
A bad patch
In 1932, Tempie died of serious injuries sustained 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 afterwards, Joe suffered a heart attack and died, and his little sister Frances joined them.
Unable to adapt to her new circumstances, Ella became increasingly unhappy and entered a difficult period in her life. Her grades drop dramatically and she frequently skips school. After getting into trouble with the police, she is taken into custody and sent to a reform school. Life there is even more unbearable, as she suffers beatings from her guards.
Eventually, Ella escaped from reform school. The fifteen-year-old found herself penniless and alone during the Great Depression, and struggled to survive.
Never one to complain, Ella later reflected on her most difficult years, realizing that they had helped her mature. She used memories of those times to gather her emotions for shows, and felt that she was more grateful for her success because she knew what it was like to struggle through life.
“What’s she going to do?”
In 1934, Ella’s name was drawn in a weekly raffle at the Apollo and she won the opportunity to participate in Amateur Night. Ella went to the theater that night intending to dance, but when the frenetic Edwards Sisters closed the main show, Ella changed her mind. “They’re the most danceable sisters around,” says Ella, and she thinks her act won’t compare.
Once on stage, faced with booing and murmurs of “What’s she gonna do?” from the cheering crowd, Ella, frightened and bedraggled, made a last-minute decision to sing. She asked the band to play Judy by Hoagy Carmichael, a song she knew well because Connee Boswell’s rendition was one of Tempie’s favorites. Ella quickly calmed the audience down, and by the end of the song, they were asking for an encore. She complied, singing the hidden side of the Boswell sisters’ album, The Object of My Affections.
Off stage, and away from the people she knows well, Ella is shy and reserved. She’s self-conscious about her appearance and, for a time, even doubts the extent of her abilities. On stage, however, Ella was surprised to find that she wasn’t afraid. She felt at ease in the spotlight.
“Once on stage, I felt the acceptance and love of my audience,” Ella said, “I knew I wanted to sing in front of people for the rest of my life.”
In the orchestra that night was saxophonist and arranger Benny Carter. Impressed by her natural talent, he began introducing Ella to people who could help launch her career. Over time, he and Ella became lifelong friends, often working together.
Encouraged by enthusiastic supporters, Ella began entering – and winning – every talent contest 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 singer Charlie Linton for his band. He offered Ella the chance to try out with his band when they played at a ball at Yale University. “If the kids like her,” says Chick, “she stays.” Despite the tough crowd, Ella was a big hit, and Chick hired her to travel with the band for $12.50 a week.
A little jazz
In mid-1936, Ella made her first recording. Love and Kisses was released on the Decca label, with moderate success. By this time, she was performing with Chick’s orchestra at Harlem’s prestigious Savoy Ballroom, often referred to as “the most famous ballroom in the world”.
Soon after, Ella began singing a rendition of the song (If You Can’t Sing It) You Have to Swing It. By this time, the era of the big swing bands was changing, and the emphasis was on bebop. Ella played with this new style, often using her voice to play the role of another horn in the band. You Have to Swing It was one of the first times she experimented with scat singing, and her improvisation and vocalization thrilled fans. Throughout her career, Ella mastered scat singing, transforming it into an art form.
In 1938, at the age of 21, Ella recorded a playful version of the nursery rhyme A-Tisket, A-Tasket. The album sold a million copies, reached number one and stayed on the pop charts for 17 weeks. Suddenly, Ella Fitzgerald was famous.
Biography: The revelation
On June 16, 1939, Ella mourns the loss of her mentor Chick Webb. In his absence, the band is renamed “Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Band”, and Ella takes on the overwhelming task of bandleader.
Perhaps in search of stability and protection, Ella married Benny Kornegay, a local dockworker who had been pursuing her. Upon learning that Kornegay had a criminal record, Ella realized the relationship was a mistake and had the marriage annulled.
While touring with Dizzy Gillespie’s band in 1946, Ella fell in love with bassist Ray Brown. They married and adopted a son, whom they named Ray Jr.
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 become an international star, and convinced her to sign with him. It was the beginning of a lifelong professional relationship and friendship.
Under Norman’s direction, Ella toured with the Philharmonic, worked with Louis Armstrong on several albums and began producing her famous series of songbooks. From 1956 to 1964, she recorded covers of albums by other musicians, including Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin and Rodgers and Hart. The series is very popular, both with Ella’s fans and the artists she covers. “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them,” Ira Gershwin once remarked.
Ella also began appearing on television variety shows. She quickly became a favorite guest on many shows, 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 Willams Show and The Dean Martin Show.
Due to a hectic touring schedule, Ella and Ray were often away from home, straining the bond with their son. Eventually, Ray Jr. and Ella reconnected and repaired their relationship. “All I can say is that she gave me as much as she could,” Ray Jr. later said, “and she loved me as much as she could.”
Unfortunately, busy work schedules also took their toll on Ray and Ella’s marriage. They divorced in 1952, but remained good friends for the rest of their lives.
On the touring circuit, Ella’s manager was notoriously committed to civil rights, demanding equal treatment for his musicians, regardless of color. Norman refused to accept any form of discrimination in hotels, restaurants or concert halls, even when traveling to the Deep South. Once, while in Dallas on tour for the Philharmonic, a police brigade irritated by Norman’s principles barged backstage to hassle the performers. They entered Ella’s dressing room, where band members Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jacquet were playing dice, and arrested everyone. “They took us down,” Ella later recalled, “and then when we arrived, they had the nerve to ask us for an autograph.”
Norman wasn’t the only one willing to come to Ella’s defense. She received support from many famous fans, including a zealous Marilyn Monroe.
“I owe a real debt to Marilyn Monroe,” Ella would later say, “It was thanks to her that I played at the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he did, she’d take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, given Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, at the first table, every night. The press went wild…. After that, I never had to play in a small jazz club again. She was an extraordinary woman, a little ahead of her time. And she didn’t know it.”
Ella continued to work as hard as she had at the start of her career, despite the adverse effects on her health. She toured the world, sometimes giving two shows a day in cities hundreds of miles apart. In 1974, Ella spent two legendary weeks performing in New York with Frank Sinatra and Count Basie. Still going strong five years later, she was inducted into the Down Beat magazine Hall of Fame and received the Kennedy Center Honors for her continuing contributions to the arts.
Outside the arts, Ella cared deeply about the welfare of children. Although this aspect of her life was rarely made public, she frequently made generous donations to organizations for disadvantaged young people, and continuing these contributions was part of the driving force that kept her from slowing down. Moreover, when Frances passed away, Ella felt she had the added responsibility of caring for her sister’s family.
In 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan awarded Ella the National Medal of Arts. It was one of her most precious moments. France followed suit a few years later, awarding her Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, while Yale, Dartmouth and several other universities conferred honorary doctorates.
The end of an era
In September 1986, Ella underwent quintuple coronary bypass surgery. Doctors also replaced a heart valve and diagnosed her with diabetes, which they attributed to her failing eyesight. The press spread the rumor that she would never be able to sing again, but Ella proved them wrong. Despite the protests of her family and friends, including Norman, Ella returned to the stage and continued an exhaustive program.
By the 1990s, Ella had recorded over 200 albums. In 1991, she gave her last concert at New York’s famous Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she had performed there.
As the effects of her diabetes worsened, Ella, aged 76, suffered severe circulatory problems and had to have both legs amputated below the knees. She never fully recovered from the operation, and was rarely able to perform afterwards. During this time, Ella enjoyed sitting outside in her garden and spending time with Ray Jr. and her granddaughter Alice. “I just want to smell the air, listen to the birds and hear Alice laugh,” she would say.
On June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald died in her Beverly Hills home. A few hours later, signs of commemoration began to appear around the world. A wreath of white flowers lay beside her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a marquee outside the Hollywood Bowl Theatre read: “Ella, we’ll miss you”.
After a private memorial service, freeway traffic was halted to allow her funeral procession to pass. She was buried in the “Sanctuary of the Bells” section of the Sunset Mission Mausoleum at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.