The First Lady of Song

Ella Fitzgerald, "First Lady of Song" (LEO Design)

On this day in 1917, the world was graced with the incomparably-talented Ella Fitzgerald, America’s “First Lady of Song.”  A difficult childhood (and challenging final years) could not suppress Ella’s talents—or her legacy as one of the world’s greatest vocalists.

Ella was born in Newport News, Virginia but soon was moved to Yonkers, New York  after her unmarried parents separated.  She was raised in the Methodist church and was exposed to music and singing there.  She also loved listening to jazz records, especially Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and The Boswell Sisters.  In fact, Ella idolized Connee Boswell, saying “I tried so hard to sound just like her.”  But, truth be told, Ella thought of herself as a dancer first, not a singer.

When Ella was 15, her mother died of a heart attack, prompting the girl to run away from her abusive stepfather.  She was apprehended, and placed for a time in an orphanage.  When space in the orphanage ran-out, Ella was moved to a state reformatory.  Eventually, Ella escaped and lived homeless—occasionally working as a lookout at a local bordello.

It was at the Apollo, in Harlem, that Ella made her stage debut.  She had prepared a dance routine to perform for the “Amateur Night” competition—but got cold feet when she saw a competing sister dance act.  Instead, she sang one of her old favorites from her Boswell Sisters record.

Before long, she joined Chick Webb and his orchestra, though initially he was reluctant to hire her, gawky and unkempt as she was.  But he could not ignore the young singer with flawless diction and a three-octave range.  She sang and travelled with the band—and recorded dozens of songs with them, many of them hits.  One notable hit was “A-tisket, A-tasket” which she co-wrote. When Chick Webb died, Ella filled-in as bandleader for a while. But the days of swing music and grand, traveling “big bands” were numbered.  It was time for something new.

In 1942, she set-off on a solo career, and was drawn-to the emerging “Be-bop” style of jazz. It was at this time that Ella developed her talent for “scatting”—her attempt to imitate the sound of an improvising jazz horn section.

Her next turning point was when her manager, Norman Granz, convinced her to record The Cole Porter Songbook—her first venture in single-composer collections.  This was a novelty at the time and became the first of several such single-composer songbooks she would record.  It also embedded Ella Fitzgerald deeply within the canon of “The Great American Songbook”—and burnished her reputation for being the premier interpreter of that canon.

Despite a prolific recording career (14 Grammys, 70 albums, and 40 million records sold), Ella also toured 40-45 weeks a year.  But all these years on the road took their toll on the singer.  Overweight and diabetic, Ella lost her eyesight—as well as both legs which required amputation. On 15 June 1996, Ella Fitzgerald died at her home in Beverly Hills.