Ella Fitzgerald

Stuart Nicholson
01 August 2019

The best known and most popular jazz artist of all time, often referred to as The First Lady of Song

Photo: Herman Leonard
Photo: Herman Leonard

Fitzgerald, Ella Jane (b. 25th April 1917, Newport News City, Virginia, d. 15th June 1996, Beverly Hills, Calif). The best known and most popular jazz artist of all time, often referred to as The First Lady of Song, was born out of wedlock to William Fitzgerald and Tempie Williams and spent the first three years of her life in Newport News City at 2050 Madison Avenue; Tempie and new man Joeseph Da Silva then moved to Yonkers in Westchester County, New York; began education in September 1923 at Public School 10; September 1926 Public School 18, where she started to dance; mother died in early 1932, moved in with aunt in Harlem on 21 April 1932; dropped out of school and was running numbers; sent to Public School 49 for correction, ran away in fall of 1934 and lived on Harlem streets, earning money in talent shows.

Won Wednesday Amateur Night at the Apollo, 21st November 1934, entered as dancer, got nervous and ended up singing; came to the attention of bandleader Chick Webb who was looking for vocalist; had audition at Savoy Ballroom, two weeks with no pay; made impression with dancers and with the band for her ability to learn new material quickly and with no fuss; Webb quickly realised he had an asset, she became the focus of the band.


May 1938 Webb recorded Ella’s theme “A Tisket, A Tasket’ arranged for big band by Van Alexander, went to Number 1 on record charts and stayed there for 19 weeks; Webb band riding high in popularity stakes but Webb died of complications to his spine (he was a hunchback) on 16 June 1939; Ella became nominal leader of band for two years; signed with Decca as artist in own right; 1942-3 worked with instrumental/vocal group Three Keys; 1943 pianist Bill Doggett M.D. when she opens at Zanzibar Club, New York; 1944 Ella’s version of “Cow Cow Boogie” went to 10 on the charts; 1944 Ella records “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall” with Ink Spots and sells a million copies; follow up with Ink Spots “I’m Beginning to See the Light” goes to No. 5; 1944-45 toured as package with Ink Spots, mainly military camps;

1945 Ella records “Flying Home” and extends the boundaries of jazz singing, widely admired by musicians and public alike; 1945 she records “Stone Cold Dead in the Marketplace” with Louis Jordan goes straight to No. 1 spot; 1946 records with Louis Armstrong; tours with Cootie Williams Orchestra now widely accepted as the best singer in the music business after huge ovation from the notoriously difficult to please Apollo audience in Harlem following her scat version of “Lady be Good”; 1946 Ella tours with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, her initiation into bebop, becomes the only Swing Era musician to master the idiom.


Ella starts dating Gillespie’s bassist Ray Brown; Ella-Gillespie Big Band proves hit with public and tours frequently in 1947 culminating in big Carnegie Hall concert together 29th September 1947; 10th December 1947 Ella marries Ray Brown; September 1948 Ella plays London Palladium; 11th February 1949 Ella begins her association with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic with Carnegie Hall concert that opened his 1949 U.S.coast to coast tour with Ella topping the bill; from now on Granz would ensure Ella was the first name he’d sign for his JATP tours; Granz convinced that Moe Gale, Ella’s longstanding manager, was not properly looking after her financial interests; Ella continued to tour annually with JATP and record with Decca, including two excellent albums of duets with Ellis Larkins Ella Sings Gershwin (1950), Ella—Songs in a Mellow Mood (1954); December 1953 Ella’s contract with Moe Gale expired and she appoints Norman Granz as her personal manager (by now Granz was providing her with most of her work).

Despite having sold 22 million records for Decca by 1954, Granz resolves to move Ella to his own record company, arguing she was being given too many trite pop tunes to cover; in 1954 Ella – a black artist – is booked into the Mocambo, Hollywood’s most exclusive night spot, with the help of Marilyn Monroe, who ensured a liberal amount of celebrities were present on opening night, including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and several top movie stars, played night after night to full houses and her stay was extended, a significant stride in apartheid America in confronting white audiences with black excellence; 1955, Granz moves Ella to the Verve record label, formed especially to feature her; 1956 releases Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook, part jazz lieder, part art song, which became one of the most popular recordings of 1957; the Song Book cycle of eight albums recorded between 1956 and 1964 — including such classics as Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and Hart Songbook and Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook — established Ella as an international star who could sell-out the world’s largest concert halls at the mere mention of her name.


Tours across Europe frequently in 1950s and 1960s often playing two cities in one night; 1960 two of Ella’s finest albums released: Ella in Berlin and Let No Man Write My Epitaph; “Mack the Knife” from Ella in Berlin released as single and goes onto the pop chart for 14 weeks; single wins Grammy as “Best Vocal Performance — Female (single or track)” and album wins Grammy; 1963 Norman Granz sells Verve to MGM, who decide not to renew Ella’s contact; at the peak of her powers she flits between Atlantic, Capitol and Reprise but results overtly commercial; 1972 Granz forms a new independent record label he calls Pablo; first release Jazz at Santa Monica Civic '72 surprise success; Ella goes on to record 20 albums for Pablo, which inevitably chart the natural decline of her voice as she got older, although Ella in London from 1974 a classic.

Increasingly troubled by health problems exacerbated by diabetes, Ella made her last recording in 1991 and her last public performances were given in 1993 from a wheelchair; she died peacefully in her sleep in her Beverly Hills home on 15 June 1996.

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