A lot of singers think all they have to do is exercise their tonsils to get ahead. They refuse to look for new ideas and new outlets, so they fall by the wayside…I’m going to try to find out the new ideas before the others do. ~ Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917, and died on June 15, 1996. She was an American jazz and song vocalist nicknamed the “First Lady of Song” and known for her incredibly large vocal range, improvisational ability, and scat singing. Perhaps one of the most famous American singers, over her 60 year career Fitzgerald received fourteen Grammy Awards, the National Medal of Art from Ronald Regan, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George H. W. Bush, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Medal of Honor, and the George and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement.
Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in 1917 in Newport News, Virginia. Her parents, William and Temperance “Tempie,” separated shortly after Ella was born. Ella and her mother moved to Younkers, New York, to live with Tempie’s boyfriend, Joseph Da Silva, and in 1923 Tempie gave birth to Frances Da Silva. In Younkers, Joseph worked as a ditch-digger and chauffeur, and Tempie worked as a caterer and at a Laundromat.
In 1932, Tempie died from a heart attack, and Ella, after being abused by Joeseph, lived with her aunt. After a short time, she moved to the Colored Orphan Asylum in the Bronx, and then to at a reform school in Hudson, New York. At the age of 15, she escaped the reform school and became homeless.
Ella’s big break arrived on November 21, 1934, when she made her singing debut at the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night in Harlem. That night she won $25 for her performance of Connee Boswell’s “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection.” From that night on, Ella began winning nearly every talent show she entered. In 1935, drummer and bandleader Chick Webb hired her to sing with his band and the ensemble regularly performed at Harlem’s famous Savoy Ballroom. When Webb died in 1939, Ella took over as bandleader and the band was renamed “Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra.”
Fitzgerald left the band in 1942 and began pursuing a solo career. As a soloist emerging at the end of the big band era, she became best known for her distinctive scat singing. During the 1940s and 50s, Fitzgerald collaborated with Norman Granz, appearing in many of his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. In the 1950s, she began recording songbooks, including the Cole Porter and the Duke Ellington Songbooks. With the help of Marilyn Monroe, she also became the first African American to perform at the Mocambo.
Ella continued to sing into the 1980s and also appeared on television shows and in commercials. After recording over two hundred albums and receiving numerous awards and honors, Fitzgerald died on June 15, 1996, in Beverly Hills.