“I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them”
The “First Lady of Song” and the “Queen of Jazz” or just simply “Lady Ella”, Ella Fitzgerald was the most popular female jazz singer in the United States for more than half a century. In her lifetime, she won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million albums.
Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia. 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.
In 1932, her mother died from a heart attack. Following this trauma, Fitzgerald’s grades dropped dramatically, and she frequently skipped school.
In 1934 Ella’s name was pulled in a weekly drawing at the “Apollo” (Theater in Harlem, New York) and she won the opportunity to compete in Amateur Night. Ella went to the theater that night planning to dance, but when the frenzied Edwards Sisters closed the main show, Ella changed her mind. “They were the dancingest sisters around,” Ella said, and she felt her act would not compare.
Once on stage, 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 quieted 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.”
Off stage, and away from people she knew well, Ella was shy and reserved. She was self-conscious about her appearance, and for a while even doubted the extent of her abilities. On stage, however, Ella was surprised to find she had no fear. She felt at home in the spotlight.
“Once up there, I felt the acceptance and love from my audience,” Ella said. “I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life.”
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.
At the end of the night she won the first prize of US$25.00.
“I was there from the beginning, and it was obvious from the start what she had that night at the Apollo. My goodness, what she’s done with it.”
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 dance at Yale University.
“If the kids like her,” Chick said, “she stays.”
Chick hired her to travel with the band for $12.50 a week.
In the middle of 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.”
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 songs with the orchestra before it broke up in 1942.
While on tour, Ella fell in love with bassist Ray Brown. The two were married and eventually adopted a son, 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 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.
Unfortunately, busy work schedules also hurt Ray and Ella’s marriage. The two divorced in 1952, but remained good friends for the rest of their lives.
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,” etc.
“The best way to start any musical evening is with this girl. It don’t get better than this.”
Ella continued to work as hard as she had early on in her career, despite the ill effects on her health.
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.
In September of 1986, Ella underwent quintuple coronary bypass surgery. Doctors also replaced a valve in her heart and diagnosed her with diabetes, which they blamed for her failing eyesight.
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 the effects from 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.
“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.
“I guess what everyone wants more than anything else is to be loved. And to know that you loved me for my singing is too much for me. Forgive me if I don’t have all the words. Maybe I can sing it and you’ll understand.”