Ella Fitzgerald

Photo of Ella Fitzgerald
  • Birth Name

    Ella Jane Fitzgerald
  • Born

    April 15, 1917
    Newport News, Virginia
  • Died

    June 15, 1996 (age 79)
    Beverly Hills, California
  • Orchestras

    Chick Webb

Known as the First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald was one of the most pop­u­lar jazz vo­cal­ists of all-time. From her early big band record­ings with the Chick Webb Orchestra to her last per­for­mances in the early 1990s, she thrilled and im­pressed au­di­ences around the world, help­ing to de­velop the style of singing known as scat” and work­ing with some of the most fa­mous names in show busi­ness.

Born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1917, Fitzgerald’s par­ents sep­a­rated soon af­ter her birth, and she moved to Yonkers, New York. Her mother later moved in with a boyfriend whom Fitzgerald came to re­gard as a step­fa­ther. After Fitzgerald’s mother was killed in a car wreck in 1932, she stayed with her step­fa­ther briefly, where she suf­fered abuse, be­fore mov­ing in with an aunt in Harlem. Shortly af­ter­wards, her step­fa­ther died.

Fitzgerald had dif­fi­culty cop­ing with the changes in her life. Her grades in school fell, and she be­gan to get into trou­ble with the law. First sent to an or­phan­age, she even­tu­ally ended up in re­form school, where she was reg­u­larly beaten. She soon es­caped, how­ever, and went out on her own, liv­ing hand-to-mouth on the streets.[1]

Band Period

As a youth, Fitzgerald en­joyed singing and danc­ing, and in­spired by the Boswell Sisters she de­cided to pur­sue a ca­reer in show busi­ness. In 1934, she en­tered an am­a­teur night con­test at the Apollo Theater, where her vo­cal tal­ents im­pressed sax­o­phon­ist and fu­ture jazz great Benny Carter, who was in the au­di­ence. He took a spe­cial in­ter­est in the young singer and be­gan to help her along with her ca­reer.

A year later, Fitzgerald gained a spot on the bill at the Harlem Opera House, where Chick Webb front­man Bardu Ali heard one of her per­for­mances. Webb had been un­der pres­sure from his man­ager to re­place his older male vo­cal­ist with a younger per­son­al­ity. Though re­luc­tant at first to hire some­one as young as Fitzgerald, Webb and his man­ager could­n’t refuse af­ter hear­ing her au­di­tion.

Fitzgerald quickly proved to be the star at­trac­tion of Webb’s or­ches­tra. The ever-savvy Webb knew what he had in the young singer, and he set the band’s white arranger, Van Alexander, to craft songs for her with the aim of break­ing into the com­mer­cial mar­ket. The com­bi­na­tion of Alexander’s arrange­ments and Fitzgerald’s voice led to a string of hit num­bers, most no­tably the wildly pop­u­lar A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” a tune for which she wrote the lyrics. The or­ches­tra recorded on Decca.

As white au­di­ences took no­tice of Fitzgerald, Webb’s band moved into the na­tional spot­light, and Fitzgerald be­came in great de­mand by other lead­ers, in­clud­ing Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson, who of­ten bor­rowed her to use on record­ings or to fill in for an ab­sent vo­cal­ist. During this pe­riod, the singer also recorded as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Savoy 8,” backed by a smaller ver­sion of Webb’s or­ches­tra, and she made sev­eral sides with the Mills Brothers as well. Hollywood paid at­ten­tion and of­fered her a small part in the 1938 Dick Powell film Going Places, which she turned down to stay with Webb.

Webb and his wife be­came very fond of the young Fitzgerald, adopt­ing her and be­com­ing her le­gal guardians. When Webb died in 1939, Fitzgerald took over his or­ches­tra. Alternately billed as Ella Fitzgerald’s Orchestra” and Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band,” they con­tin­ued tour­ing and per­form­ing for the next sev­eral years. Her pop­u­lar­ity as a singer earned her third place in Billboard mag­a­zine’s 1940 col­lege poll for best fe­male band vo­cal­ist. She placed sixth in 1941 and sev­enth in 1942.

In 1941, Fitzgerald made her first film, ap­pear­ing in Abbott and Costello’s Ride Em Cowboy, re­leased the fol­low­ing year. She was re­port­edly paid $40,000 to sing two songs, A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and Cow Cow Boogie,” the lat­ter of which she de­buted. That same year, she also mar­ried ship­yard worker and con­victed drug dealer Bernie Kornegay. The mar­riage was an­nulled in 1942. She was known as a very pri­vate per­son who did­n’t so­cial­ize much. She lived for her mu­sic and kept to her­self when not on stage.

Post-Band Period

In early 1942, Fitzgerald grew tired of lead­ing an or­ches­tra and teamed up to record with the Three Keys, a pi­ano/​bass/​drums trio from Philadelphia.[2] In April, she an­nounced that she’d be step­ping away from her band, per­form­ing with it only on the­ater dates and one-nighters through the end of their cur­rent tour, which would wind up on the West Coast around the first of July.[3] For ra­dio and record­ing dates, she’d be work­ing with the Three Keys.[4]

Fitzgerald con­tin­ued tour­ing and record­ing with the trio, later ex­panded to a quar­tet as the Four Keys, through October 1943, when the two artists went their sep­a­rate ways. Decca and Fitzgerald’s man­ager next teamed her up with the Ink Spots, a highly pop­u­lar vo­cal group at the time. Her as­so­ci­a­tion with that quar­tet proved much more suc­cess­ful than had her pre­vi­ous team­ing. Their first recorded num­ber, Cow Cow Boogie,” hit the top ten in November, and a sub­se­quent tour as part of a pack­age with Cootie Williams’ or­ches­tra drew record-break­ing crowds.

Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots took a brief break from each other in the sum­mer of 1944 but were back record­ing again in the fall, to even greater suc­cess, reach­ing num­ber one on the charts twice, with I’m Making Believe” and Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall.” They again went out on tour with Williams.

Despite all her achieve­ments, Fitzgerald was not con­sid­ered an A-list star dur­ing the war years. While part­nered with the Ink Spots, she al­ways took sec­ond billing, and when the two acts parted com­pany in sum­mer 1945, Decca still did­n’t feel con­fi­dent push­ing Fitzgerald as a solo act, in­stead team­ing her with the Delta Rhythm Boys and then Randy Brooks dur­ing the lat­ter half of the year. It was­n’t un­til early 1946, af­ter a suc­cess­ful solo run at Harlem’s top nitery, the Zanzibar, that she fi­nally be­gan to re­ceive top billing.

1946 proved fruit­ful for Fitzgerald. She recorded with Louis Armstrong dur­ing the spring, hit­ting the top ten again, and in the fall she recorded the ca­lypso tune Stone Cold in the Market” with Louis Jordan. The lat­ter song be­came a ma­jor best-seller, de­spite be­ing banned from air­play by four ma­jor net­works due to its lyri­cal con­tent, which cel­e­brated mur­der with­out con­demn­ing it. Fitzgerald’s draw­ing power was now ap­par­ent, and she be­gan to be treated as a ma­jor star.

Later Years

Fitzgerald kept busy tour­ing and record­ing dur­ing the rest of the 1940s, of­ten with a combo led by her sec­ond hus­band, Ray Brown, whom she mar­ried in December 1947. Brown, nine years her ju­nior, had been Dizzy Gillespie’s bass player. The cou­ple di­vorced in 1953. She re­mained ex­tremely pop­u­lar through­out her ca­reer and recorded reg­u­larly through the 1960s, stay­ing on Decca un­til the late 1950s, when she signed with the new Verve la­bel, founded by her then per­sonal man­ager, Norman Granz. She signed with Capitol in 1967.

Fitzgerald ap­peared in her sec­ond film, Pete Kelley’s Blues in 1955 and made only two more, the last in 1960. She also ap­peared quite of­ten on tele­vi­sion and for many years served as the com­mer­cial spokesper­son for Memorex au­dio tapes. She con­tin­ued to per­form up un­til the mid-1980s when her health be­gan to fail.

While crit­ics have over­whelm­ingly praised Fitzgerald’s voice, she of­ten re­ceived neg­a­tive crit­i­cism from hard­core jazz fans, who cited her lack of cre­ativ­ity and re­garded her as a song-seller” and not an in­no­va­tor. Fitzgerald never pushed the bounds of the genre and of­ten strayed out­side it, par­tic­u­larly in her lat­ter years. During the 1970s, she be­gan to mix pop songs into her reper­toire with of­ten less than stel­lar ef­fects. Her voice also be­gan to suf­fer as she grew older, and she could no longer hit the high notes as she had in her youth. To com­pen­sate, she be­gan us­ing her lower reg­is­ter more.

In 1986 Fitzgerald un­der­went heart surgery and was di­ag­nosed with di­a­betes. She re­fused, though, to slow down, de­spite her con­di­tion, and con­tin­ued to main­tain a busy sched­ule of ap­pear­ances. This took a fur­ther toll on her health. In the early 1990s, she was forced to have her lower legs am­pu­tated. She rarely per­formed there­after. Ella Fitzgerald passed away in 1996.

Notes

  1. Fitzgerald kept this pe­riod of her life se­cret. It was only af­ter her death that his­to­ri­ans and bi­og­ra­phers dis­cov­ered she’d been through the le­gal sys­tem.
  2. The Three Keys had been a pop­u­lar group dur­ing the early 1930s. Jan Savitt singer Bon Bon was a found­ing mem­ber.
  3. Fitzgerald planned to make an­other film for Universal at the time. The film never ma­te­ri­al­ized.
  4. Fitzgerald’s or­ches­tra con­tin­ued on with­out her un­der the name and di­rec­tion of clar­inet player Eddie Barefield, with Dick Vance as vo­cal­ist. Failing to achieve much suc­cess, Barefield dis­banded the group and joined the sax sec­tion of Irving Miller’s NBC house or­ches­tra in October 1942.

Music

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  • I'll Chase the Blues Away
    Chick Webb (Ella Fitzgerald), Decca (1935)
  • When I Get Low I Get High
    Chick Webb (Ella Fitzgerald), Decca (1936)
  • The Darktown Strutters Ball
    Ella Fitzgerald and Her Savoy 8, Decca (1936)
  • All My Life
    Teddy Wilson (Ella Fitzgerald), Brunswick (1936)
  • Melancholy Baby
    Teddy Wilson (Ella Fitzgerald), Brunswick (1936)
  • Goodnight, My Love
    Benny Goodman (Ella Fitzgerald), Victor (1936)
  • Holiday in Harlem
    Chick Webb (Ella Fitzgerald), Decca (1937)
  • Dedicated to You
    Mills Brothers and Ella Fitzgerald, Decca (1937)
  • A-Tisket, A-Tasket
    Chick Webb (Ella Fitzgerald), Decca (1938)
  • Crying My Heart Out for You
    Chick Webb (Ella Fitzgerald), Decca (1939)
  • Imagination
    Ella Fitzgerald and Her Orchestra, Decca (1940)
  • Three Little Words
    Ella Fitzgerald and Her Orchestra, Decca (1941)
  • Keep Cool, Fool
    Ella Fitzgerald and Her Orchestra, Decca (1941)
  • My Heart and I Decided
    Ella Fitzgerald and the Four Keys, Decca (1942)
  • Cow-Cow Boogie
    Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald, Decca (1943)
  • I'm Making Believe
    Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald, Decca (1944)
  • Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall
    Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald, Decca (1944)
  • It's Only a Paper Moon
    Ella Fitzgerald and the Delta Rhythm Boys, Decca (1945)
  • A Kiss Goodnight
    Ella Fitzgerald and Randy Brooks, Decca (1945)
  • Benny's Coming Home on Saturday
    Ella Fitzgerald and Randy Brooks, Decca (1945)
  • You Won't Be Satisfied (Until You Break My Heart)
    Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Decca (1946)
  • Stone Cold Dead in the Market (He Had It Coming)
    Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan, Decca (1946)

All recordings are from the Internet Archive's 78rpm collection. Copyright owners, please see our removal policy.

Films

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  • Screenshot
    "A-Tisket, A-Tasket"
    Ella Fitzgerald
    from the film Ride ’Em Cowboy, Universal (1941)
  • Screenshot
    Medley
    Jo Stafford and Ella Fitzgerald
    from The Jo Stafford Show, CBS (1961)
  • Screenshot
    Midnight"
    Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson
    (1961)
  • Screenshot
    Memorex Commercials
    Ella Fitzgerald
    (1974)

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Sources

  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. The Online Discographical Project. Accessed 21 Jun. 2016.
  3. “Ella Fitzgerald.” IMDb. Accessed 21 Jun. 2016.
  4. “She Won't But She Will.” Washington Afro-American 17 Sep. 1938: 6.
  5. “Ella Rides East While Claude Goes West.” Afro-American 23 Aug. 1941: 14.
  6. “Ella Fitzgerald at Casino Jan. 12.” St. Petersburg Times 4 Jan. 1942: 13.
  7. “Campus Picks Top Chirps.” Billboard 2 May 1942: 19.
  8. “List of Winners.” The Billboard 1943 Music Year Book. Cincinnati: Billboard, 1943: 139.
  9. “Gale Sets Campaign for Barefield Band.” Billboard 4 Apr. 1942: 20.
  10. Humphrey, Harold. “Talent and Tunes on Music Machines.” Billboard 4 Apr. 1942: 67.
  11. “Two Songs - $40,000.” Afro-American 18 Apr. 1942: 15.
  12. “Ella Headed to Buffalo.” Afro-American 18 Apr. 1942: 15.
  13. “NBC Hires Two Negro Musikers for House Orks.” Billboard 17 Oct. 1942: 23.
  14. “Dirty Gertie Is Mad.” Afro-American 25 Sep. 1943: 10.
  15. “4 Keyes (sic) Start Name Policy in Milwaukee.” Billboard 23 Oct. 1943: 24.
  16. “Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald Teamed for 'Cow Cow' Disk.” Billboard 13 Nov. 1943: 16.
  17. “Vaudeville Reviews: Orpheum, Minneapolis.” Billboard 26 Feb. 1944: 22.
  18. “Ella Fitzgerald, Cootie Williams Do 3-Day 6G Gross.” Billboard 6 Apr. 1944: 12.
  19. “Cootie Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Ink Spots Recess.” Billboard 1 Jul. 1944: 17.
  20. “Night Club Reviews: Zanzibar: New York.” Billboard 14 Oct. 1944: 26.
  21. “Most Played Juke Box Records.” Billboard 9 Dec. 1944: 19.
  22. “Best Selling Retail Records.” Billboard 16 Dec. 1944: 18.
  23. “Music Popularity Chart.” Billboard 30 Dec. 1944: 11.
  24. “Most Played Juke Box Records.” Billboard 5 May 1945: 21.
  25. Advertisement. Billboard 18 Aug. 1945: 21.
  26. “Advanced Record Releases.” Billboard 20 Sep. 1945: 31.
  27. “Ella Fitzgerald Graduates from Supporting Role to Ace Billing.” Afro-American 26 Jan. 1946: 10.
  28. “Most Played Juke Box Records.” Billboard 27 Apr. 1946: 31.
  29. “'Stone Cold' Is Dead on the Nets.” Billboard 10 Aug. 1946: 17.
  30. Advertisement. Billboard 7 Sep. 1946: 18.
  31. “Ella Fitzgerald Weds Musician.” Richmond Afro-American 27 Dec. 1947: 8.
  32. “Ella Signs Contract.” The Free-Lance Star [Fredericksburg, VA] 24 Oct. 1967: 10.
  33. “Ella Fitzgerald Dies.” The Gazette [Schenectady, NY] 16 Jun. 1996: A10.
  34. “Fitzgerald's Gift Masked Painful Secret of Her Past.” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 25 Jun. 1996: 6B.