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.
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.
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. 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. For radio and recording dates, she’d be working with the Three Keys.
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.
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.
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. ↩︎
Fitzgerald planned to make another film for Universal at the time. The film never materialized. ↩︎
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. ↩︎