Wednesday, August 5, 2020
Ella Fitzgerald
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Published November 26, 2009

 Ella, the Great

The First Lady of Song

Ella in Concert

Vintage Ella


By Yussuf J. Simmonds



Ella Fitzgerald

“The first lady of jazz and song, who played with the best in the business”

Born Ella Jane Fitzgerald in April 1917, in Newport News, Virginia, she was professionally known as a jazz vocalist and affectionately called the “First Lady of Song.”  Though she died in 1996, her current website stated, “Well, I hope you have all purchased your 2010 calendars ‘cause I’ve got some dates that you are not going to want to miss. And I hope you have lots of airline miles, too – we’re gonna be traveling!”  Her music makes her legacy live and commanding.

Shortly after her birth, her parents separated and with her mother, she moved to Yonkers, New York.  Even though Fitzgerald was placed in an orphanage at an early age, her innate talent began to bloom listening to jazz greats like Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong – with whom she collaborated later on – and others, but she really wanted to be a dancer.  Eventually she returned to her mother who nurtured her career by bringing home recordings of various jazz artists for young Ella to listen to.            

Fitzgerald’s mother died of a heart attack in 1932 and her life ended up in shambles.  Her grades dropped and she began to display delinquent behavior which led to trouble with the police and her being sent to a reformatory – from where she escaped.  After that her life’s downhill plunge accelerated even further and faster, and she ended up homeless.         

At 17, Fitzgerald made her singing debut in Harlem, and immediately became a weekly attraction, and began to draw crowds.  She was one of the early competitors of the famous “Amateur Nights” at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, the place where many super stars got their beginnings. With dancing as her first love, Fitzgerald entered a dance contest deciding to go on stage at the Apollo’s amateur night and ‘dance the night away.’  However, at the last minute, she developed cold feet because she believed that some of the other contestants may outdo her on the dance floor.  So she decided to do what she had been doing before: sing.  She sang a song from one of the recordings her mother had bought her and won the first prize, $25.00. Her career got a boost and she was on her way.             

As a diamond in rough, she had the talent, but she needed grooming and managing.  In 1935, Fitzgerald met a bandleader, Chick Webb and she began singing with his orchestra regularly at the Savoy Ballroom, one of the more elegant night spots in Harlem.  She even accompanied the band when they performed at a student dance at Yale University.  In the late 30s, Fitzgerald began recording songs with the band.  Her hits included “Love and Kisses,” “If You Can’t Sing It, You’ll Have to Swing It” (aka “Mr. Paganini”) and her show-stopper, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”

“Mr. Paganini” became her signature song after it was first recorded and it showcased her ‘horn-like’ ability that led to her scat singing: improvised melodies and rhythms which allow a singer to improvise and create the equivalence of an instrumental solo using their voice. Fitzgerald was considered one of the greatest scat singers in history and as a jazz vocalist; she had a vocal range spanning three octaves.

(In a 2007 tribute album, We All Love Ella: Celebrating the First Lady of Song, recorded to mark Fitzgerald’s 90th birthday, Chaka Khan and Natalie Cole sang Mr. Paganini.  Then June that year, Cole and Patti Austin performed it at the tribute concert to Fitzgerald.  And the year of her 90th birthday ended when two other artists, Ian Shaw and Claire Martin performed Mr. Paganini at a London concert in December in her honor.)

When Webb died in 1939, Fitzgerald took over the band and renamed it “Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra.  While at the helm, she recorded numerous songs and music, and refined her own style, vocal novelties and then contemporary pop.  As an alternative/competitor to rock ‘n’ roll and rock music, pop music focused on commercial recording directed towards the youth market with love songs.  It has incorporated portions of other forms of music in conjunction with modern technology, creative innovations of musical instruments.

Three years later, she left the band, embarked on a solo career and signed on with Decca Records label and a fulltime manager.  Her career was moving upwards. Fitzgerald teamed up with hit-makers of the day including the Ink Spots, Delta Rhythm Boys and Louis Jordan.  She also made regular appearances at producer Norman Granz’s jazz concerts, a staple of the jazz community at that time.  He also became her manager but was unable to sign her on his label immediately; due to contractual obligations and restraints, he had to wait about ten years eventually creating the Verve Records label primarily to accommodate Fitzgerald’s talent.

Her reputation as a jazz vocalist increased with recordings like Oh, Lady Be Good and Flying Home, an infusion of scat and be-bop which others had tried before but Fitzgerald commanded that genre exclusively making her one of the most influential vocal jazz artists of the decade.  Her styling change and innovation were products of the times that had been necessitated by the decline of the big bands and swing eras.  One of the influences of her change in style was the advent of be-bop and the Dizzy Gillespie’s big band with whom she often worked.  While singing with Gillespie, she recalled, “I just tried to do with my voice what I heard the horns in the band doing.”

As with most artists, Fitzgerald had her critics; she understood that came with the territory, notwithstanding the racial climate of the era.  However, her move to Verve Records label endowed her with new and different parameters as she gravitated to the mainstream of the jazz experience.  During her final years with the Decca label in 1950, she recorded a series of hits on an album titled Ella Sings Gershwin.  

When Fitzgerald performed at the Mocambo – a nightclub in West Hollywood, California that was a “watering hole” for the Hollywood elite whose frequent guests included Clark Gable and Carole Lombard; Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall; Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh; Errol Flynn, Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Sophia Loren, Tyrone Power, Jayne Mansfield and Louis B. Mayer – she became the first African-American to perform there after Marilyn Monroe had lobbied the owner on her behalf. After her first performance, Fitzgerald’s career skyrocketed. (In 2005, playwright Bonnie Greer converted it into a play).

Fitzgerald married Benny Kornegay in 1941; it was annulled after two years.  Then in 1947, she married Ray Brown, a famous bass player.  They adopted a child, Francis, who was christened Ray Brown, Jr.  Because of their touring and recording schedules, Francis was mostly raised by her aunt, Virginia.  Career pressures that resulted from the aforementioned hectic schedules also precipitated their divorce though they continued to perform together.

Her move to the Verve Records label also had a positive effect on her career; she made live recordings and went on many tours.  She did Ella at the Opera House, a Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) concert; Ella in Rome that displayed her vocal jazz canon (scat singing mixed with instrumental imitations); and Ella in Berlin that became one of her biggest selling albums and included an improvised version of Mack the Knife.

Another turning point in Fitzgerald’s career came with the release of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook in 1956; it was the first in a series of songbook sets that were called the Great American Songbook and continued throughout an eight-year period.  One of them, known as Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook, was the only one in which Fitzgerald played with the composer, Duke Ellington.  And the E and D Blues, a musical portrait, was the only one in which she did not sing.  The series was her most commercially successful endeavor and according to music critics, a significant contribution to American culture. 

At the end of her eight-year run – the Songbooks period – she decided to cross over into a non-jazz genre even though the pop album series had established a conduit for serious instrumental musical exploration and had achieved successes in several categories.  The music Fitzgerald recorded during that period survived for generations and was critically written about up to her death in 1996.  And while she was recording them, she was also touring throughout the United States and worldwide, cementing her reputation as a leading live jazz artist.

When MGM bought Verve Records label in 1963, the company did not renew Fitzgerald’s contract.  For the next five years, she tried several labels: Atlantic, Capitol and Reprise.  For Capitol, she recorded Brighten the Corner, Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas, Misty Blue and 30 by Ella.      

 Her favorite albums were those devoted to Porter and the Gershwins (music by George) and (lyrics by Ira) from the days of her songbook series through 1972 and 1983.  The specific albums were Ella Loves Cole, Nice Work If You Can Get It. Once again Fitzgerald changed labels ending up at Pablo Records label.  There she recorded Ella Abraca Jobim – a throwback to the past with Ellington – whom she accompanied on vocals by Antonio C. Jobim and Ella in London, a live performance, and one of her best.  She also worked with Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and a young Quincy Jones.

Over her 59-year recording career, Fitzgerald won 13 Grammy awards, performed at the White House and was awarded the National Medal of Art by the late President Ronald Reagan, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President H.W. Bush.   In 1980, she was honored by the Brotherhood Crusade as one of the Pioneers of Sir Duke Black Achievement.  Fitzgerald is referred to in Stevie Wonder’s hit Sir Duke from his album, Songs in the Key of Life and in the 1987 song Ella, elle l’a by French singer France Gall.

She has played in several movies including Pete Kelly Blues, Let No Man Write My Epitaph, St. Louis Blues and television’s The White Shadow.  In addition, Fitzgerald sometimes made television guest appearances often with fellow African American entertainers including Sarah Vaughn, Nat King Cole and Pearl Bailey.  She also did commercials for Memorex cassette tape, Kentucky Fried Chicken and American Express.  Fitzgerald supported many charities and non-profit organization such as the American Heart Association and the United Negro College Fund. In 1993, she established the “Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation” which continues to fund programs that perpetuate her ideals.

She began to be plagued by health problems which greatly restricted performing and scheduling obligations and arrangements.  Fitzgerald made her last U.S. single with a cover of the Temptations’ Get Ready, her last recording was in 1991 and her last public performance in 1993. Her health worsened, brought on by the effects of diabetes and she died in Beverly Hills, California. Her awards and documents were donated to the Smithsonian Institution, the library of Boston University, the Library of Congress, and the Schoenberg Library at UCLA. (In 1989, UCLA had awarded Fitzgerald the George and Ira Gershwin Lifetime Musical Achievement Award).

The city of Yonkers, New York, where Fitzgerald grew up, installed a life-size statue of her in the main entrance of its railroad station and in 2007 and the U.S. Postal Service issued an 39-cent stamp in her honor as part of its Black Heritage series. In 1997, the city of Newport News, Virginia, has established the Ella Fitzgerald Theater and created the Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival.

Categories: Legends

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