Ella Jane Fitzgerald
Born April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia, Died June 15, 1936, Beverly Hills, California
There are in this world two kinds of singers. There are those who have little range, but who know how to use what they’ve got to impart depth of emotion.
Billie Holliday, for instance, could never shriek or squall, but she conveyed a wounded vulnerability that broke your heart anew every time you heard her.
And then there are those rare singers whose voices are as shiny and flawless as a new car on the showroom floor, whose vocal gifts enable them to do pretty much anything they can conceive, who are limited only by their own imaginations. With her triple octave range, Ella Fitzgerald was one of those. Her voice was as near to perfection as voices get. Musicians used to tune their instruments to it.
As Janis Siegel of Manhanttan Transfer once told NPR, "I never listen to Ella for emotional depth, but for sheer purity of tone, musicality, playfulness, inventiveness and rhythmic virtuosity. To me, there's no one like Ella Fitzgerald."
The only one who didn’t seem to understand the singularity of Ella Fitzgerald was Fitzgerald herself. Siegel told a telling tale about a 1983 rehearsal.
"We were all around the piano. We did our little four-part harmony party, and then she scatted a couple of choruses. And she turns to us and said, 'Was that all right?' And I was so flabbergasted. It's like God asking angels after he just created the world and turned and said, "Well, whaddya think? The Grand Canyon? Could it use a little tweaking?'"
Or as pianist Billy Taylor once put it, “She never believed that she was really Ella Fitzgerald.”
That humility would be a theme in Fitzgerald’s career from the beginning.
She was discovered in 1934 during an amateur night program at a new theater in Harlem called The Apollo. Fitzgerald, a shy and gawky girl of 17, had come to the theater intending to perform as a dancer, but when she walked out onstage, she felt intimidated by the Edwards Sisters, a dance team that had just closed the main show. They were, she thought, the “dancingest sisters around.” She simply could not follow them.
So as the crowd stared at her, waiting for her do something, as boos began to rumble up from the darkness beyond the footlights, young Ella Fitzgerald made a fateful decision. She asked the band to play Judy, a Hoagy Carmichael tune. And she sang. The restive crowd fell silent. When she was done, they exploded in applause and demands for an encore. So Fitzgerald sang another song. And a legend was born.
Had you judged by the hardscrabble circumstances of her life up till that night, you would have had no way of guessing that stardom would be her ultimate destination. Ella Jane Fitzgerald was the child of a common law marriage between Temperance Williams Fitzgerald and William Fitzgerald, who separated by the time their daughter was a year old.
Temperance and Ella relocated to Yonkers where they moved in with Temperance’s boyfriend, Joseph Da Silva. In 1923, the couple welcomed another daughter, Frances.
Tragedy struck in 1932. Fitzgerald’s mother died, her stepfather turned abusive. Fitzgerald fled to the home of an aunt in Harlem. But she started going poorly in school and eventually dropped out altogether. She spent her time on the streets, running numbers and acting as a lookout for a local brothel.
Eventually, Fitzgerald found herself shipped off to a reform school, the New York State Training School For Girls in Hudson, New York. There, African-American girls were segregated to two crowded, tumbledown “cottages” where they were routinely beaten by male staff members. For the rest of her life, Fitzgerald would carry memories of being held in the basement of one of the cottages and, as former superintendent Thomas Tunney once told the New York Times, “all but tortured.”
She was homeless after she left that place, lived hand to mouth, slept where she could, ate what she could find. This was the state of her life when she walked onstage at the Apollo. She walked off as first place winner of the competition with a $25 prize. Shortly afterward, she met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb who, though initially reluctant, agreed to let her join his band.
In 1935, with Webb’s band backing her, Fitzgerald recorded her first record, Love and Kisses. Three years later, she co-wrote and recorded her first hit, A-Tisket, A-Tasket, a jazzy, sprightly re-imagining of a child’s rhyme. It was the beginning of an unparalleled six-decade career. For the next few years, Fitzgerald would record dozens of songs like A-Tisket, A-Tasket, i.e., novelty songs without much shelf life.
When Webb died in 1939, Fitzgerald became the de facto leader of what was rechristened Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra. In 1941, she married a man named Benjamin Kornegay a shipyard worker with a criminal record for drug dealing. The marriage was annulled just two years later. That breakup in her personal life mirrored her professional life. Her band disbanded in 1942.
As befits a singer with a legendarily acute sense of rhythm, Fitzgerald never missed a beat. She began recording under her own name for Decca Records, and also scored a series of major hits with Louis Jordan and the Ink Spots, including I’m Making Believe and Stone Cold Dead in the Market. It was in that same period that Fitzgerald made her film debut, appearing in Ride ‘Em Cowboy, a comedy western headlined by Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.
Fitzgerald married again in 1947. With her new husband, bassist Roy Brown, she adopted her nephew, the son of her sister Frances. They named the boy Roy Brown, Jr.
Two years before the nuptials, Fitzgerald recorded a song called Flying Home, which would become one of the most influential records of her career. In it, she improvised nonsense syllables in time with the melody and the rhythm – we bop, doodly be-bop, she bop bop, she boom. In other words, she scatted. Fitzgerald was not the first artist to do so, but no one before her had ever done it with such effortless creativity. Scatting would become her enduring trademark.
Swing, which had dominated American popular music for the better part of two decades, was finally in decline. Be-bop, with its challenging improvisations and counter rhythms was the cutting edge music of the moment and Fitzgerald became one of its leading exponents. Almost too a fault.
"I had gotten to the point where I was only singing be-bop," she once said. "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.”
Enter Norman Granz. Granz, a noted jazz impresario, invited her to join his touring Jazz at the Philharmonic jam sessions. In quick succession, he became her manager and then made her the first artist signed to his new record label, Verve. It was, Fitzgerald would recall, “a turning point.”
Under Granz’s direction, she launched the landmark Songbook albums, in which she recorded signature works from some of the most celebrated composers in modern American music: Johnny Mercer; Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Duke Ellington, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin. At the very first Grammy Awards, held in 1958, Fitzgerald won the first two of her eventual 13 Grammys, when she was honored for the Ellington and Berlin albums.
She also appeared in the films Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955) and St. Louis Blues (1958), the latter starring Nat King Cole.
While her career was flourishing, Fitzgerald’s personal life was floundering. She and Roy Brown were a busy, two-career couple, and their marriage could not survive it. The Browns divorced in 1953, though they continued to work together.
By the 1960s, Fitzgerald’s musical output had turned spotty. She did an album of country music and also tried singing hits by such then-current luminaries as Marvin Gaye and the Beatles. The 1970s found her back in more familiar territory, recording with jazz guitarist Joe Pass. She gave a celebrated series of concerts in 1974 that teamed her with Frank Sinatra and Count Basie.
It was in those years that her health began to deteriorate. She was diagnosed with diabetes and her eyesight began to go. Her voice also deteriorated, the gleaming instrument of her youth turning noticeably hoarse and grainy. Fitzgerald suffered a heart attack in 1986; she returned to the stage the following year. In 1993, diabetes forced the amputation of both legs below the knees.
Two years later, Ella Fitzgerald died at her home in Beverly Hills from complications of diabetes.
Over nearly 60 years, through more than 200 albums and 2000 songs, she had earned all sorts of accolades. In addition to the Grammy Awards, she was also a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and an NAACP Image Award for Lifetime Achievement.
But arguably the most significant praise was that bestowed upon her by her peers. They unanimously dubbed her “the first lady of American song.” The humble and insecure woman who never quite realized that she was Ella Fitzgerald probably would have deflected that praise, but she could never really escape it, because it was felt and true.
“Man, woman or child,” said Bring Crosby, “Ella is the greatest of them all.”
Sources: Biography.com, EllaFitzgerald.com, NPR.com, Imdb.com, The New York Times