Known as "The First Lady of Song," Ella Fitzgerald was arguably the finest female jazz singer of all time.
Blessed with a beautiful voice and a wide range, Fitzgerald could outswing anyone, was a brilliant scat singer, and had near-perfect elocution. Born in 1917 in Newport News, Virginia, Fitzgerald grew up in a poor, working class family. As a teenager, she developed interests in sports and singing, and traveled to see shows with friends at Harlem's Apollo Theater. Following her mother's death in 1932, she went through a difficult period that found her skipping school, getting in trouble with the police, and being sent to a reform school. There, she endured abuse by her caretakers. Eventually, she left the school, only to find herself on her own during the height of the Great Depression. Despite her struggles, she worked to pursue her love of performing. In 1934, she appeared at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, winning an amateur contest by singing "Judy" in the style of her idol, Connee Boswell. After a short stint with Tiny Bradshaw, Fitzgerald was brought to the attention of drummer/bandleader Chick Webb by Benny Carter (who was in the audience at the Apollo). Webb was reluctantly persuaded to let her sing with his orchestra on a one-nighter. She went over well and soon the drummer recognized her commercial potential. Starting in 1935, Fitzgerald began recording with Webb's Orchestra, and by 1937 over half of the band's selections featured her voice. "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" became a huge hit in 1938 and "Undecided" soon followed. During this era, Fitzgerald was essentially a pop/swing singer who was best on ballads, while her medium-tempo performances were generally juvenile novelties. She already had a beautiful voice but did not improvise or scat much; she would develop those skills later.
Following Webb's death in 1939, it was decided that Fitzgerald would front the orchestra. She retained her popularity and in 1941 went solo. It was not long before her Decca recordings arrived, featuring more than their share of hits. She was teamed with the Ink Spots, Louis Jordan, and the Delta Rhythm Boys for some best-sellers, and in 1946 began working regularly for Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic. Granz became her manager although it would be nearly a decade before he could get her on his label. A major change occurred in Fitzgerald's singing around this period. She toured with Dizzy Gillespie's big band, adopted bop as part of her style, and started including exciting scat-filled romps in her set. Her recordings of "Lady Be Good," "How High the Moon," and "Flying Home" during 1945-1947 became popular and her stature as a major jazz singer rose as a result. For a time (December 10, 1947-August 28, 1953) she was married to bassist Ray Brown and used his trio as a backup group. Fitzgerald's series of duets with pianist Ellis Larkins in 1950 (a 1954 encore with Larkins was a successful follow-up) found her interpreting George Gershwin songs, predating her upcoming Songbooks series.
After appearing in the film Pete Kelly's Blues in 1955, Fitzgerald signed with Norman Granz's Verve label, an imprint he developed specifically to showcase the singer. Over the next few years she would record extensive Songbooks of the music of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart, Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer. The prestigious projects did a great deal to uplift her stature. At the peak of her powers around 1960, Fitzgerald's hilarious live version of "Mack the Knife" (in which she forgot the words and made up her own) from Ella in Berlin is a classic and virtually all of her Verve recordings are worth buying.
Fitzgerald's Capitol and Reprise recordings of 1967-1970 found her attempt to "update" her singing by including pop songs such as "Sunny" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." However, her later years were again marked by Norman Granz's decision to form a new label, Pablo. Starting with a Santa Monica Civic Orchestra concert in 1972 that reaches its apex with Fitzgerald's incredible version of "C Jam Blues" (in which she trades off with and "battles" five classic jazzmen), Fitzgerald was showcased in jazz settings throughout the '70s with the likes of Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, and Joe Pass, among others. While her voice began to fade during this era, and troubles with her eyes and heart due to diabetes knocked her out of action for periods of time, she retained her sense of swing and joyful style. Fitzgerald was in retirement when she passed away on June 15, 1996 at her home in Beverly Hills, California. A hugely influential figure in jazz and popular music, she remains a household name. ~ Scott Yanow, Rovi