Ella Fitzgerald was a legendary jazz singer who toured the world. She even performed for troops in WWII. She was a pioneer for vocal jazz, and her famous “songbooks” on Verve records are beloved by fans.
With lucid intonation and rhythmic flexibility, she sang songs as elliptical narratives, complex personas, and celebrations of musical experimentation. Her performances were masterful and enchanting.
Born in Newport News, Virginia
Known as the “First Lady of Song,” “Queen of Jazz,” and “Lady Ella,” Ella Fitzgerald was one of America’s most influential female jazz singers. She won 13 Grammy awards and sold millions of albums.
She was born in Newport News on April 25, 1917. Her parents divorced shortly after her birth, and she moved to Yonkers, New York with her mother, Temperance (Tempie), and her mother’s boyfriend, Joe Da Silva. Ella worked as a runner for gamblers in the illegal numbers game and as a lookout at a brothel.
Becoming Ella sheds light on long-enduring mysteries and reveals a woman of remarkable strength and vision. Archival research and in-depth family interviews clarify details of her difficult childhood, her battles with constricting models of Black and white femininity, and the tumultuous early years of her career.
She won an amateur night contest at the Apollo Theater in 1934
Ella Fitzgerald became one of the most renowned jazz musicians of the 20th century. She recorded for Decca Records and toured the world. She was also a popular television performer and an actress. She received many awards throughout her career, including thirteen Grammys and the National Medal of Arts.
In 1934, a gangly 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald took the stage at Harlem’s Apollo Theater for its amateur night contest. Her name was drawn for a dance performance, but she decided to sing instead. This decision changed her life forever. Today, the Apollo is a respected not-for-profit that presents concerts, theatrical and dance performances, film screenings, education and community outreach programs.
She joined Chick Webb’s band
After winning the amateur night contest, Fitzgerald landed a job singing with jazz bandleader Chick Webb. He helped her find her voice, and he also took on the role of her guardian when her mother died.
During this time, jazz was very popular in Harlem and Ella experienced the city’s unique culture firsthand. She would often stand on street corners to wait for musicians to sign autographs after a performance.
In 1938, she and Webb catapulted to fame with their swinging version of the nursery rhyme “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” It was a major hit on both radio and jukeboxes. It also became the signature song of her career.
She recorded for Decca Records
Ella Fitzgerald became famous for her clear tone and wide vocal range, impeccable intonation, and infectious scat singing. She was also a master at melodic singing and was known for her ability to improvise. Her music was a mix of jazz and the classic American songbook.
In 1956, Fitzgerald signed with Verve Records, founded by Norman Granz. She began recording her famous “songbook” albums, which focused on interpreting the great American popular song writers such as Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin.
Despite her difficult childhood, Fitzgerald’s talent and perseverance made her a world-renowned performer. She received many awards and accolades throughout her life, including 13 Grammy awards and the National Medal of Arts.
She signed with Norman Granz
Norman Granz saw Ella Fitzgerald as a worldwide star. He relaunched her career, turning her into a popular entertainer and the international First Lady of Song. He used his business savvy to elevate her onstage and in the recording studio.
In addition to her musical skills, she also had a flair for showmanship. She drew huge crowds and attracted a celebrity fan base that included Marilyn Monroe.
Her dazzling vocal talents included a 2.5-octave range and an innate sense of rhythm. She could play two shows a day and pack nightclubs all over the world. She was the most popular singer in jazz history.
She died in 1973
In addition to her musical career, Fitzgerald was a committed advocate for child welfare. She regularly made donations to organizations that helped disadvantaged youths and received numerous awards for her contributions. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts by Ronald Reagan and received honorary doctorates from Yale, Dartmouth, and other universities.
Despite her declining health, Ella continued to work hard. She toured the world, often performing two shows a day in different cities. In 1974 she spent two weeks performing with Count Basie and Frank Sinatra in New York City. She also sang on television variety shows.