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  • Ella Jane Fitzgerald was an American jazz vocalist with a vocal range spanning three

  • octaves. Often referred to as the "First Lady of Song" and the "Queen of Jazz," she was

  • noted for her purity of tone, impeccable diction, phrasing and intonation, and a "horn-like"

  • improvisational ability, particularly in her scat singing.

  • Fitzgerald was a notable interpreter of the Great American Songbook. Over the course of

  • her 60-year recording career, she sold 40 million copies of her 70-plus albums, won

  • 14 Grammy Awards and was awarded the National Medal of Arts by Ronald Reagan and the Presidential

  • Medal of Freedom by George H. W. Bush.

  • Early life Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia,

  • the daughter of William Fitzgerald and Temperance "Tempie" Fitzgerald. Her parents were unmarried,

  • and they had separated within a year of her birth. With her mother's new partner, a Portuguese

  • immigrant named Joseph Da Silva, Ella and her mother moved to the city of Yonkers, in

  • Westchester County, New York, as part of the first Great Migration of African Americans.

  • Initially living in a single room, her mother and Da Silva soon found jobs and Ella's half-sister,

  • Frances Da Silva, was born in 1923. By 1925, Fitzgerald and her family had moved to nearby

  • School Street, then a predominantly poor Italian area. At the age of six, Fitzgerald began

  • her formal education, and moved through a variety of schools before attending Benjamin

  • Franklin Junior High School from 1929. Fitzgerald had been passionate about dancing

  • from third grade, being a fan of Earl "Snakehips" Tucker in particular, and would perform for

  • her peers on the way to school and at lunchtime. Fitzgerald and her family were Methodists

  • and were active in the Bethany African Methodist Episcopal Church, and she regularly attended

  • worship services, Bible study, and Sunday school. The church would have provided Fitzgerald

  • with her earliest experiences in formal music making, and she may have also had piano lessons

  • during this period if her mother could afford it.

  • In her youth, Fitzgerald 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, later saying, "My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love

  • with it....I tried so hard to sound just like her."

  • In 1932, her mother died from a heart attack. Following this trauma, Fitzgerald's grades

  • dropped dramatically, and she frequently skipped school. Abused by her stepfather, she ran

  • away to her aunt and, at one point, worked as a lookout at a bordello and also with a

  • Mafia-affiliated numbers runner. When the authorities caught up with her, she was first

  • placed in the Colored Orphan Asylum in Riverdale, Bronx. However, when the orphanage proved

  • too crowded, she was moved to the New York Training School for Girls in Hudson, New York,

  • a state reformatory. Eventually she escaped and for a time she was homeless.

  • Early career

  • She made her singing debut at 17 on November 21, 1934, at the Apollo Theater in Harlem,

  • New York. She pulled in a weekly audience at the Apollo and won the opportunity to compete

  • in one of the earliest of its famous "Amateur Nights". She had originally intended to go

  • on stage and dance, but, intimidated by the Edwards Sisters, a local dance duo, she opted

  • to sing instead in the style of Connee Boswell. She sang Boswell's "Judy" and "The Object

  • of My Affection," a song recorded by the Boswell Sisters, and won the first prize of US $25.00.

  • In January 1935, Fitzgerald won the chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw

  • band at the Harlem Opera House. She met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb there. Webb had

  • already hired singer Charlie Linton to work with the band and was, The New York Times

  • later wrote, "reluctant to sign her....because she was gawky and unkempt, a diamond in the

  • rough." Webb offered her the opportunity to test with his band when they played a dance

  • at Yale University. She began singing regularly with Webb's Orchestra through 1935 at Harlem's

  • Savoy Ballroom. Fitzgerald recorded several hit songs with them, including "Love and Kisses"

  • and "(If You Can't Sing It) You'll Have to Swing It". But it was her 1938 version of

  • the nursery rhyme, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket", a song she co-wrote, that brought her wide public

  • acclaim. Chick Webb died on June 16, 1939, and his

  • band was renamed Ella and her Famous Orchestra with Ella taking on the role of nominal bandleader.

  • Fitzgerald recorded nearly 150 songs with the orchestra before it broke up in 1942,

  • "the majority of them novelties and disposable pop fluff".

  • Decca years

  • 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 Bill Kenny & The Ink

  • Spots, Louis Jordan, and The Delta Rhythm Boys.

  • With Decca's Milt Gabler as her manager, she began working regularly for the jazz impresario

  • Norman Granz and appeared regularly in his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. Fitzgerald's

  • relationship with Granz was further cemented when he became her manager, although it would

  • be nearly a decade before he could record her on one of his many record labels.

  • 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" arranged

  • by Vic Schoen 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!" was similarly popular

  • and increased her reputation as one of the leading jazz vocalists.

  • Verve years Fitzgerald was still performing at Granz's

  • JATP concerts by 1955. She left Decca and Granz, now her manager, created Verve Records

  • around her. Fitzgerald later described the period as strategically crucial, saying, "I

  • had gotten to the point where I was only singing be-bop. I thought be-bop was 'it', and that

  • all I had to do was go some place and sing bop. But it finally got to the point where

  • I had no place to sing. I realized then that there was more to music than bop. Norman ... felt

  • that I should do other things, so he produced The Cole Porter Songbook with me. It was a

  • turning point in my life." Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook,

  • released in 1956, was the first of eight Songbook sets Fitzgerald would record for Verve at

  • irregular intervals from 1956 to 1964. The composers and lyricists spotlighted on each

  • set, taken together, represent the greatest part of the cultural canon known as the Great

  • American Songbook. Her song selections ranged from standards to rarities and represented

  • an attempt by Fitzgerald to cross over into a non-jazz audience. The sets are the most

  • well-known items in her discography.

  • Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book was the only Songbook on which the composer

  • she interpreted played with her. Duke Ellington and his longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn

  • both appeared on exactly half the set's 38 tracks and wrote two new pieces of music for

  • the album: "The E and D Blues" and a four-movement musical portrait of Fitzgerald. The Songbook

  • series ended up becoming the singer's most critically acclaimed and commercially successful

  • work, and probably her most significant offering to American culture. The New York Times wrote

  • in 1996, "These albums were among the first pop records to devote such serious attention

  • to individual songwriters, and they were instrumental in establishing the pop album as a vehicle

  • for serious musical exploration." A few days after Fitzgerald's death, The New

  • York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote that in the Songbook series Fitzgerald "performed

  • a cultural transaction as extraordinary as Elvis' 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.

  • Fitzgerald also recorded albums exclusively devoted to the songs of Porter and Gershwin

  • in 1972 and 1983; the albums being, respectively, Ella Loves Cole and Nice Work If You Can Get

  • It. A later collection devoted to a single composer was released during her time with

  • Pablo Records, Ella Abraça Jobim, featuring the songs of Antônio Carlos Jobim.

  • While recording the Songbooks and the occasional studio album, Fitzgerald toured 40 to 45 weeks

  • per year in the United States and internationally, under the tutelage of Norman Granz. Granz

  • helped solidify her position as one of the leading live jazz performers.

  • On March 15, 1955 Ella Fitzgerald opened her initial engagement at the Mocambo nightclub

  • in Hollywood, after Marilyn Monroe lobbied the owner for the booking. The booking was

  • instrumental in Fitzgerald's career. The incident was turned into a play by Bonnie Greer in

  • 2005. It has been widely reported that Fitzgerald was the first Black performer to play the

  • Mocambo, following Monroe's intervention, but this is not true. African-American singers

  • Herb Jefferies, Eartha Kitt, and Joyce Bryan all played the Mocambo in 1952 and 1953, according

  • to stories published at the time in Jet magazine and Billboard.

  • There are several live albums on Verve that are highly regarded by critics. Ella at the

  • Opera House shows a typical JATP set from Fitzgerald. Ella in Rome and Twelve Nights

  • in Hollywood display her vocal jazz canon. Ella in Berlin is still one of her best selling

  • albums; it includes a Grammy-winning performance of "Mack the Knife" in which she forgets the

  • lyrics, but improvises magnificently to compensate. Verve Records was sold to MGM in 1963 for

  • $3 million and in 1967 MGM failed to renew Fitzgerald's contract. Over the next five

  • years she flitted between Atlantic, Capitol and Reprise. Her material at this time represented

  • a departure from her typical jazz repertoire. For Capitol she recorded Brighten the Corner,

  • an album of hymns, Ella Fitzgerald's Christmas, an album of traditional Christmas carols,

  • Misty Blue, a country and western-influenced album, and 30 by Ella, a series of six medleys

  • that fulfilled her obligations for the label. During this period, she had her last US chart

  • single with a cover of Smokey Robinson's "Get Ready", previously a hit for The Temptations,

  • and some months later a top-five hit for Rare Earth.

  • The surprise success of the 1972 album Jazz at Santa Monica Civic '72 led Granz to found

  • Pablo Records, his first record label since the sale of Verve. Fitzgerald recorded some

  • 20 albums for the label. Ella in London recorded live in 1974 with pianist Tommy Flanagan,

  • guitarist Joe Pass, bassist Keter Betts and drummer Bobby Durham, was considered by many

  • to be some of her best work. The following year she again performed with Joe Pass on

  • German television station NDR in Hamburg. Her years with Pablo Records also documented

  • the decline in her voice. "She frequently used shorter, stabbing phrases, and her voice

  • was harder, with a wider vibrato", one biographer wrote. Plagued by health problems, Fitzgerald

  • made her last recording in 1991 and her last public performances in 1993.

  • Film and television

  • In her most notable screen role, Fitzgerald played the part of singer Maggie Jackson in

  • Jack Webb's 1955 jazz film Pete Kelly's Blues. The film costarred Janet Leigh and singer

  • Peggy Lee. Even though she had already worked in the movies, she was "delighted" when Norman

  • Granz negotiated the role for her, and, "at the time....considered her role in the Warner

  • Brothers movie the biggest thing ever to have happened to her." Amid The New York Times

  • pan of the film when it opened in August 1955, the reviewer wrote, "About five minutes suggest

  • the picture this might have been. Take the ingenious prologue ... [or] take the fleeting

  • scenes when the wonderful Ella Fitzgerald, allotted a few spoken lines, fills the screen

  • and sound track with her strong mobile features and voice." Fitzgerald's race precluded major

  • big-screen success. After Pete Kelly's Blues, she appeared in sporadic movie cameos, in

  • St. Louis Blues, and Let No Man Write My Epitaph. Much later, she appeared in the 1980s television

  • drama The White Shadow. She made numerous guest appearances on television

  • shows, singing on The Frank Sinatra Show, The Andy Williams Show, The Pat Boone Chevy

  • Showroom, and alongside other greats Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Mel Tormé, and many others.

  • She was also frequently featured on The Ed Sullivan Show. 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. A performance at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London was filmed and shown on

  • the BBC. 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