Ella Fitzgerald - Biography
By J Poet
Ella Fitzgerald was the greatest and most popular female jazz singer in the history of pop music, but calling her a jazz singer really doesn’t do her justice. She sang jazz, but also put her mark on blues, pop, and even folk and rock music, adapting everything to her own unique and highly individual style. Perhaps the greatest scat singer of all time, Fitzgerald’s warm, bell like tones and elegant stage presence made her an artist beloved by music fans around the world. She sang with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, and had her own big band, won 13 Grammys, sold over 40 million albums and won every possible music award including the National Medal of Art given her by Ronald Reagan in 1981 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George H. W. Bush in 1992.
Fitzgerald was raised in Yonkers, New York by her mother and stepfather. She was a tomboy in her youth, but was also an avid singer and dancer. When her mother died in 1932, Fitzgerald’s aunt Virginia took her in. Her stepfather died soon after, and Fitzgerald plunged into depression. She got in trouble with the police, was sent to reform school, and broke out. By the age of 15 she was living on the streets of New York in the heart if the Great Depression.
In 1934, she appeared at the Apollo Theater’s famous Amateur Night on a whim, sang Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy,” and got a standing ovation. Saxophonist and arranger Benny Carter was in the pit band that night and introduced Fitzgerald to fellow musicians. She won first prize in another amateur contest - a week singing with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House. Drummer/bandleader Chick Webb saw her there and hired her to sing with his band for $12.50 a week.
In 1936 she cut her first record, “Love and Kisses”, with Chick Webb’s band. She cut several more hits with Webb including “(If You Can't Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini)”, the first recording of her performing a scat vocal, her voice mimicking a bebop horn line. She continued scatting for the rest of her career, making it a featured part of her performances. In 1938 the band cut “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”, Fitzgerald’s rewrite of the old nursery rhyme. It was a million seller and was #1 on the pop charts for 17 weeks. Fitzgerald was a star at the age of 20. Some of her recordings with Webb are collected on The Best of Ella Fitzgerald The Millennium Collection (2003 Hip-O), Ella Swings the Band (1989 MCA), Ella Fitzgerald with the Chick Webb Band 1935 1938 (1995 Pearl UK), and Princess of the Savoy 1934-1939 (1989 MCA).
In 1939 Webb died, and she took over the band now named Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band. In 1942, Fitzgerald left the band and started making records for Decca (now MCA/Universal). Her vocals grew in power and confidence on albums like Ella Sings Gershwin (1950 Decca), her first 10” LP, Souvenir Album (1950 Decca), Lullabies of Birdland (1954 Decca) Miss Ella Fitzgerald & Mr. Gordon Jenkins Invite You to Listen and Relax (1954 Decca, 1999 MCA), Sweet and Hot (1953 Decca, 2000 Uni), and The First Lady of Song (1954 Decca).
Fitzgerald was touring with Dizzy Gillespie’s band in the late 40s, and developed her scat singing to a high art form, imitating the free flowing improvisations of the horn players in the band. In 1946, Norman Granz became her manager and booked her on the famous Jazz at the Philharmonic tours. Her scatted improvisations made her popular with jazz fans as well as the pop audience. In 1956, she signed with Verve, at that time a new jazz label operated by Granz and started recording her famous “Songbook” double LP albums, sets devoted to the tunes of composers like Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and the Gershwins arranged by Paul Weston and Nelson Riddle. According to legend, Ira Gershwin once said: “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them”.
Fitzgerald’s “songbooks” are considered the bedrock of her career and include Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook (1956 Verve, 2007 Verve), Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers & Hart Songbook (1956 Verve, 2007 Verve) Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook (1957 Verve, 2007 Verve) cut with Ellington’s band and winner of a Best Jazz Performance, Individual Grammy, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook (1958 Verve, 2007 Verve) which took a Best Female Pop Vocal Performance Grammy, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook (1959 Verve, 2007 Verve), another Best Female Pop Vocal Performance Grammy winner, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook (1961 Verve, 2007 Verve), Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Jerome Kern Songbook (1963 Verve, 2007 Verve), and Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Johnny Mercer Songbook (1964 Verve, 2007 Verve).
Fitzgerald tour Europe, Asia and The United States relentlessly, and complimented her songbooks with other albums marked by her incredible scat singing, warm tone and the innate musicality of her phrasing. Ella and Louis (1956 Verve, 2007 Verve) with Louis Armstrong is a joy from beginning to end as is Ella and Louis Again (1957 Verve, 2007 Verve). Ella Swings Lightly (1957 Verve) won her another Grammy for Best Jazz Performance, Soloist, and Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife (1957 Verve, 2007 Uni) is a live date that won two Grammys - Best Female Pop Vocal Performance Grammy and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, Single Record or Track for her tour de force rendition of “Mack The Knife” in which he improvised her own lyrics. Ella Swings Brightly with Nelson (1962 Verve, 1993 Polygarm) took a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, but Ella Swings Gently with Nelson (1962 Verve, 1993 Polygarm) is just as good. Ella and Basie! (1963 Verve, 2004 Verve) paired her with the Count Basie band, while Ella at Duke’s Place (1965 Verve, 1996 Verve) is another outing with the Ellington band.
Granz sold Verve Records in 1963, and for some unlikely reason, the new owners failed to renew Fitzgerald's contract. Between 1967 and 1970 she recorded for Capital, Reprise and Atlantic, but those albums are not her best.
In 1972 Granz started Pablo Records, spurred by the success of his mail order only album Jazz at Santa Monica Civic '72 (1972 Pablo, 1991 Pablo). The album’s masterpiece was Fitzgerald jamming with the Count Basie Orchestra on “C-Jam Blues” one of her most incredible live performances ever. Between 1972 and her retirement in 1991, Fitzgerald made 20 more albums for her former manager, many of them live recordings or collaborations with other jazz greats. She was still touring, but had a detached retina and diabetes, which slowed her down, although when she did appear, on stage or in the studio, she always gave her all.
Her Pablo discs include Ella a Nice (1971 Pablo, OGC 1999) live in France with a trio led by pianist Tommy Flanagan, Take Love Easy (1973 Pablo, 1990 Fantasy) with guitarist Joe Pass, Ella in London (1974 Pablo, 1999 OGC) a solid live set, Ella and Oscar (1975 Pablo, OGC 1995) a collection of bittersweet with Oscar Peterson, Montreux '75 (1975 Pablo, 1991 Fantasy), Fitzgerald and Pass... Again (1976 Pablo, 1990 Pablo) which took a Best Jazz Vocal Performance Grammy, Lady Time (1978 Pablo, 1995 Fantasy) in a unique pairing with organist Jackie Davis and drummer Louie Bellson, Fine and Mellow (1979 Pablo) which won the Best Jazz Vocal Grammy, A Perfect Match (1979 Pablo) a collaboration with Count Basie that won a Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female Grammy, the live Digital III at Montreux (1980 Pablo) which landed another Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female Grammy, Ella Abraça Jobim (1981 Pablo, 1990 Pablo) a double disc exploration of Jobim’s best known tunes, The Best Is Yet to Come (1982 Pablo) the Grammy winner for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female, Nice Work If You Can Get It (1983 Pablo, 1990 Pablo) another dip into the Gershwin songbook with pianist André Previn, and her last studio session All That Jazz (1989 Pablo, 1990 Pablo) which took home a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female.
In 1991, she gave her final concert at Carnegie Hall and retired. In 1994, complications of her diabetes led to the amputation of both of her legs. She never fully recovered from the surgery and died that year at the age of 82.