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.


  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.


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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)

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

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  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.