Born April 25, 1918, in Newport News, Va.; orphaned young, and raised by aunt, Virginia Williams; married Bernie Kornegay (a shipyard worker), 1941 (divorced, 1943); married Ray Brown (a jazz musician), 1949 (divorced, 1953); children: (second marriage) Ray, Jr. Addresses: Agent --Norman Granz, Salle Productions, 451 North Canon Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90210.

"All night long, Ella was taking risks right and left with her scats. In 'God Bless the Child,' she pulled out high operatic hoots, angry belts, even trumpet-like whines woo-wooed with a wa-wa mute. In 'Honeysuckle Rose,' she segued from high little yelps to crazy syllables that tumbled over each other like kids just released from detention." That review by Pamela Bloom might have been written at any time during the 55 years in which Ella Fitzgerald has been delighting critics and audiences. But it was written about her February 11, 1989, sold-out concert at Radio City Music Hall. Ella Fitzgerald, "the first lady of song," is still performing and still taking risks.

Born in Newport News, Virginia, Fitzgerald was raised in Yonkers, New York. Although early publicity biographies refered to her as living and being educated in an orphanage, she has credited an aunt, Virginia Williams, with her upbringing. Fitzgerald's entry into show business came in 1934 when she was discovered in an amateur contest at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater singing "Judy, Object of My Affection." Her voice, which she modelled after Connee Boswell records, caught the attention of conductor Chick Webb who trained it slowly before engaging her to sing with his band. From 1935 until Webb's death in 1939, she performed with him at Levaggi's, the Cotton Club, and other famous night clubs and cabarets. Decca's recording of Webb's band with Fitzgerald singing "Love and Kisses" in 1935 is considered her first single. She did over 230 recordings for Decca in those early years, some of which have been re-issued in an anthology format by MCA as The Best of Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Swings the Band, and Princess of the Savoy. Their recording of "A-tisket, A-tasket," (1938) became her first of many hit singles. That song also brought Fitzgerald membership into ASCAP in 1940. Fitzgerald led Webb's band until World War II decimated its ranks.

After the War ended, she began a long association with promoter/manager Norman Granz, with whose Jazz at the Philhamonic concerts she performed from 1946 to 1954. Her scatted performances of the pop standards "How High the Moon" and "Oh, Lady Be Good" in 1947 brought her to a wider audience that recognized her as a unique artist, not simply a band singer. She recorded almost exclusively for Granz's label, Verve, after 1955. Her most famous albums for Verve have been the continuing series of "Songbooks" dedicated to the works of America's great composers and lyricists, among them, Cole Porter (1956), Rodgers and Hart (1956), Duke Ellington (1956), George and Ira Gershwin (1958-1959), Irving Berlin (1958), and Harold Arlen (1960). Each contains a mix of well-known and obscure songs. Ira Gershwin is often quoted as saying "I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them." The "Songbooks" are also noted for their superb arrangements by Paul Weston and Nelson Riddle. All of them are being re-issued on CD.

Fitzgerald has recorded almost 150 albums in total. Some were recorded live at jazz festivals in the United States or Europe, among them, the popular Montreux '77 (on Pablo) with the Tommy Flanagan Trio. Recordings were built around styles like Verve's Songs in a Mellow Mood or Sweet and Hot. Other albums feature her with specific jazz artists or ensembles, such as Verve's Ella and Louis and Ella and Basie. Fitzgerald recordings seem to have life spans unlike any other artist's--a re-issue of her 1958 Live in Rome was the top-selling jazz album of 1988. Estimates of her total sales range upwards from 25,000,000.

Fitzgerald's career progressed steadily with frequent tours of Europe and the Orient, where she is revered, annual concerts in New York, appearances at the Newport (now Kool and JVC in New York) Jazz Festivals and a constant schedule of recordings. Although almost universally considered the finest solo song stylist in jazz, she has been able to adapt her performances to a surprising variety of bands and combos with different instrumentations and approaches to music. Among the many greats of jazz with whose ensembles she has played are Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Errol Garner, Earl Hines, and Oscar Peterson. She seldom plays club dates, although in the 1950s, she was often booked into large hotel lounges with the Count Basie Orchestra. A contemporary review described that atmosphere in the usually classy Starlight Roof of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel during one of their engagements: "The joint was jumpin' last night. Pardon me, I meant to write the performers were received graciously last evening and with considerable enthusiams.... But when Ella Fitzgerald sings and Count Basie plays his hot piano, the joint jumps. 'Cause when Ella throbs those blues and the Count picks his way among those 88 keys, something's gotta give.... Jazz is jazz and the beat is the beat. Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie have got both."

Fitzgerald appeared in the 1958 film "Pete Kelly's Blues" and sang "Hard Hearted Hannah" and its title song. She was one of the first black jazz performers to be engaged for a television appearance in the 1950s and has since appeared over 200 times on American and European television.

Difficulties with a detached retina slowed her down briefly in the 1970s, and she now performs with thick glasses that allow her to make contact with the audience. Fitzgerald had open-heart surgery in 1986 but returned to concertizing soon after with a combo that generally includes Paul Smith on piano, Keter Betts on bass, and drummer Jeff Hamilton.

Her approach to the vocal repertory is simple--she maintains classics and continually adds the best songs of each new style of pop. Fitzgerald has always been celebrated for her willingness to experiment with new genres and frequently introduces them to her jazz audiences. Her "Stone Cold Dead in the Market," (with bandleader Louis Jourdan) was mainstream jazz's first Calypso hit. She was among the first to integrate both Bossa Nova and the Beatles into her repertory in the early 1960s. A review of a 1966 engagement with Earl (Fatha) Hines described her performances of jazz standards "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Lover Man," and "Don't Be That Way" and stated that she "changes pace again with the all-out swinging 'Boots are Made for Walking,' a soup-up hit that calls for an encore." As in her "Songbook" recordings, she presents the standards of American love songs, from Arlen to Rodgers but now also adds the music of Kurt Weill and Stevie Wonder, whose "Sunshine of My Life" has become almost her new signature tune. She also celebrates the greats of jazz in her concerts by re-interpreting their signature tunes--in her February 1989 concert, as Bloom wrote, she presented the Billie Holliday classic "God Bless the Child" and Fats Waller/Andy Razaf's "Honeysuckle Rose."

Fitzgerald has won nearly every award imaginable for her live and recorded performances, from 12 Grammys to the Kennedy Center Award to an honorary doctorate in music from Yale University. Her status as a jazz artist and as a singer led to some convoluted Grammy catagorizations. During a four-year stretch from 1958 to 1962, she won Best Vocal Performance (female) for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook (1958), But Not For Me (1959), "Mack the Knife" (1960), Mack the Knife--Ella in Berlin (1960), and Ella Swings Brightly with Nelson Riddle (1962); and she won Best Jazz Performance awards for Ella Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book (1958) and Ella Sings Lightly (1959). Fitzgerald was also given the NARAS Trustees Award (The Bing Crosby Award) for lifetime achievement in all possible categories in 1967. She holds many records that may never be bested, among them, her 18 consecutive years as best female jazz singer in the down beat magazine poll.

Duke Ellington once described Ella Fitzgerald's voice in Life magazine: "She captures you somewhere through the facets of your intangibles." Other jazz and pop greats have tried to explain its qualities and her appeal on stage as well. In a February 1989 article in the New York Post, Lee Jeske interviewed Tonny Bennett, Mel Torme, and Pegy Lee about Fitzgerald. "She's the best singer I ever heard," said Bennett. "Absolutely." Torme agreed: "When I was looking for somebody to hang my vocal hat on, she was my number one influence.... Ella was the absolute epitome of everything that I've ever believed in or loved as far as popular singing was concerned." And Lee said, "She has a magnificent instrument and she uses it to the best advantage." Jeske concluded that three reactions are most often cited by Fitzgerald's colleagues--"Their awe of her talent, their awe of her as a person (the words 'genuine lady' come up again and again), and their respect for her unabashed love of singing."

by Barbara Stratyner

Ella Fitzgerald's Career

Singer with Chick Webb Orchestra, 1934-39; has toured throughout the world and recorded with a number of well-known bandleaders, including Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Earl Hines, and Nelson Riddle; has made numerous television appearances; performed in film "Pete Kelly's Blues," 1955.

Ella Fitzgerald's Awards

Twelve Grammy Awards for recordings; Trustee's Award from National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, 1967; has won many awards from various magazine readers polls and critics polls; American Music Award, 1978; honorary doctorate from Yale University, 1986; National Medal of the Arts, 1987.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…