Ella Fitzgerald Biography

Ella Jane Fitzgerald, 25 April 1917, Newport News, Virginia, USA, d. 15 June 1996, Beverly Hills, California, USA. Following the disappearance of her father, Fitzgerald was taken to Yonkers, New York by her mother and her new man Joseph da Silva. At school she sang with a glee club and showed early promise, but preferred dancing to singing. Even so, chronic shyness militated against her chances of succeeding as an entertainer. Nevertheless, she entered a talent contest at the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem as a dancer, but owing to last-minute nerves, after discovering that the Edwards Sisters (a popular dance act) were also on the bill, she was unable to dance and decided to sing. Her unexpected success winning this talent night prompted her to enter other talent contests, and she began to win frequently enough to persevere with her singing. Eventually, she reached the top end of the talent show circuit, singing at the Harlem Opera House where she was heard by several influential people. In later years many claimed to have ‘discovered’ her, but among those most likely to have been involved in trying to establish her as a professional singer with the Fletcher Henderson band were Benny Carter and Charles Linton. They were the probably the house band at the Apollo the night she won.

Fitzgerald continued her round of the talent shows, now effectively homeless and lacking in personal hygiene she was not a pretty sight. Fortunately she was heard by Linton, who sang with the Chick Webb band at the Savoy Ballroom, also in Harlem. Webb took her on, at first paying her out of his own pocket, and for the fringe audience she quickly became the band’s main attraction. Even at the age of 17 she showed a remarkable professionalism and ability to learn quickly; even on her debut recording with Webb (‘Love And Kisses’) in 1935, she demonstrated confidence that belied her experience and age. She recorded extensively with Webb, with a small group led by Teddy Wilson, with the Ink Spots, and with others. Her hits with Webb included ‘Sing Me A Swing Song’, ‘Oh, Yes, Take Another Guess’, ‘The Dipsy Doodle’, ‘If Dreams Come True’, ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ (a song on which she collaborated on the lyric and was her first number 1 in 1938), ‘F.D.R. Jones’, ‘Wacky Dust’, ‘I Found My Yellow Basket’, and ‘Undecided’. She also briefly recorded with Benny Goodman in 1936 but the records were quickly withdrawn due to legal problems. The three collector’s items were ‘Did You Mean It?’, ‘Take Another Guess’ and ‘Goodnight My Love’. After a period of moonlighting Fitzgerald returned to Webb and recorded ‘Big Boy Blue’ and ‘Dedicated To You’ with the Mills Brothers. Between 1937 and 1939 Webb’s popularity was considerable, and Fitzgerald proportionately received considerable attention. As early as 1937 she was voted best female vocalist in the UK‘s Melody Maker.

After Webb’s death in June 1939 Fitzgerald became the nominal leader of the band, a position she retained until 1942. Bill Beason took over on drums and Webb’s name disappeared in favour of Fitzgerald’s. She had already gained a reputation as a tough and uncompromising artist, but while her popularity was high her musical credibility began to sour. The band was not discriminating between jazz and trite novelty songs; Fitzgerald would sing them all. She married Benjamin Kornegay in 1941 but the marriage was annuled six months later. Kornegay had a criminal record and appeared to have married her under false pretences. After Eddie Barefield took over the band Fitzgerald departed and then began her solo career, recording numerous popular songs, sometimes teaming up with other artists, notably the Three Keys. Although she was signed to Decca Records her popularity began to slip. It was not until ‘Cow Cow Boogie ’ in 1944 that she had another hit record. Her new A&R man at Decca was Milt Gabler and, although often overlooked, he should take much of the credit for resurrecting her flagging career at this time. Important songs such as her major scat number ‘Flying Home’ backed with the superb ‘Lady Be Good’, a duet with Louis Jordan, ‘Stone Cold Dead In The Market’, and a further duet with Louis Armstrong, ‘You Won’t Be Satisfied’ backed with ‘Frim Fram Sauce’, helped to raise her profile with the public.

In 1947 Fitzgerald married the master bass player Ray Brown. In 1949 she began a long professional association with Norman Granz. He became a svengali figure in her life, initially as booker for his JATP (Jazz At The Philharmonic) concerts, he went on to become her manager and A&R director. It was Granz’s masterly and astute control of her career that helped to establish Fitzgerald as one of the world’s leading vocalists. She was certainly the most popular jazz singer with non-jazz audiences, and through judicious choice of repertoire became the foremost female interpreter of the Great American Popular Song Book. With Granz she worked on the ‘songbook’ series, placing on record definitive performances of the work of America’s leading songwriters, and she also toured extensively for many years as part of his Jazz At The Philharmonic package. She divorced Ray Brown in 1953 (although they remained close professionally throughout her life). That same year her contract with Decca was up for renewal and by late 1954 she had signed with Granz’s new record label Verve Records. Gabler was sorry to lose her but she did leave one last great album for Decca, Ella Sings In A Mellow Mood. This was recorded with only Ellis Larkins and it remains one of her finest recordings. It was however a string of superlative albums for Verve for which Fitzgerald will be remembered (very much like Frank Sinatra’s golden age at Capitol Records). In addition to the magnificent songbook series she recorded excellent albums with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nelson Riddle and Frank DeVol. Her albums with Louis Armstrong are also gems. Other highlights during the 50s were her live recordings (some were not issued until Phil Schaap discovered the tapes rotting in the vaults). Granz eventually got bored with Verve and sold it to MGM Records. He relocated to Europe and signed Ella to his new label Pablo. She recorded many albums on Pablo from 1973 onwards, notably her duet work with Joe Pass and further quality recordings with Basie.

Fitzgerald had a wide vocal range, but her voice retained a youthful, light vibrancy throughout the greater part of her career, bringing a fresh and appealing quality to most of her material, especially ‘scat’ singing. However, it proved less suited to the blues, a genre that, for the most part, she wisely avoided. Indeed, in her early work the most apparent musical influence was Connee Boswell. As a jazz singer, Fitzgerald performed with elegantly swinging virtuosity and her work with accompanists such as Ray Brown (they had an adopted son, Ray Brown Jnr., a drummer), Pass, Oscar Peterson and Tommy Flanagan was always immaculately conceived. However, her recordings with Louis Armstrong reveal the marked difference between Fitzgerald’s approach and that of a singer for whom the material is secondary to his or her own improvisational skills.

For all the enviably high quality of her jazz work, it is as a singer of superior popular songs that Fitzgerald remains most important and influential. Her respect for her material, beautifully displayed in the ‘songbook’ series, helped her to establish and retain her place as the finest vocalist in her chosen area of music. Due largely to deteriorating health, by the mid-80s Fitzgerald’s career was at a virtual standstill, although a 1990 appearance in the UK was well received by an ecstatic audience. In April 1994 it was reported that both her legs had been amputated because of complications caused by diabetes. She lived a reclusive existence at her Beverly Hills home until her death in 1996.

Fitzgerald’s most obvious counterpart among male singers was Frank Sinatra (they were the greatest interpreters of the American songbook) and, with both singers now dead, questions inevitably arise about the fate of the great popular songs of the 30s and 40s. While there are still numerous excellent interpreters in the 90s and beyond (Diana Krall and Jane Monheit), and many whose work has been strongly influenced by Fitzgerald, the social and artistic conditions that helped to create America’s First Lady of Song no longer exist, and it is highly unlikely therefore, that we shall ever see or hear her like again. No record collection (even a basic one) should be without Ella Fitzgerald.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.