Ella Fitzgerald, also known as Lady Ella and the First Lady of Song, is considered one of the most influential jazz vocalists of the 20th Century.
With a vocal range spanning three octaves, she was noted for her purity of tone, faultless phrasing and intonation, and a "horn-like" improvisational ability, particularly in her scat singing. She is widely considered to have been one of the supreme interpreters of the Great American Songbook.
Over a recording career that lasted fifty-seven years, she was the winner of thirteen Grammy Awards, and was awarded the National Medal of Art by Ronald Reagan and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George H. W. Bush.
She was born Ella Jane Fitzgerald in Newport News, Virginia, on April 25, 1917, the child of a common-law marriage between William and Temperance “Tempie” Fitzgerald. The pair separated soon after Ella's birth and she and her mother moved to Yonkers, New York, with Tempie's boyfriend, Joseph Da Silva. Ella's half-sister, Frances Da Silva, was born in 1923.
In her youth, Ella wanted to be a dancer, though she loved listening to jazz recordings of Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and The Boswell Sisters. She idolized the lead singer of the Boswell Sisters, 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, Ella's mother died from injuries received in a car accident. After staying with Da Silva for a short time, Ella was taken in by Tempie's sister, Virginia. Shortly afterward, Da Silva suffered a heart attack and died, and her sister Frances joined Ella in Virginia.
Following these dramatic events, Ella's academic grades dropped dramatically, and she frequently skipped school. At one point, she worked as a lookout at a bordello and also with a Mafia-affiliated numbers runner. After getting into trouble with the police, she was taken into custody and sent to a reform school. Eventually Ella escaped from the reformatory, and for a time was homeless.
She made her singing debut at seventeen on November 21, 1934 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. Ella's name pulled in a weekly audience at the Apollo and she 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 Connie Boswell. She sang Hoagy Carmichael's "Judy" and "The Object of My Affection", a song recorded by the Boswell Sisters, and won the first prize of US$25.00.
In January 1935 she won the chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House. Ella met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb here for the first time. Webb had already hired male 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 Ella the opportunity to test with his band when they played a dance at Yale University. Despite the tough crowd, Ella was a great success, and Webb hired her to travel with the band for US$12.50 a week.
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 Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra" with Ella taking the role of bandleader. Ella recorded nearly 150 sides during her time with the orchestra, most of which, like "A-Tisket, A-Tasket", were "novelties and disposable pop fluff."
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 appearing regularly in his Jazz at the Philharmonic 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 in this period. The advent of bebop caused a major change in Fitzgerald's vocal style, influenced by her work with Dizzy Gillespie's big band. It was in this 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" 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 be-bop recordings of "Oh, Lady be Good!" (in 1947) and "How High the Moon" were similarly popular, and increased her reputation as one of the leading jazz vocalists.
Perhaps responding to criticism, and under pressure from Granz (who felt that Fitzgerald was given unsuitable material to record during this period), her last years on the Decca label saw Fitzgerald recording a series of duets with pianist Ellis Larkins, released in 1950 as Ella Sings Gershwin.
Still performing at Granz's JATP concerts, by 1955, Fitzgerald left the Decca label, and Granz, now her manager, created the jazz record company Verve 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 someplace 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 "Songbooks" Fitzgerald would record for Verve at irregular intervals from 1956 to 1964. The composers and lyricists spotlighted on each album, taken together, represent the greatest part of the cultural canon known as the Great American Songbook. Fitzgerald's song selections ranged from well-known standards to little-heard 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, Ellington and his longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn wrote two new pieces of music for the album, "The E and D Blues" and he composed a four movement musical portrait of Fitzgerald.
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, The 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 from re-releasing his own albums in a similar, single composer vein.
Ella Fitzgerald also recorded albums exclusively devoted to the songs of Porter and Gershwin in 1972 and 1983, the albums being Ella Loves Cole and Nice Work If You Can Get It, respectively. 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, Ella toured 40 to 45 weeks per year in the United States and internationally, under the tutelage of Norman Granz. Granz helped solidify Ella's position as one of the leading live jazz performers.
The mid-1950s saw Ella become 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 Ella, Ella in Rome is a verifiable 1950s jazz vocal masterclass, while Ella in Berlin is still one of Ella's biggest selling albums. 1964's Ella at Juan-Les-Pins and 1966's Ella and Duke at the Cote D'Azur both find a confident Ella accompanied by a stellar array of musicians.