Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, VA. Her father, William, and mother, Temperance (Tempie), parted ways shortly after her birth. Together, Tempie and Ella went to Yonkers, N.Y, where they eventually moved in with Tempie's longtime boyfriend Joseph Da Silva. Ella's half-sister, Frances, was born in 1923 and soon she began referring to Joe as her stepfather.
To support the family, Joe dug ditches and was a part-time chauffeur, while Tempie worked at a laundromat and did some catering. Occasionally, Ella took on small jobs to contribute money as well. Perhaps naïve to the circumstances, Ella worked as a runner for local gamblers, picking up their bets and dropping off money.
Their apartment was in a mixed neighborhood, where Ella made friends easily. She considered herself more of a tomboy, and often joined in the neighborhood games of baseball. Sports aside, she enjoyed dancing and singing with her friends, and some evenings they would take the train into Harlem and watch various acts at the Apollo Theater.
In her youth, Ella wanted to be a dancer, although she loved listening to jazz recordings by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and The Boswell Sisters. She idolized the lead singer Connee Boswell, also her mother’s favorite singer.
In 1932, Tempie died from serious that injuries she received in a car accident. Ella took the loss very hard. After staying with Joe for a short time, Tempie's sister Virginia took Ella home. Shortly afterward Joe suffered a heart attack and died, and her little sister Frances joined them.
Unable to adjust to the new circumstances, Ella became increasingly unhappy and entered into a difficult period of her life. Her grades dropped dramatically, and she frequently skipped school. After getting into trouble with the police, she was taken into custody and sent to a reform school. Living there was even more unbearable, as she suffered beatings at the hands of her caretakers.
Eventually Ella escaped from the reformatory. The 15-year-old found herself broke and alone during the Great Depression, and strove to endure. Never one to complain, Ella later reflected on her most difficult years with an appreciation for how they helped her to mature. She used the memories from these times to help gather emotions for performances, and felt she was more grateful for her success because she knew what it was like to struggle in life.
In 1934, Ella's name was pulled in a weekly drawing at the Apollo and she won the opportunity to compete in Amateur Night. Ella went to the theater that night planning to dance, but when the frenzied Edwards Sisters closed the main show, Ella changed her mind. "They were the dancingest sisters around," Ella said, and she felt her act would not compare.
Once on stage, faced with boos and murmurs of "What's she going to do?" from the rowdy crowd, a scared and disheveled Ella made the last minute decision to sing. She asked the band to play Hoagy Carmichael's "Judy," a song she knew well because Connee Boswell's rendition of it was among Tempie's favorites. Ella quickly quieted the audience, and by the song's end they were demanding an encore. She obliged and sang the flip side of the Boswell Sister's record, "The Object of My Affections."
Offstage, and away from people she knew well, Ella was shy and reserved. She was self-conscious about her appearance, and for a while even doubted the extent of her abilities. On stage, however, Ella was surprised to find she had no fear. She felt at home in the spotlight.
"Once up there, I felt the acceptance and love from my audience," Ella said. "I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life."
Saxophonist and arranger, Benny Carter, was in the band that night. Impressed with her natural talent, he began introducing Ella to people who could help launch her career. In the process, he and Ella became lifelong friends, often working together.
Fueled by enthusiastic supporters, Ella began entering - and winning - every talent show she could find. In January 1935, she won the chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House. It was there that Ella first met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb. Although her voice impressed him, Chick had already hired male singer Charlie Linton for the band. He offered Ella the opportunity to test with his band when they played a dance at Yale University. Despite the tough crowd, Ella was a major success, and Chick hired her to travel with the band for $12.50 a week.
In mid-1936, Ella made her first recording. "Love and Kisses" was released under the Decca label, with moderate success. By this time, she was performing with Chick's band at the prestigious Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, often referred to as "The World's Most Famous Ballroom."
Shortly afterward, Ella began singing a rendition of the song, "(If You Can't Sing It) You Have to Swing It." During this time, the era of big swing bands was shifting, and the focus was turning more toward bebop. Ella played with the new style, often using her voice to take on the role of another horn in the band. "You Have to Swing It" was one of the first times she began experimenting with scat singing, and her improvisation and vocalization thrilled fans. Throughout her career, Ella would master scat singing, turning it into a form of art.
In 1938, at the age of 21, Ella recorded a playful version of the nursery rhyme, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." The album sold 1 million copies, hit number one, and stayed on the pop charts for 17 weeks. Suddenly, Ella Fitzgerald was famous.
On June 16, 1939, Ella mourned the loss of her mentor Chick Webb. In his absence, the band was renamed "Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band," and she took on the overwhelming task of bandleader.
Perhaps in search of stability and protection, Ella married Benny Kornegay, a local dockworker who had been pursuing her. Upon learning that Kornegay had a criminal history, Ella realized that the relationship was a mistake and had the marriage annulled.
She sang briefly in the 1942 Abbott and Costello film, “Ride ‘Em Cowboy,” which she thought was the biggest thing ever to have happened to her at the time.
In 1942, Fitzgerald left the band to begin a solo career. Now signed to the Decca label, she had several popular hits while recording with such artists as the Ink Spots, Louis Jordan, and the Delta Rhythm Boys.
With the demise of the Swing era and the decline of the great touring big bands, a major change in jazz music occurred. The advent of bebop led to new developments in Fitzgerald's vocal style, influenced by her work with Dizzy Gillespie's big band. It was in this period that Fitzgerald started including scat singing as a major part of her performance repertoire. While singing with Gillespie, Fitzgerald recalled, "I just tried to do [with my voice] what I heard the horns in the band doing."
Her 1945 scat recording of “Flying Home” she would later be described by The New York Times as "one of the most influential vocal jazz records of the decade....Where other singers, most notably Louis Armstrong, had tried similar improvisation, no one before Miss Fitzgerald employed the technique with such dazzling inventiveness." Her bebop recording of "Oh, Lady be Good!" (1947) was similarly popular and increased her reputation as one of the leading jazz vocalists.
Perhaps responding to criticism and under pressure from Granz, who felt that Fitzgerald was given unsuitable material to record during this period, her last years on the Decca label saw Fitzgerald recording a series of duets with pianist Ellis Larkins, released in 1950 as “Ella Sings Gershwin.”
While on tour with Dizzy Gillespie's band in 1946, Ella fell in love with bassist Ray Brown. The two were married and eventually adopted a son, whom they named Ray, Jr.
At the time, Ray was working for producer and manager Norman Granz on the "Jazz at the Philharmonic" tour. Norman saw that Ella had what it took to be an international star, and he convinced Ella to sign with him. It was the beginning of a lifelong business relationship and friendship.
In her most notable screen role, Fitzgerald played the part of singer Maggie Jackson the 1955 jazz film, “Pete Kelly’s Blues,” co-starring Janet Leigh and singer Peggy Lee.
She made sporadic movie cameos, in St. Louis Blues (1958), and Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960). Much later, she appeared in the 1980s television drama The White Shadow.
Under Norman's management, Ella joined the Philharmonic tour, worked with Louis Armstrong on several albums and began producing her infamous songbook series. From 1956-1964, she recorded covers of other musicians' albums, including those by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart. The series was wildly popular, both with Ella's fans and the artists she covered.
"I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them," Ira Gershwin once remarked.
Ella also began appearing on television variety shows. She quickly became a favorite and frequent guest on numerous programs, including "The Bing Crosby Show," "The Dinah Shore Show," "The Frank Sinatra Show," "The Ed Sullivan Show," "The Tonight Show," "The Nat King Cole Show," "The Andy Willams Show" and "The Dean Martin Show."
Due to a busy touring schedule, Ella and Ray were often away from home, straining the bond with their son. Ultimately, Ray Jr. and Ella reconnected and mended their relationship.
"All I can say is that she gave to me as much as she could," Ray, Jr. later said, "and she loved me as much as she could."
Unfortunately, busy work schedules also hurt Ray and Ella's marriage. The two divorced in 1952, but remained good friends for the rest of their lives.
On the touring circuit, it was well-known that Ella's manager felt very strongly about civil rights and required equal treatment for his musicians, regardless of their color. Norman refused to accept any type of discrimination at hotels, restaurants or concert halls, even when they traveled to the Deep South.
Once, while in Dallas touring for the Philharmonic, a police squad irritated by Norman's principles barged backstage to hassle the performers. They came into Ella's dressing room, where band members Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jacquet were shooting dice, and arrested everyone.
"They took us down [to the station]," Ella later recalled, "and then when we got there, they had the nerve to ask for an autograph."
Norman wasn't the only one willing to stand up for Ella. She received support from numerous celebrity fans, including a zealous Marilyn Monroe.
"I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt," Ella later said. "It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the '50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him - and it was true, due to Marilyn's superstar status - that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman - a little ahead of her times. And she didn't know it." The incident was turned into a play by Bonnie Greer in 2005.
Ella continued to work as hard as she had early on in her career, despite the ill effects on her health. She toured all over the world, sometimes performing two shows a day in cities hundreds of miles apart. In 1974, Ella spent a legendary two weeks performing in New York with Frank Sinatra and Count Basie. Still going strong five years later, she was inducted into the Down Beat magazine Hall of Fame, and received Kennedy Center Honors for her continuing contributions to the arts.
Outside of the arts, Ella had a deep concern for child welfare. Though this aspect of her life was rarely publicized, she frequently made generous donations to organizations for disadvantaged youths, and the continuation of these contributions was part of the driving force that prevented her from slowing down. Additionally, when Frances died, Ella felt she had the additional responsibilities of taking care of her sister's family.
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan awarded Ella the National Medal of Arts. It was one of her most prized moments. France followed suit several years later, presenting her with their Commander of Arts and Letters award, while Yale, Dartmouth and several other universities bestowed Ella with honorary doctorates.
In September of 1986, Ella underwent quintuple coronary bypass surgery. Doctors also replaced a valve in her heart and diagnosed her with diabetes, which they blamed for her failing eyesight. The press carried rumors that she would never be able to sing again, but Ella proved them wrong. Despite protests by family and friends, including Norman, Ella returned to the stage and pushed on with an exhaustive schedule.
By the 1990s, Ella had recorded over 200 albums. In 1991, she gave her final concert at New York's renowned Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she performed there.
In 1993, she established the Charitable Foundation that bears her name: The Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, which continues to help the disadvantaged through grants and donation of new books to at-risk children.
As the effects from her Diabetes worsened, 76-year-old Ella experienced severe circulatory problems and was forced to have both of her legs amputated below the knees. She never fully recovered from the surgery, and afterward, was rarely able to perform. During this time, Ella enjoyed sitting outside in her backyard, and spending time with Ray, Jr. and her granddaughter Alice. "I just want to smell the air, listen to the birds and hear Alice laugh," she said.
On June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald died in her Beverly Hills home. Hours later, signs of remembrance began to appear all over the world. After a private memorial service, traffic on the freeway was stopped to let her funeral procession pass through. She was laid to rest in the "Sanctuary of the Bells" section of the Sunset Mission Mausoleum at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, Calif.
With an extraordinary vocal range spanning three octaves (Db3 to Db6), she was noted for her purity and unity of tone, impeccable diction, phrasing and intonation, and a "horn-like" improvisational ability, particularly in her scat singing. Coupled with this textbook-perfect technique, Ella had an improvisational talent on par with that of the best jazz instrumentalists. Her spontaneous, often pyrotechnic scat vocalizations, in fact, were a trademark of her style.
She is considered to be a notable interpreter of the Great American Songbook. Over a recording career that lasted 59 years, she was the winner of 13 Grammy Awards and was awarded the National Medal of Art by Ronald Reagan and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George H. W. Bush.
The career history and archival material from Ella's long career are housed in the Archives Center at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History while her personal music arrangements are at The Library of Congress. Her extensive cookbook collection was donated to the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University while her published sheet music collection is at the Schoenberg Library at UCLA.
A few days after Fitzgerald's death, New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote that in the Songbook series Fitzgerald "performed a cultural transaction as extraordinary as Elvis's contemporaneous integration of white and African-American soul. Here was a black woman popularizing urban songs often written by immigrant Jews to a national audience of predominantly white Christians." Frank Sinatra was moved out of respect for Fitzgerald to block Capitol Records from re-releasing his own recordings in a similar, single composer vein.
Some of Ella’s Television Appearances
She also made numerous guest appearances on television shows, singing on The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom, The Frank Sinatra Show, and alongside Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Mel Tormé and many others. Perhaps her most unusual and intriguing performance was of the 'Three Little Maids' song from Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operetta The Mikado alongside Joan Sutherland and Dinah Shore on Shore's weekly variety series in 1963. Fitzgerald also made a one-off appearance alongside Sarah Vaughan and Pearl Bailey on a 1979 television special honoring Bailey. In 1980, she performed a medley of standards in a duet with Karen Carpenter on the Carpenters' television program, Music, Music, Music.
Fitzgerald also appeared in TV commercials, her most memorable being an ad for Memorex. In the commercials, she sang a note that shattered a glass while being recorded on a Memorex cassette tape. The tape was played back and the recording also broke the glass, asking "Is it live, or is it Memorex?" She also starred in a number of commercials for Kentucky Fried Chicken, singing and scatting to the fast-food chain's longtime slogan, "We do chicken right!"
Her final commercial campaign was for American Express, in which she was photographed by Annie Leibovitz.
Possibly Fitzgerald's greatest unrealized collaboration (in terms of popular music) was a studio or live album with Frank Sinatra. The two appeared on the same stage only periodically over the years, in television specials in 1958 and 1959, and again on 1967's “A Man and His Music + Ella + Jobim,” a show that also featured Antonio Carlos Jobim. Pianist Paul Smith has said, "Ella loved working with [Frank]. Sinatra gave her his dressing room on and couldn’t do enough for her." When asked, Norman Granz would cite "complex contractual reasons" for the fact that the two artists never recorded together.Fitzgerald's appearance with Sinatra and Count Basie in June 1974 for a series of concerts at Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas was seen as an important incentive for Sinatra to return from his self-imposed retirement of the early 1970s. The shows were a great success, and September 1975 saw them gross $1,000,000 in two weeks on Broadway, in a triumvirate with the Count Basie Orchestra
Other Awards and Recognitions
Fitzgerald won thirteen Grammy awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement in 1967. Other major awards and honors she received during her career were the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Medal of Honor Award, National Medal of Art, first Society of Singers Lifetime Achievement Award, named "Ella" in her honor, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the George and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement, UCLA Spring Sing.
Ella Fitzgerald was a quiet but ardent supporter of many charities and non-profit organizations, including 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 Ella's ideals.
In 1997, Newport News, Virginia created a music festival with Christopher Newport University to honor Ella Fitzgerald in her birth city. The week long Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival, with its notable performers, is designed to teach the region's youth of the musical legacy of Fitzgerald and jazz.
Numerous artists worldwide have recorded albums in tribute to Ella.
In 2008, the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center in Newport News named its brand new 276-seat theater the Ella Fitzgerald Theater. The theater is located several blocks away from her birthplace on Marshall Avenue. The Grand Opening performers (October 11 & 12, 2008) were Roberta Flack and Queen Esther Marrow.
There is a statue of Fitzgerald in Yonkers, the city in which she grew up. It is located southeast of the main entrance to the Amtrak/Metro-North Railroad station.
On January 10, 2007, the United States Postal Service announced that Fitzgerald would be honored with her own 39-cent postage stamp. The stamp was released in April 2007 as part of the Postal Service's Black Heritage series.
As amazing as Ella's musical talents were, equally amazing was the fact that she managed not to fall through the cracks of the segregated child welfare system of the 1930's. A victim of poverty and abuse, Ella was able to transcend circumstance and develop into one of the greatest singers that America produced. Ella died on June 15th of complications associated with diabetes. She was 79 years old. Despite suffering poor health, Ella remained an active performer until 1992.
Compiled from http://www.ellafitzgerald.com/about/biography.html, http://schools.nashua.edu/myclass/stoneh/Jazz%20Musicians/Forms/AllItems.aspx and Wikipedia.